The Patton of Counterinsurgency

by Frederick W. Kagan and Kimberly Kagan

Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of Multi-National Corps - Iraq, speaks with a group of local sheiks at Patrol Base Kemple, Dec. 18, 2007. Situated on the banks of the Euphrates River, Patrol Base Kemple is home to the Soldiers of Company A, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division.

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.


A major assumption of previous U.S. commanders in Iraq had been that "kinetic" operations--the favored neologism for "combat"--were counter-productive, producing more resentment and more insurgents. They emphasized the need to win hearts and minds and to avoid alienating the population. While major combat operations generate resentment among the population, and may encourage indigenous forces to become dependent on outside assistance, Petraeus and Odierno recognized that such problems pale in comparison with allowing the enemy to control key terrain and attack targets at will.

Petraeus as he took command in February 2007 emphasized using combat forces to protect the population in major cities, establish and expand safe areas, and clear insurgent safe havens. It was Odierno's job to figure out how, exactly, to accomplish those tasks with the forces he had available. He came quickly to a counterintuitive conclusion: Securing Baghdad required large-scale offensive combat operations outside the city.

Previous American commanders had recognized that the violence in Iraq resulted primarily from the actions of distinct enemy organizations--rather than from any inchoate hatred between Sunni and Shia--and they had developed very sophisticated understandings of how individual enemy leaders interacted with each other and their subordinates. This approach flowed naturally from the military thinking of the late 1990s that conceived of conventional enemies as networks of technological systems (computers, communications devices, and power grids, among others). There are important nodes of a technological network that can be disabled to disrupt its functions, and, by analogy, there are people--those providing money, ideological guidance, and the human connections to disperse resources--who are the most important nodes of a terror network. Intelligence assets identified the key players, and Special Forces worked to kill or capture them in targeted raids.

According to this approach, the killing of AQI leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi in June 2006 should have disrupted the al Qaeda network severely. But AQI rapidly regrouped after Zarqawi's death under a successor, Abu Ayyub al Masri. The American counterterrorism approach disrupted the network but did not eliminate it. AQI's ability to generate violence in Baghdad through its signature vehicle bombs actually increased in the months after Zarqawi's death, as did civilian casualties and Shia retaliatory attacks. The entire cycle of violence that attacks on the terrorist network were supposed to bring under control actually ramped up.

Just as Odierno took command, Coalition forces captured an AQI map depicting Baghdad as the center of the fight. AQI's main focus in 2006 was establishing safe havens in West Baghdad. The rise in power and ferocity of the Shia militias, however, forced them to establish bases outside of the capital from which to attack both Coalition forces and their Shia opponents. The map showed how AQI had divided the areas around the capital into regions, how it used these suburban safe havens (in Baghdad's "belts") as part of a complex system for moving weapons into the city, and how it carried the fight south of Baghdad.

AQI's approach--and Odierno's new understanding of it--made traditional military concepts like lines-of-communication, support areas, and key terrain relevant to the counterinsurgency strategy. Insurgents moving from the belts to the capital required access to particular roads. Maintaining that access required holding neighborhoods bordering the roads. Car-bombers needed factories in which to make their weapons. IED-users needed ammunition stores and ways of moving their IEDs from depots to frontline fighters. Leaders needed safehouses to allow their free movement in the city and headquarters outside the capital from which they could direct operations. Thinking of the enemy as a network, as U.S. forces had previously been doing, underemphasized the importance of geography and of controlling key terrain to the enemy's operations. Odierno prepared to take that terrain away.


Given the enemy's situation in Iraq, Odierno knew he would need more troops to make the counterinsurgency doctrine operational. He asked for them in December 2006, and President Bush announced the "surge" in January 2007.

The surge brigades made it possible to conduct multiple simultaneous operations rather than focusing on one problem or area at a time. U.S. forces within Baghdad would provide as much security as possible for the population, disrupt enemy groups operating from within the capital, and identify the enemy safe havens within the city. At the same time, Odierno planned to deploy troops into the belts around the capital to attack the enemy's support zones and lines of communication and to eliminate the suburban safe havens that were essential to the functioning of the enemy system.

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.

This article originally appeared in The Weekly Standard and is now hosted on The Washington Examiner. 

File Attachments: