The Magazine

The Patton of Counterinsurgency

With a sequence of brilliant offensives, Raymond Odierno adapted the Petraeus doctrine into a successful operational art.

Mar 10, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 25 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN and KIMBERLY KAGAN
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Great commanders often come in pairs: Eisenhower and Patton, Grant and Sherman, Napoleon and Davout, Marlborough and Eugene, Caesar and Labienus. Generals David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno can now be added to the list.

It's natural to assume that successful pairs of commanders complement each other's personalities (the diplomatic Eisenhower and the hard-charging Patton, for example) or that the junior partner is merely executing the vision of the other (Sherman seen as acting on Grant's orders). In reality, the task of planning and conducting large-scale military operations is too great for any single commander, no matter how talented his staff. The subordinate in every successful command pair has played a key role in designing and implementing the campaign plan.

History does not always justly appreciate such contributions. The role that Davout played in shaping operational plans for Napoleon is a matter for specialists. General Odierno deserves better. He played an absolutely essential role in designing and executing the successful counterinsurgency operations in Iraq. His contributions to securing Iraq offer many important lessons for fighting the larger war on terror. As he and his team return to Fort Hood, Texas, it is important not only to commemorate their achievement, but also to understand it.

Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno took command of Multi-National Corps-Iraq (MNC-I) on December 14, 2006. Iraq was in flames. Insurgents and death squads were killing 3,000 civilians a month. Coalition forces were sustaining more than 1,200 attacks per week. Operation Together Forward II, the 2006 campaign to clear Baghdad's most violent neighborhoods and hold them with Iraqi Security Forces, had been suspended because violence elsewhere in the capital was rising steeply. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) owned safe havens within and around Baghdad, throughout Anbar, and in Diyala, Salah-ad-Din, and Ninewa provinces. The Iraqi government was completely paralyzed.

When General Odierno relinquished command of MNC-I on February 14, 2008, the civil war was over. Civilian casualties were down 60 percent, as were weekly attacks. AQI had been driven from its safe havens in and around Baghdad and throughout Anbar and Diyala and was attempting to reconstitute for a "last stand" in Mosul--with Coalition and Iraqi forces in pursuit. The Council of Representatives passed laws addressing de-Baathification, amnesty, provincial powers, and setting a date for provincial elections. The situation in Iraq had been utterly transformed.

As is well known, General Petraeus oversaw the writing of a new counterinsurgency doctrine before being sent to Iraq. But the doctrine did not provide a great deal of detail about how to plan and conduct such operations across a theater as large as Iraq. It was Odierno who creatively adapted sophisticated concepts from conventional fighting to the problems in Iraq, filling gaps in the counterinsurgency doctrine and making the overall effort successful.


The commanders who preceded Petraeus and Odierno had put a priority on encouraging the nascent Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) to take responsibility for protecting the Iraqi people. The preferred strategy was to concentrate on training the ISF while using Coalition forces for "supplementing Iraqi Security Forces in ongoing operations--and striking at Al Qaeda in Iraq in particular."

The overwhelming majority of American combat forces were concentrated on Forward Operating Bases, from where they acted to reinforce Iraqi Security Forces and to patrol areas in which there was significant violence. U.S. military operations tended to be reactive rather than proactive, episodic rather than sustained. The insufficiently trained and equipped ISF had been pushed prematurely into the fight and, rather than conducting counterinsurgency operations, relied on ineffective checkpoints. As a result, security ebbed and flowed through neighborhoods and towns but was rarely lasting, and the presence of Coalition forces provided little sense of security for Iraqi civilians.

Odierno was far less interested in shifting responsibility to the ISF. As he prepared to deploy to Iraq, he succinctly defined his objectives:

Bottom line? Full restoration of civil authority in Baghdad. Sectarian violence reduced. Extra-governmental armed groups diminished, and their influence diminished. And the government of Iraq viewed as a legitimate institution in the eyes of the Iraqi people.

Odierno had absorbed Petraeus's new counterinsurgency doctrine and knew the importance of establishing legitimate government institutions by protecting the population from the insurgents trying to alienate them from the government.