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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Odierno worked with the U.S. Special Operations Forces under the command of Lieutenant General Stan McChrystal to make sure they kept up the pressure on key leaders within the terrorist network. Their precise and skillful attacks not only took out insurgent leaders but also provided valuable additional intelligence that Odierno used to refine his plans. And Odierno's operations to clear and hold key terrain would greatly facilitate the Special Forces' efforts by flushing key enemy leaders out of their safe havens. Odierno's kinetic operations developed a positive synergy with the more traditional counterterrorism approach, making both much more effective than either could have been alone.

The five additional brigades President Bush was sending to Iraq arrived gradually, at the rate of about one a month beginning in January 2007. Stemming the violence would require all the additional brigades, but they would not be completely available until June. In the five-month interval, Petraeus and Odierno conducted what the military calls "preparatory operations" to "set the conditions" for "decisive operations." Commanders do this by deploying their forces to the theater, establishing bases, supplying them, organizing command structures, reconnoitering the terrain, developing intelligence about the enemy, and creating maneuver corridors. These tasks often involve units in combat. Forces moving into areas that the enemy had controlled must often fight to establish their new bases. When units reconnoiter the new areas, they make contact with the enemy and fight skirmishes. In each case, the purpose of "preparatory operations" is not to fight and eliminate the enemy from an area, but rather to create the preconditions for successful "decisive operations" in the future that will destroy the enemy.

Petraeus and Odierno used these months to develop a sense of how long it would take a brigade to reconnoiter and master urban and rural terrain before operations could begin, and how fast a brigade could clear that terrain with the mixture of forces it had available. The protracted nature of the conflict played to America's advantage, surprisingly, as new commanders were able to learn from previous examples and personal experiences even as they adapted to a changing situation and a fluid enemy. Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli, Odierno's immediate predecessor at MNC-I, had already recognized the need for a shift in approach and begun to reconnoiter the belts around Baghdad and areas within the city before he relinquished command in December 2006. When President Bush announced the change in strategy and surge of forces in January 2007, Odierno was already using the forces that he had, and those that were arriving, to shape the conditions for the large offensive that could not begin until June. He and Petraeus then sent the first two new brigades into Baghdad, and the next three to the belts.


When Petraeus took command in February, he set to work integrating Odierno's developing operational plan into an overarching political and military strategy. He established a Joint Strategic Assessment Team to review Coalition strategy and to work in conjunction with the U.S. embassy in Baghdad to develop a Joint Campaign Plan to harmonize military and non-military operations throughout the country. While this team produced a superb product, the overall effort to integrate all elements of American national power within Iraq was only partially successful due to resistance from civilian agencies in Washington and some U.S. officials in Baghdad--as well as to the natural friction that results from trying to coordinate the activities of disparate organizations in a complex environment. It was Ambassador Ryan Crocker's arrival in Baghdad in March 2007 that transformed the U.S. mission in Iraq. He pushed hard to implement the Joint Campaign Plan--an effort worthy of a story all its own.

Petraeus also challenged the relationship between U.S. leaders in Iraq and their Iraqi counterparts. His predecessors' emphasis on encouraging the Iraqis to do things for themselves had led them to defer to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki whenever possible and to try to avoid confrontations with the inexperienced Iraqi leadership. Petraeus took a more activist approach and relentlessly pressured Maliki and other Iraqi officials to make critical decisions and to abandon counterproductive behaviors. Crocker supported this approach and added to the pressure on the Iraqis to make the hard decisions and to take risks they would have preferred to avoid.

Petraeus and Odierno also placed a heavy emphasis on the non-kinetic aspects of counterinsurgency. Chiarelli had long argued that improving the quality of life of Iraqis and addressing the rampant unemployment of military-age males was essential to the success of the Coalition efforts. But he got tepid support for these non-military efforts from other U.S. agencies. Petraeus and Odierno breathed new life into them by pushing their forces out into Iraqi neighborhoods with instructions to spend money (from the Commander's Emergency Response Program funds) to create temporary jobs and conduct immediate-impact reconstruction projects in any areas that were secure enough to permit them. The increased number of troops, their presence in the neighborhoods, and their ability to establish personal relationships with members of the community only added to the effectiveness of these emergency projects. This focus on harmonizing the non-kinetic with the kinetic was a key element of Petraeus's new counterinsurgency doctrine, but the skill with which he and Odierno actually executed the concept on the ground is what matters.

The Petraeus-Odierno command team, ably supported by Crocker, thus dramatically increased the pressure on all of the major Iraqi actors to abandon violence and start making compromises while also encouraging the average Iraqi to believe that there was hope of a better future if he stopped fighting. Odierno's forces hit both Sunni and Shia insurgent and militia groups hard, forcing them into a defensive posture--and generally making violence a much less attractive option. At the same time, Petraeus and Crocker pushed the Iraqi government to support the military operations with their own military and police efforts and with political negotiations and reconciliation efforts. These would begin to pay major dividends by the end of Odierno's tenure.

