Gen. David Petraeus, whose strategy for countering the Iraq insurgency is credited by many with rescuing the country from all-out civil war, stepped aside Tuesday as Gen. Ray Odierno took over as the top American commander of the conflict.
At a traditional change-of-command ceremony attended by top Iraqi and American military and civilian officials, Petraeus said that Odierno’s skills and experience make him “the perfect man for the job.”
Defense Secretary Robert Gates presiding at the ceremony in a cavernous rotunda of a former Saddam Hussein palace outside Baghdad, Petraeus handed over the flag of his command, known as Multi-National Force Iraq, to Odierno and then bade farewell.
Petraeus said the insurgents and militia extremists who have created such chaos in Iraq over the past five years are now weakened but not yet fully defeated. He noted that before he took the assignment in February 2007 he had described the situation as “hard but not hopeless.”
He thanked his troops for having “turned ‘hard but not hopeless’ into still hard but hopeful.”
……Because of Odierno’s extensive previous experience in Iraq, he is generally expected to be able to continue building on the gains made under Petraeus’ command, although an evolving set of difficult challenges face him here and in Washington, where he will soon have a new commander in chief.
…..Also addressing the ceremony was Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said Iraq had become a “vastly different place” during Petraeus’ tenure.
……Petraeus’ next assignment will be as commander of U.S. Central Command, with broader responsibilities. From his headquarters in Tampa, Fla., he will oversee U.S. military involvement across the Middle East, including Iraq, as well as Afghanistan, Pakistan and other Central Asian nations. He takes up that post in late October.
A background on Odierno:
March 7, 2008 — LT. Gen. Ray Odierno looks like he could snap an NFL linebacker in half. Yet his voice is so quiet you strain to hear him across the table in an empty pub.
And the general’s worth listening to.
Just back from commanding our day-to-day military operations in Iraq, he’s been nominated as the Army’s next vice chief of staff. He’ll take the battlefield’s lessons along to that post.
What did Iraq teach Odierno as a Soldier? What professional tenets were reinforced by his multiple combat tours?
“First, you have to empower your subordinates. That means you have to underwrite the risks involved,” to take the heat when they make mistakes. The general sees this as crucial to our 21st-century Army.
“Second, as a senior leader, you have to trust your instincts . . . you never stop learning and you have to adapt to the changing situation . . . but trust your instincts.”
“Third, you have to get out and touch it, feel it, see it.” You can’t manage a war or a counterinsurgency effort from an office. Nothing substitutes for the sense of reality you get from walking the streets with Soldiers and Marines.
So what did an old Soldier like Odierno learn about our troops during his successive – and successful – tours in Iraq?
“They are compassionate. They genuinely care – not just about each other, but about Iraqis, too. I saw it again and again. They are compassionate young men and women.”
Any surprises about our Soldiers? “They’ve surprised me with their resilience. . . They continue to re-enlist, continue to perform. . . Both leaders and soldiers have shown incredible resilience in the way they’ve adapted” to the changing situation in Iraq. “And I realized how much we can trust our Soldiers.”
……The general also feels that a great untold story has been the advances in cooperation between special-operations and conventional forces – right down to the brigade and battalion levels – in just the last 18 months. In the past, the special operators and the grunts usually went their separate ways. Not anymore: “There’s real synergy now.”
……Odierno keeps returning to the theme of doing our best for our Soldiers, the key mission he’ll face in his new job. “What does the Army bring? We bring soldiers. How do we develop, educate, train and equip them to do their best?”
……The general was about to begin a long-overdue leave, and this interview was his final mission of the day. Anything he’d like to say directly to Post readers?
“I want to thank all the readers for the support they’ve given our Soldiers. It means a lot to us. And I’m very proud to be a part of the Army of the United States.
“As for Iraq, we have made significant progress . . . and it’s in our strategic interests to have a friendly government in Iraq. Our Soldiers have sacrificed a great deal. It should not be in vain.”
The general went quiet for a moment, looking inward. “It means a lot to me to finish this mission.”
Patraeus did a hell of a job and he’s leaving the command in capable hands.