Marc Lynch

Odierno’s cautious optimism

 Gen. Ray Odierno today offered a cautiously optimistic picture of conditions in Iraq during an hour-long session hosted by The Institute of World Politics.   While he admitted that he couldn’t possibly know what will happen as U.S. troops draw down, he strongly defended the strategy as the right one for today’s conditions.  This is not ...

 Gen. Ray Odierno today offered a cautiously optimistic picture of conditions in Iraq during an hour-long session hosted by The Institute of World Politics.   While he admitted that he couldn’t possibly know what will happen as U.S. troops draw down, he strongly defended the strategy as the right one for today’s conditions.  This is not 2006, he stressed, and both an American troop drawdown and a timeline are the right approach to today’s Iraqi security and political environment.

 This was the first time I’ve seen him in person since the Presidential transition, and he seemed optimistic about conditions and the strategy and showed not a hint of wanting to plead for adjustments to the timeline in response to conditions on the ground. I will just present his main points here and refrain from offering my own analysis for the time being. 

 The single most important takeaway from the event was that General Odierno strongly and repeatedly rejected comparisons between today’s strategy and the 2005-2006 strategy.  Conditions today are entirely different, he emphasized, citing the maturation of the Iraqi Security Forces and the Iraqi political system, the rejection of extremism and sectarianism in the Iraqi public, and the Iraqi demand for sovereignty.   The goal was always to hand over security to the Iraqis, and this is the right time to do so — because (just as some have long argued) without such a transition the U.S. forces can never leave.  

 He also defended the timeline, while admitting wryly that he had fielded many, many questions on that topic.  Where he would have opposed a timeline for withdrawal in 2006, he now sees such a timeline as a good thing — not only because Bush negotiated a timeline in the SOFA agreement, but because it forces both the U.S. and the Iraqis to move faster and more decisively towards the transition.  He wants flexibility to adjust if needed, but seemed to be very much on board with the timeline and the overall commitment to withdrawal. 

 In his overview of the current situation, Odierno argued that despite the recent blitz of high profile attacks, MNF-I statistics show violence overall at some of its lowest levels since the fall of Saddam, and even high-profile attacks at the lowest level of any 90 day period since MNF-I started tracking such events.  (Why 90 day intervals? I don’t know.)   He acknowledged that al-Qaeda in Iraq and other insurgent groups were trying to regroup at the local level, but argued that they had suffered serious setbacks and that MNF-I had made great progress in cracking its financial underpinnings.  Most important, he argued, Iraqis had turned away from a desire for sectarian war, and the Iraqi government and state institutions and security forces were more mature and robust than before.   It was a rather rosy presentation, more optimistic than I would have expected, but that’s how he laid it out. 

 He also ran through the usual set of challenges and issues, of course.  Arab-Kurdish issues headed the list of post-election political issues, and he did seem concerned about the hardening of positions on that issue. "Perceived Sunni marginalization" remains a problem, with the integration of Sons of Iraq a bellwhether for Sunni perceptions, but he stressed that for all the angst the Iraqi government had continued to pay them at the promised levels and had committed to finding positions for them (20% in the security forces and 80% elsewhere).  He didn’t mention anything about the arrests or agitation around the issue, and didn’t get pressed in the Q+A unfortunately.   Iran will always have influence in Iraq as a large neighbor, but the goal was to have that influence be positive and constructive.   He described the provincial elections as one of the most positive developments he had ever seen in Iraq, as people voted on local and practical issues and roundly rejected almost every incumbent (kind of like happened in the U.S. election, he quipped).  

 It was an interesting event, which offered a useful background to the recent spate of concerns about the Iraqi situation and questions about the strategy. Far from the last word, but an important one which I throw out for those not fortunate enough to attend. 

 Twitter: @abuaardvark

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