Neither Petraeus nor Odierno was uniquely responsible for any one aspect of the intellectual framework or its execution. Like any of the great command pairs of history, they shared a set of tasks that would have crushed any single individual, and each made key contributions to the development of a strategy that led to extraordinary and surprising success.


For all the sophistication of this integrated political-military and kinetic/non-kinetic approach to the conflict, Odierno is likely to be remembered in military history as the man who redefined the operational art of counterinsurgency with a series of offensives in 2007 and 2008.

"Operational art" is the concept of how to fight wars, developed most comprehensively in the Cold War era--when doctrine called for multiple, simultaneous, and successive operations across a theater. A well-designed campaign consisted of multiple battles occurring at the same time to achieve a common goal (the landings on different Normandy beaches to dislodge the enemy from a defensive position on D-Day, for example) followed by a rapid series of fights and maneuvers to pursue the enemy, drive him from his objectives, and prevent him from regrouping (Patton's relentless pursuit of German forces in France and Germany in 1944-45). Before 2007 there had been considerable debate within the Army about whether there even was an "operational art" in counterinsurgency, let alone what it might be. Odierno demonstrated that there was.

He believed that the surge allowed for "simultaneous and sustained offensive operations, in partnership with the Iraqi Security Forces." In conjunction with Petraeus and his staff, Odierno planned and conducted three successive, large-scale military operations in 2007, and a fourth in early 2008. The first was Operation Fardh al-Qanoon ("Enforcing the Law" in Arabic), also known as the Baghdad Security Plan, which starting in February dispersed U.S. and Iraqi troops throughout the capital in order to provide security for its inhabitants. The second was Operation Phantom Thunder, which in June and July cleared Al Qaeda in Iraq from its major sanctuaries. The third offensive was Operation Phantom Strike, in which, from mid-August on, Coalition and Iraqi forces pursued AQI operatives and other enemies as they fled their sanctuaries and attempted to regroup in more remote areas. Odierno's last major offensive was Operation Phantom Phoenix, launched just weeks before his departure, to pursue the enemy into Diyala and set the conditions for the battle for Mosul--while providing essential services and jump-starting provincial government in less-contested areas.

The key to the success of these operations was the combination of breadth and continuity. All of them struck multiple enemy safe havens and lines of communication at the same time--in contrast with previous U.S. military operations that had generally attacked enemy concentrations one at a time. Enemy groups could no longer move easily from one safe area to another and those that tried to move suffered serious losses as they dispersed. The rapid movement from one operation to the next denied the enemy time to regroup. As scattered insurgent leaders and fighters attempted to reconsolidate in new areas, Coalition forces hit them again and again.

AQI fighters driven from Anbar, Baghdad, and the suburban belts into Diyala found reinforced Coalition and Iraqi forces there pounding them. Those that survived fled north along the Hamrin Ridge toward Mosul, where Coalition forces pursued them and doggedly prevented them from establishing secure bases even in that remote and rugged terrain. As AQI has attempted to reconstitute in and around Mosul, it has once again encountered a growing U.S. and Iraqi presence attacking before it can dig in. The simultaneity of the attacks and the relentlessness of the pursuit shattered Al Qaeda in Iraq, reducing it to ever smaller and more isolated pockets that increasingly lack the ability to coordinate the large-scale terror operations that had characterized it in 2006.

As a purely military operation, the series of MNC-I offensives easily bears comparison with Patton's race across France or the Soviet destruction of German forces in 1944 and 1945. That the Iraq operations occurred in the midst of a counterinsurgency and helped gain the support of the local populations is a testimony to the tactical skill and precision with which American forces fought, as well as to the brilliance of the political and diplomatic efforts of Petraeus and Crocker to set the non-kinetic conditions for success.


There is a common myth that the "Awakening" movement in Anbar occurred independently of--even in spite of--the Coalition military operations in 2007. It is true that it began emerging in 2006 thanks to the hard and skillful fighting and negotiating of Army Colonel Sean MacFarland and a number of Marine officers and their subordinates. But Odierno leapt on it and further encouraged it not only in Anbar, but throughout Iraq. He met with the originator of the Awakening movement, Sheikh Sattar Abu Risha, in December 2006 and encouraged U.S. soldiers in Anbar to continue fighting and negotiating in support of Abu Risha's efforts. As other groups emerged in and around Baghdad, Odierno and Petraeus seized on opportunities to make friends of former enemies.

This was no easy decision. Americans had been dying at the hands of Sunni Arab resistance groups since 2003. Many of the "concerned local citizens" (CLCs, now called "Sons of Iraq" because "concerned local citizens" translates poorly into Arabic) were themselves former members of the insurgency. There was some grumbling among U.S. troops about cooperating with former enemies and much concern that the "transformation" of these insurgents into partners would only be temporary.

