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With Iraq Surge Behind Him, Petraeus Takes Larger Command

September 16, 2008 at 6:45 PM EST
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Twenty months after taking charge of a new troop surge in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus passed on some hard-earned and still fragile security gains to his replacement, Gen. Ray Odierno, Tuesday. Specialists assess the challenges both generals now face in the region.
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JIM LEHRER: And, finally tonight, the change of command in Iraq, and to Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: With the top brass of the Pentagon in attendance, and with a warning that recent gains in Iraq are fragile, a new American commander took charge in Baghdad today.

Gen. Ray Odierno fills the position that’s been held by Gen. David Petraeus since early 2007.

Petraeus, considered the face of the U.S. troop buildup, labeled the “surge,” will take over the U.S. Central Command, where, among much else, he’ll oversee the growing U.S. and NATO war against the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan.

For more on what the commanders face, we turn to Colin Kahl, a professor of international security at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

And Linda Robinson, the author of “Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for the Way Out of Iraq.” She’s the author in residence at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies. Both have recently returned from trips to Iraq.

And welcome to both of you.

Colin Kahl, Gen. Odierno is an interesting character. He has a lot of experience in Iraq, but I gather, from all accounts, he’s gone through quite a metamorphosis. Tell us about him.

Odierno's 'boots to fill'

Linda Robinson
Author
Let's face it. I mean, [Gen. Ray] Odierno has large boots to fill. His job, really, is to finish the job, keep the forward momentum going, and ensure this does not unravel.

COLIN KAHL, Center for a New American Security: Yes, I mean, his evolution as a general really kind of reflects the overall evolution of the U.S. Army in Iraq.

He was a division commander in 2003 and 2004 for the 4th Infantry Division. And his troops kind of had a notorious reputation for being rather heavy-handed.

And over time, I think that Ray Odierno learned from that experience. And as he returned as corps commander -- that is, the second-in-command -- in 2007, to be kind of Gen. Petraeus' sidekick during the year of the surge, it was clear that he had internalized some of the lessons of counterinsurgency and the importance of protecting the population.

And I think he'll probably bring that experience to his new job as the overall commander of U.S. forces.

JEFFREY BROWN: What would you add to that? What did you see his role, especially under Gen. Petraeus?

LINDA ROBINSON, Author: Yes, well, I spent a lot of time over there in the 18 months of the Petraeus-Odierno duo. And they worked extremely closely together. There was a morning briefing, a classified morning briefing every morning at 7:30. I sat in on many of them.

And they would go through everything that had happened in the past 24 hours. Then, they would huddle in a small group and discuss the strategy of everything going forward.

So I think that this was a primary reason why Odierno was selected to take Petraeus' place, because with Petraeus overseeing the whole region, he and Odierno will be in constant contact.

And let's face it. I mean, Odierno has large boots to fill. His job, really, is to finish the job, keep the forward momentum going, and ensure this does not unravel.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, before we get to that, do we know what caused the change from those early -- that early experience, where he was criticized for the heavy hand, and then seemed to sign on to the surge and the counterinsurgency tactics?

LINDA ROBINSON: Yes, well, I actually think, in my many interviews with Gen. Odierno, over the course of this surge, he actually was still quite focused on what you call the enemy-centric counterinsurgency.

He argued successfully that some of these surge troops needed to be dispersed around the belts of Baghdad and sent up to Diyala and Mosul, where they're still fighting, and that's the main business to finish against al-Qaida in Iraq.

So he was a voice arguing for using troops to go after the insurgency, as opposed to the population-centric approach, where you were fanning out troops in Baghdad to protect the population and reach the hand out to the Sunni insurgents.

Odierno as a political general

Colin Kahl
Center for a New American Security
General Odierno's major challenge will be trying to consolidate the security gains... in the context of kind of an inevitable decline in U.S. forces and an inevitable decline in our influence over the Iraqi leadership.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so let's look at -- what do you look to him to do now? I mean, both generals today talked about how fragile the situation was, is. There were bombs even yesterday that killed dozens of people. Political question marks galore. What do you look to Odierno to do now?

COLIN KAHL: Well, I think General Odierno's major challenge will be trying to consolidate the security gains over the last year-and-a-half or so by pushing a number of political accords with Iraqi leaders.

And I think this is really probably what's necessary to try to consolidate the surge and the benefits from over the last year. The challenge will be, however, doing that in the context of kind of an inevitable decline in U.S. forces and an inevitable decline in our influence over the Iraqi leadership.

And that's really what Gen. Odierno will have to work with, with Ambassador Crocker and whoever follows Ambassador Crocker, to try to get the political progress and that's necessary, you know, moving forward.

JEFFREY BROWN: A political general as much as a military general at this point?

LINDA ROBINSON: Well, this is going to be the interesting thing, I think, to watch. I agree with Colin that he certainly has to manage the drawdown, the transition to the Iraqi security forces, finish the battle against al-Qaida in Iraq.

But the key thing will be using the military leverage to produce the political steps to push the Maliki government into the political steps it has so far been unwilling to take and to get them to fulfill the commitments they have made to Petraeus.

