When photos from Barack Obama's aerial tour of Baghdad circulated this summer, many wondered about the soldier who was standing alongside the presidential candidate and Gen. David Petraeus. That's just as Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin would have it. Austin, a towering physical presence but essentially a quiet and soft-spoken man, seems certain to keep a low profile in his role as the No. 2 in Iraq, as his boss Petraeus leaves for his new job at CENTCOM and is succeeded by Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno.
Odierno, who earned a fourth star and becomes the top U.S. warrior in Iraq, had been Austin's predecessor in the number two spot until February and regularly made news. Austin, by contrast, may grant the occasional interview and take reporters on trips, but he seems more comfortable briefing his staff than a gaggle of reporters. "Austin's a good military official," says an adviser to the Iraqi government. "He's maintained excellent oversight of his troops. He doesn't shoot from the hip." Austin is not the type to describe major shifts in thinking in catchy phrases, as Odierno did in May 2007 when he described the slow and deliberate drawing down of troops as "thinning the lines." With his careful observations, there's little chance Austin will appear on TV under the rubric "Breaking News." "The general is a fine commander, a great and humble man who's been here a while, but for some reason has not gotten much media coverage," one of his aides says, with some frustration.
Austin, 55, is certainly capable of speaking with great authority about the Iraq conflict. The West Point graduate first served in Iraq from 2001 to 2003 as assistant commander for maneuvers with the 3rd Infantry Division. In February, he was made head of Multi-National Corps, the second most powerful military officer in Iraq, in charge of almost 150,000 U.S. and coalition forces. He took over just as the corps was downsizing from 20 to 15 brigade combat teams. Attacks overall are down to 200 a week across the country—an 83 percent decrease from this time last year. "We're really doing good right now," says Austin.
The consensus among military people in Iraq (who would not speak on the record) seems to be that Austin is the right person to command ground forces in Iraq. He certainly has the endorsement of the top brass. "Lloyd Austin has done a magnificent job as the MNC-I commander," says Petraeus, outgoing head of MNForces-Iraq. Brig. Gen. David Perkins, coalition spokesman, calls him "thoughtful yet decisive."
As Iraq shifts from fighting to nation-building, the combat-tested three-star general will face challenges that his predecessor didn't. Chief among them will be providing for secure elections. As Iraqi's Parliament bickers over the status of Kirkuk, provincial elections are on hold—and some political parties would prefer to postpone the balloting until deep into 2009, which could inflame tensions between the Kurds and the Arabs in Iraq. That would also push back national elections, which are supposed to be held in 2009. "There's a bit of anxiety created because all of us would like to see the [provincial] elections actually occur in the fall," Austin says in an interview in his office in Al Faw Palace at Camp Victory, near Baghdad International Airport. "And so, as they get pushed into the winter, it becomes a little bit more disappointing. But still it doesn't cause us to feel that there will be no elections."
Austin will also have to decide how to handle the Awakening movement, the mostly Sunni Iraqis that have joined with U.S. forces to fight the insurgency. Now known as the Sons of Iraq, the network now numbers 99,000. Many of the Sons would like to be absorbed into the Iraqi Security Forces--which include the Army, local Iraqi Police, National Police and border guards--but the forces, which already number 600,000, can't absorb them all. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is deeply suspicious of the Sons and wants to disband them. Austin believes that whatever happens, the men must be properly blended into Iraqi society. "What we don't want to happen is to have a bunch of unemployed young men in the streets of Iraq," he says. "And so that is a challenge for the Iraqi government and an issue that we will remain involved with in helping to find meaningful employment for this population of people."
Austin has spent 32 years rising through the system. He's a native of Thomasville, a city of about 20,000 in southern Georgia that's listed in the book "1,000 Places to See Before You Die" in the United States and Canada. He played football and basketball in high school and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1975. He is one of only eight African-Americans with the rank of lieutenant general or vice admiral in the U.S. military, where fewer than 6 percent of more than 900 general officers are African-American. "I certainly fully appreciate the fact that I am the first African-American to ever command a division in combat, the first African-American to ever command a corps in combat and there are a couple other firsts before that," he says. "Certainly when you have my job you consider yourself to be a role model for a number of elements in the community, not just African-Americans."
As Austin moves into the No. 2 spot, he insists that U.S. military objectives will be the same: to bring about what he calls sustainable security. He sees "little daylight" between Petraeus and Odierno in philosophy. And he sees little point in debating how long U.S. troops will be in Iraq or why they have been unable to disengage more quickly. "If anyone could envision that five years later we'd be doing what we're doing now, my hat's off to them, because I don't think there were very many people who had that kind of insight five years ago. Certainly no one, if anyone, really believed that we'd be engaged this long." he says. "But you've got to deal with the situation that's at hand. And I think recently we've made the right choices." The next months will show whether the Iraqi government also can make the right choices.