Petraeus and Odierno, however, saw it as an opportunity. Contrary to popular misconception, they refused requests to provide weapons to the CLCs (who almost invariably had their own weapons anyway). They insisted that all CLCs provide detailed biometric data (fingerprints and retinal scans), the serial numbers of their weapons, their home addresses and family relationships. Counter-insurgency experts have often wryly remarked that it would be easy to end an insurgency if the enemy would only wear uniforms. By collecting all of this information about the CLCs, Odierno and Petraeus were in essence putting uniforms on them. Any CLC who turned against the Coalition or Iraqi forces could be readily identified if he, or his weapon, were captured--and Coalition troops would know immediately where he and his family lived. There have been very few reports of any CLC members taking the risk.

"Will you stay this time?" That was one of the first questions prospective CLCs asked of U.S. troops in 2007. Memories of intermittent security and of the brutal punishments meted out by the returning insurgents to individuals (and their families) who had collaborated with the Coalition made many Iraqis wary in 2007. But because of the change in strategy and operations inaugurated by Petraeus and Odierno, American soldiers could promise to stay. As more and more Iraqis came to believe in this promise, the movement blossomed, spreading rapidly to Baghdad, Diyala, Babil, and parts of Salah-ad-Din province as it consolidated in Anbar. In December 2006, Iraqi society was mobilizing for a sectarian civil war; by December 2007, it was mobilizing to stop the violence.

The Awakening movement begun in 2006 has turned out to be more than just a revulsion against violence and terror. It has evolved, at least in some areas, into grassroots political movements responding to Iraqis fed up with the gridlock in the central government in Baghdad. While the Anbar Awakening continues to efficiently combat AQI efforts to reinfiltrate the province, it is also forming a complex set of political parties and factions that should pose a serious challenge to the Iraqi Islamic party that nominally represents most of Iraq's Sunni Arabs in the Council of Representatives.

The attempts of Shia tribal leaders south of Baghdad to form their own "awakenings" puzzled many at first, as did the virulence of the Iraqi government's objections to such movements within the Shia community. Visiting the area in February, we met with several of these tribal leaders, and the issue became clear. Even within Iraq's Shia population, frustration with the Maliki government runs high. That frustration is increasingly expressed not simply as resentment of Maliki and his allies, but in a rejection of clerical government (the dominant Shia party south of Baghdad is controlled by a turbaned cleric, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim); of Iranian influence; and of regionalism, factionalism, and sectarianism. Iraqis, both Sunni and Shia, are increasingly defining themselves as Iraqis, that is to say Arabs, rather than Sunnis or Shia. Their growing rejection of clericalism and preference for secular government was noted recently by Amir Taheri in the Wall Street Journal:

Only the next general election in 2009 could reveal the true strength of the political parties, since it will not be contested based on bloc lists. Frequent opinion polls, however, show that support for avowedly Islamist parties, both Shiite and Sunni, would not exceed 25 percent of the popular vote.

That finding is supported by the sense of those interacting regularly with individual Iraqis outside the Green Zone and provincial offices. The great challenge in 2008 will be harnessing these growing sentiments through provincial elections and preparing for new parliamentary elections in 2009. The alacrity with which Petraeus and Odierno seized on the Awakening movement in 2007 was a key element in making this potentially transformative development possible.


Ray Odierno did not win the Iraq war--indeed, the war is still very much ongoing and victory is by no means assured. (And both he and Petraeus would insist on giving any recognition to their staffs and to the men and women of the American armed forces.) The narrative of Iraq's transformation on Odierno's watch lends itself easily to a triumphal presentation that would be utterly inappropriate. Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin has replaced Odierno as the MNC-I commander, and the fight goes on.

Even as you read this article, U.S. and Iraqi forces are waging a battle for Mosul, and Coalition troops continue to confront AQI, Jaish al-Mahdi militiamen, Iranian-backed fighters, and other insurgent and terrorist groups. Americans and Iraqis are killing and dying in a struggle to preserve and expand the gains of 2007. If America and its military and political leaders do not remain committed to continuing and improving the strategies that have brought us this far, if they do not provide our troops and civilians in Iraq with the tools and resources they desperately need, then all of the gains we have made can still be lost. Insurgencies don't end with treaty-signing ceremonies or parades. Often it is not possible to know that they have ended until years after the fact.

Odierno's tenure as commander of Multi-National Corps-Iraq was an astonishing period in American military history, and his contribution deserves note as he and his staff return home to new postings. Their efforts showed that there is a need even in sophisticated counterinsurgency theory for skillful combat operations, that traditional ways of thinking about war can be appropriately adapted to novel circumstances, and that it is possible to be a warrior, nation-builder, mediator, diplomat, economist, and role-model all at once. At least, it is possible for heroes like Ray Odierno and the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and civilians he commanded for 15 months at one of the most critical junctures in recent American history.

Frederick W. Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of The End of the Old Order: Napoleon and Europe, 1801-1805. Kimberly Kagan, the president of the Institute for the Study of War, is the author of The Eye of Command. Her reports and analysis of the Iraq war are available at