Susan Walsh/AP
Senate Armed Services Committee
Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., left,
confers with Gen. David
Petraeus, right,
and Lt. Gen. Raymond
Odierno, center.

As Leadership in the U.S. Military Changes, Past, Present and Future Are Debated

September 18, 2008 09:48 AM
by Josh Katz
Gen. David Petraeus has officially handed over his duties in Iraq to Gen. Ray Odierno. Many laud Petraeus’s successes, but agree that stability is tenuous.

Odierno Replaces Petraeus, Petraeus Replaces Fallon

Defense Secretary Robert Gates attended the ceremony Tuesday in Iraq at which Odierno became the new commander of coalition forces in the country. Petraeus will continue to be Odierno’s superior, and his authority will expand to an area including Iraq and Afghanistan as the new head of Central Command (CENTCOM), which is located in Florida.

Petraeus will take the reigns of CENTCOM from Adm. William Fallon, who resigned in March. Fallon reportedly clashed with the White House in his resistance to military action against Iran, NPR claims.

Many say that the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated recently, unlike that in Iraq. The Taliban has demonstrated that it is alive and well and capable of launching deadly attacks against U.S. and NATO forces. The Pentagon has said it will cut U.S. forces in Iraq by about 8,000, according to USA Today, perhaps permitting the deployment of additional troops in Afghanistan.

In his speech on Tuesday, Odierno was loath to express overconfidence in the situation in Iraq, even though conditions have substantially improved there in the past year. “Where chaos reigned, hope now prevails,” Odierno said. “However, we must realize that these gains are fragile and reversible,” USA Today reports.

Key Players: Petraeus, Odierno and Austin

David Petraeus
Petraeus will assume his new role at CENTCOM, where he will direct the U.S. military from “Kenya to Kazakhstan,” according to NPR. Afghanistan will now fall onto his plate as well as Iraq.

The West Point grad also holds a Ph.D. in international relations
from Princeton University. “He served as an officer in airborne, mechanised, and air assault infantry units in the US, Europe and the Middle East, before the invasion,” according to the BBC, and “he was lucky to ever reach Iraq, having twice suffered life-threatening injuries.”

Petraeus first entered the public spotlight when he successfully battled the insurgency in northern Iraq after the 2003 invasion. He served as commander of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, and he “combined aggressive military action with reconstruction, economic development and promotion of local elections,” NPR reports.

However, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld bristled at Petraeus’s public prominence, exemplified in a July 5, 2005, Newsweek cover of Petraeus with the headline, “Can This Man Save Iraq?”

Ret. Gen. Barry McCaffrey told NPR that Petraeus was then relocated back to American soil “to cool his heels,” but the ambitious individual essentially inserted himself into Iraqi policy even from afar. McCaffrey helped push for Petraeus’s promotion to commander in Iraq. Bush would give the position to Petraeus in February 2007, replacing Gen. George Casey, who opposed an increase in troop levels. Petraeus, however, called for more troops and spearheaded what would be called the “surge.”

Jeffrey White, a defense analyst at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, commented on some of the politics that Petraeus would inherit: “So far, the last two guys at CENTCOM, [Gen. John] Abizaid and Fallon, were both very careful and circumspect in their dealings with Iran. My sense is that Petraeus will not be an advocate for unnecessary provocation.”
Raymond Odierno
The 6'5" Gen. Raymond Odierno, known as “General O,” grew up in New Jersey. He served as Iraq’s second in command under Petraeus for 15 months and is closely associated with the surge, according to Time magazine.

As the new commander in Iraq, he will be heavily involved with any withdrawal plan under the new president. Earlier in the year, he said he supported a “conditions-based” approach for pulling out.

He was commander of the 4th Infantry Division in Iraq in 2003. Although the division is credited with capturing Saddam Hussein, it is also infamous for its “aggressive tactics rooting out insurgents,” Time writes.

According to The Guardian, “Few US military commanders or soldiers have much good to say about Odierno's aggressive tactics,” adding, the “mistreatment of Iraqis and the heavy use of artillery appalled others within the country's armed forces.” Odierno responded to criticism by saying that the Iraqis in the Sunni Triangle region where his infantry was based acted more violently toward the troops than those in other areas.

The Guardian writes: “The division’s tactics contrasted with those of Petraeus, whose troops complemented searches of ex-Baathists’ homes with meetings with tribal chiefs and community projects such as rebuilding schools and painting over old murals of Saddam.”