Petraeus and Crocker were in the room behind closed doors with Maliki knocking heads and pushing him forward. I think that Odierno has learned those tricks of the trade and is willing to do that, but I just have a quick anecdote about him.

In these morning briefings, they're all displayed on these large plasma screens at the front of the amphitheatres. And many dozens of staff officers -- U.S. and some Iraqis -- gather in these amphitheaters where the briefings are held.

And Odierno is a little bit shy. And one general told me that he likes to sort of -- he's a slow morning person. He likes to sip his coffee. So a screen actually would appear in front of his face with the symbol of the Multi-National Corps-Iraq.

And one day, I told him -- I said, you know, when you talk, the screen disappears, so his face then comes on the screen. I said, "You look like the Wizard of Oz." It has this effect. And he just laughed uproariously.

But he has, I think, a little bit less of an easy personality engaging in the political maneuvering than Petraeus, who's just very much a political general, a political animal.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you wanted to add something?

COLIN KAHL: Yes, I actually think something Linda pointed to is really important, which is -- I said a minute ago that our leverage and influence over the Iraqi government is diminishing. And that is true, but we still have considerable influence over the Iraqi security forces.

And despite recent gains by the Iraqi security forces and some successful operations in places like Basra, and Sadr City, and Amarah, and Mosul, and now in Diyala, they still rely heavily on U.S. support, which is one of the reasons why Odierno will be inherently a political general, because much of our leverage stems from the degree to which the Iraqi security forces continue to depend on our help.

Lessons to take from Afghanistan

Linda Robinson
Author
[Petraeus] gathered together a multidisciplinary group - not just military people - civilians, academics, diplomats, multinational groups to really study the current state of the war, what is the problem, what's the diagnosis.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, we've spent a lot of time -- I want to move to Afghanistan. We spent a lot of time on our program talking about it, because it's been so much in the news and so much deterioration that we've seen over the last months.

Gen. Petraeus now has that under his command. What lessons do you imagine him or see him taking from the experience in Iraq to Afghanistan?

LINDA ROBINSON: They're obviously two very different conflicts, and that has to be said at the outset. But there are many important lessons that can be applied to the Afghanistan-Pakistan conflict. It is a two-country war, and we need to keep that in mind.

One of which is applying the same kind of in-depth study to that two-country war that Petraeus did right when he came into Iraq. He gathered together a multidisciplinary group, not just military people, civilians, academics, diplomats, multinational groups to really study the current state of the war, what is the problem, what's the diagnosis.

And he came up with, I think, an accurate diagnosis that Iraq had really degenerated into a civil war. And he'd had the appropriate policy measures, which wasn't just -- there was no silver bullet.

And some of the current arguments out there I really think simplify very much what happened in Iraq to produce the dramatic decline in violence. But I think the first thing he'll do is take a good, hard look at the conflict and what we can reasonably expect to achieve, because we're not going to bring Afghanistan from the 17th century into the 21st century. That's just a non-starter.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, one of the big issues there, of course, is the civilian casualties and deaths. And Jim referred to it in our news summary, that the numbers have gone up.

Now, for Gen. Petraeus in Iraq, the security of the population was an important issue. Does he apply that or how does he apply it in Afghanistan?

COLIN KAHL: Well, actually, one of the reasons why there are more civilian casualties from air strikes in Afghanistan is that we have fewer ground forces in Afghanistan, which means we have to rely more on air power to come in and provide close air support to our troops when they come under fire from Taliban fighters.

So actually adding some troops into the mix in Afghanistan will help a little bit on that score.

Petraeus' new primary mission

Colin Kahl
Center for a New American Security
The primary mission for Petraeus will be to work with our NATO allies, to work with our commander in Afghanistan and to work with our diplomats in the region to really come up with a coherent strategy that links Afghanistan and Pakistan together.

COLIN KAHL: But I really want to underscore something Linda said, which is, the primary mission for Petraeus will be to work with our NATO allies, to work with our commander in Afghanistan and to work with our diplomats in the region to really come up with a coherent strategy that links Afghanistan and Pakistan together.

The second major challenge for him will be to decide how the extra troops, which will inevitably be sent to Afghanistan, should be used. Should they be used as in Iraq for population security, or should they mostly be used to train and advise the Afghan national army and national police?

And I think actually there's a growing consensus that it should be the latter rather than the former.

JEFFREY BROWN: Go ahead.

LINDA ROBINSON: If I could jump into this, because I think these are very important points. And I think that people are getting the wrong idea, that you simply pump more troops into Afghanistan, the same way people have an erroneous idea that the surge was just pump more troops into Iraq, and that there's some kind of a silver bullet with some secret technical means you're going to pick off, kill and capture the al-Qaida leaders. I think that leads you 180 degrees down the wrong path.

It's, I think, much more likely to expect Petraeus to come up with an analysis something like this, to promote a population-centric approach to the war.

The Pashtun nation straddles the border between Pakistan and Iraq. That population is the support base for the Taliban insurgency. And that, in turn, provides sanctuary for the al-Qaida in Iraq. And you've got to get at all those layers of the conflict.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we have to leave it there. Linda Robinson, Colin Kahl, thank you both very much.

LINDA ROBINSON: Thank you.