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A Famous Enigma


Army Vice Chief of Staff Ray Odierno, former commander of the Multi-National Corps, meets Iraqi Army lieutenant in Baghdad, Feb, 21, 2007. (Dept. of Defense)

This is the second in a series: The Rise of the Counterinsurgents

Who is Ray Odierno, anyway? It’s hard to say.

Odierno, of course, is not exactly an unknown quantity in U.S. military circles. As a division commander in Iraq in 2003, he was introduced to the American public that December, when he announced that soldiers from his 4th Infantry Division had captured Saddam Hussein. Odierno famously said.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/nationalsecurity1-150x150.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

He came to Washington in 2004 to take up a prestigious position advising the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Peter Pace. And from late 2006 until a few weeks ago, Odierno was, after Gen. David Petraeus, the face of the troop surge during his tenure as corps commander in Iraq. Now Odierno is to receive his fourth star as he becomes the Army’s vice chief of staff.

Much speculation in Washington national-security circles centers on what Odierno’s ascension means for an Army stressed during wartime. Will Odierno focus first on supplying the military command in Iraq, known as Multinational Force-Iraq, with properly trained and equipped soldiers, as his old boss Petraeus prefers? Or will he emphasize rebuilding the Army back to pre-war capacity, as the leadership of the Army under Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey wants?

Odierno gave some clues in a talk Wednesday at the Heritage Foundation. While most of Odierno’s remarks centered on his (triumphalist) reflections on his latest tour in Iraq, he gave some indication that the wars of the moment would take precedence.

“Obviously, it’s the long-term sustainability of the Army,” Odierno said when Heritage’s James Jay Carafano asked about his priorities. “But the Army is about accomplishing the missions that we’ve been given by the commander-in-chief. And we can’t ever lose sight of that. Obviously you have this natural tension between long-term sustainability and meeting all your missions, and that’s our goal. But my focus is, what does our Army bring? Our Army brings soldiers. And so it’s our job to make sure our soldiers can do their job to the best of their ability, and that we can maintain a viable, long-term, all-volunteer force focused about soldiers, and focused on what they’re able to do to help maintain the security of our country.”

From the perspective of the counterinsurgency community — the increasingly influential band of defense theorist-practitioners who believe asymmetric wars against guerrillas and terrorists are in the country’s future — Odierno remains somewhat of a cipher. Despite his role as corps commander in 2007, some wonder whether Odierno truly is one of them. In Fiasco, the history of the war from 2003 to 2006 written by Washington Post military correspondent Thomas Ricks, Odierno is portrayed as less concerned with the intricacies of winning hearts and minds than with killing and capturing insurgents in and around Tikrit.

That’s not exactly true, according to Gian Gentile, an Army lieutenant colonel who served as an executive officer in one of Odierno’s brigade combat teams during the early days of the war. His brigade, he said, the 1st Brigade 4th Infantry Division “was doing best-practices of COIN,” or counterinsurgency, in Tikrit.

From “our first briefings,” Gentile said, the brigade commander “was focused on how to go about establishing local governance, how to spend money, how to provide important services, all those kinds of things. The notion that 4ID in 2003-2004 was just about kicking down doors and killing people is way overstated.”

However, Odierno does have an excellent pedigree, by the standards of the current, conventional-battle-centric Army, which may well inform his service as vice chief of staff. His resume includes nearly 20 years of assignments to artillery units. He served in various capacities in Europe, the Army’s principle theater of operations in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, as well as in the first Gulf War. While several sources interviewed by Ricks faulted Odierno for misunderstanding the insurgency as commander of the 4th Infantry Division — “Fourth ID fueled the insurgency,” Ricks quoted an Army psychological operations officer as saying — the caricature of Odierno as a low-watt bulb is clearly false. He earned two masters’ degrees from North Carolina State University and the Naval War College, one in national security strategy and the other in nuclear effects engineering.

But others say that the portrait Ricks painted of Odierno isn’t so far from the truth.

Nonetheless, Odierno’s embrace of counterinsurgency practices in Iraq augurs well for his tenure as vice chief. “Odierno’s evolution, with luck, mirrors that of the Army,” said Erin Simpson, a counterinsurgency expert and professor at the Marine Command and Staff College at Quantico. “We can’t win these wars by waiting for the next Dave Petraeus. [Odierno is] a great example of how you can come to learn from your mistakes, learn from your peers and make this stuff work on the ground.”

What exactly Odierno has made work — and how sustainable it will prove — is a matter of dispute. At his Heritage talk, he called the so-called “Concerned Local Citizens” or “Sons of Iraq” program, which has paid ex-insurgents to collaborate with U.S. forces, an “unqualified success.” Yet many of the 80,000 mostly Sunni militiamen remain hostile to the Shiite government, for whom the feeling is mutual.

In response to a question from The Washington Independent about the long-term dangers posed by the program to Iraq’s internal stability, Odierno talked up the need for the Iraqi government to either absorb the Sons of Iraq into the security apparatus — something it has largely stalled on — or provide alternative employment. He did not address why a neighborhood warlord would prefer to collect garbage.

While Odierno did not claim victory, he did claim that the surge had “broken the cycle of sectarian violence in Iraq.” The very next day, coordinated suicide bombs in Baghdad claimed over 50 casualties. How Odierno will incorporate these lessons as vice chief of staff remains to be seen.

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