In 2004, Odierno expressed confidence that the insurgency was on its last legs. Later that same year, a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq caused his son Tony to lose his arm. Odierno’s views about the strength of the insurgency began to change, and by late 2006 he stressed the need for a troop surge.

He went to West Point and then earned two master’s degrees: one from North Carolina State University in nuclear effects engineering and one in national security and strategy from Naval War College, according to Time magazine.
Lloyd Austin
Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, 55, will now assume the second-most powerful position in Iraq. The Georgia native “is one of only eight African-Americans with the rank of lieutenant general or vice admiral in the U.S. military, where fewer than six percent of more than 900 general officers are African-American,” according to Newsweek.

Although he is a large man in stature, he is “quiet and soft-spoken,” according to Newsweek. Unlike Petraeus, Austin typically stays away from the media. One of his aids said, “The general is a fine commander, a great and humble man who's been here a while, but for some reason has not gotten much media coverage.”

Austin graduated from West Point and served as assistant commander for maneuvers with the 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq from 2001 to 2003. He earned the role of the “second most powerful military commander of Iraq” this February, becoming head of the Multi-National Corps with authority over about 150,000 U.S. and coalition forces. Newsweek says that the “consensus among military people in Iraq” is that Austin is the ideal person for the job.

Opinion & Analysis: Petraeus’s legacy and the road ahead

Analysts have had similar responses to Petraeus’s departure from Iraq. They seem to agree that conditions in Iraq have improved dramatically in the past year under the general’s watch; whether that fact can be mostly attributed to Petraeus and his “surge” or a number of other factors is unclear, however. Analysts also concur that maintaining the relative stability will not be easy, either.

David Ignatius of The Washington Post says that the improvements in Iraq must be partly attributed to Petraeus’s accomplishments: “he restored confidence and purpose for a military that had begun to think, deep down, that this war was unwinnable and unsustainable,” he writes. Iraq now has a “chance,” according to Ignatius; he and President Bush “didn’t win in Iraq, but they created the possibility of an honorable exit.”

U.K. paper The Daily Independent agrees that Petraeus handled his role admirably. “The most impressive quality of General David Petraeus, who stood down yesterday as the US military commander in Iraq, has been his modesty about his own success.” The Independent notes that the surge in Iraq was successful, and hopes that the general can make a surge work in Afghanistan as well. Currently, Bush is planning to move more than 4,000 of the Iraqi troops to Afghanistan, bur that falls far short of the “40,000 to 60,000 extra troops that US commanders say are needed if they are to win the battle against the Taliban.”

The Financial Times is more pessimistic about Iraq’s future and skeptical about Petraeus’s role in any gains thus far. The surge cannot be given sole credit, according to the Financial Times, because during Petraeus’s stint, “Ethnosectarian cleaning was largely completed,” Moqtada al-Sadr’s Shia militia halted its violent activities, Sunni tribes went on the offensive against al-Qaida, and Iran has helped the peace effort, such as by organizing a ceasefire earlier in the year.  Furthermore, the newspaper claims that much instability remains: “the surge was meant to create the space for political reconciliation, a new national compact and the rebuilding of Iraq. That, quite simply, has not happened.”

U.S. News & World Report enumerates the concerns for Iraq highlighted by the Financial Times. There are four main issues that Petraeus and Odierno will have to deal with. Although the U.S.-trained local Sunni militias, known as the Sons of Iraq, have been credited with diminishing violence, they must be peacefully integrated into Iraqi society. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Shia politicians have opposed their integration into the Iraqi police force, and if there is nowhere for them to go, they may turn to violence and al-Qaeda in Iraq, some fear.

The decline of the U.S. troops is another concern. U.S. forces in Iraq would shrink to about 138,000, from as high as 170,000, if President Bush proceeds with his plan to pull 8,000 troops out of the country. There are still fears about leaving the young Iraqi security forces with too much responsibility.

Kirkuk was scheduled to have elections in October, but it seems that may be pushed back to next year. The area is considered a “powder keg,” according to U.S. News & World Report: “Iraq's Kurds want the city to become part of the semiautonomous Kurdistan region, which would give Kurdish leaders the oil resources to seek independence at some future time.”

The fourth concern is that the ceasefire involving Moqtada al-Sadr and his militia may be illusory. Some officials believe that Iran may still be supporting the militia, and the aspirations of the powerful entity are still unclear.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines