April 28, 2008

The Big O

In 2003-2004, when he was the Division commander for the 4th ID in Iraq, Ray Odierno was widely criticized for for being overly kinetic and not understanding COIN. The now classic critique of Odierno is the one provided in Tom Ricks’ Fiasco, but even before Ricks piled on, Dexter Filkins wrote a brilliant and scathing piece for the NYT Magazine critiquing the culture of “lethality” that Odierno encouraged during the first year of the war. When Petraeus was the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center at Ft. Leavenworth, he reportedly made the Filkins piece required reading for all officers as a case study in how not to conduct COIN.

As he prepared to return to Iraq as MNC-I commander, the day-to-day operational commander for all U.S. forces, Odierno made a concerted effort to alter his image. He emphasized the importance of COIN and made it clear that he had learned hard lessons from his first tour (even while pushing back on some of the harshest criticism).

Since Odierno completed his stint as MNC-I, Team Odierno has been in full-court press mode to make sure he gets the credit he deserves for the operational components of the surge (see here and here). The Kagans even went so far as to declare Odierno “The Patton of Counterinsurgency” in a gushing piece in the Weekly Standard. (For Abu M's take on this article, check this out.) You thought the surge was all (or mostly) Petraeus. Wrong, this narrative goes, it was all (or mostly) Odierno.

Dr. iRack has spoken at length with many individuals who worked with and around Odierno, Petraeus, and the 1st Cavalry Division (which owned MND-Baghdad) in 2007, and there is an interesting rivalry emerging between different factions. Team O, Team P, and Team 1st Cav all have very different views of Odierno. They all agree that he came back to Iraq "reformed." They all agree he learned from his mistakes, cared much more about basic COIN principles, and listened to inputs from his subordinates and to the commander's intent coming from Petraeus. And everyone agrees he worked surprisingly well Petraeus.


1. It isn’t clear how much credit Odierno should get for the operational plan implemented in 2007. The operational plan for population security in Baghdad was largely 1st Cav's. And although MG Fil was the division commander, the culture of the division was still very much Pete Chiarelli’s culture, which meshed much better with Petraeus’ worldview. (Chiarelli was the previous 1st Cav commander in Baghdad in 2004-2005, and was MNC-I commander immediately prior to Odierno.)

2. The overall strategic vision throughout the surge period was very much a Petraeus thing, although Odierno faithfully carried out his “commander’s intent.”

3. Odierno put a much greater emphasis on traditional COIN during his time with MNC-I, be he was still very kinetic and offensive in his operational mindset. Evidence for this includes the extensive kinetic operations in the “belts" and the six-fold increase in airstrikes in 2007. Indeed, Odierno sent only two of the five surge brigades to provide additional population security in Baghdad. The rest were sent to the “belts.” Odierno created a new AOR, MND-Central, splitting Baghdad, and created a new division headquarters (headed by the like-minded MG Rick Lynch of the 3rd ID). This was done, in part, because MND-Baghdad had grown too big, and in part to gain more control for the Corps over operations. Odierno also assigned one of the surge brigades, the Stryker brigade, to roam around and kick butt. In other words, Odierno cleaved off an area of operations that "softer" 1st Cav didn't have control over, and this was a much more kinetic environment than the standard narrative embraces.

None of this is meant to suggest that Odierno does not deserve considerable praise adapting to the new environment he confronted in Iraq in 2006-2007 and working with Petraeus to make real progress. In many ways, the emerging narrative is spot on when it notes that his personal evolution is indicative of the overall learning curve of the U.S. Army during the war. And Dr. iRack suspects General O and his staff—including the brilliant Emma Sky profiled by Abu M on Monday—will do a fantastic job once they take over MNF-I.

But the whole story on General O has yet to be written and he remains somewhat of an enigma. Ultimately, historians will have to sort out which of the competing narratives best describes the contours of his legacy.

Update: I know that this will fuel more speculation among the "commentariat" that Dr. iRack is Spencer Ackerman (why would he post less crazy stuff under a pseudonym than he posts under his real name anyway?), but Spencer has an interesting post on this post at Attackerman.