'Surge' Strategy

He was caught just like a rat." Those were the simple, happy words of Ray Odierno three years ago, after units of his Fourth Infantry Division cornered Saddam Hussein in Tikrit. The hulking general went on to declare that the capture was a "major operational and psychological defeat" for the insurgents, who had been "brought to their knees." It was a heady moment, but as it turned out that's all it was--a moment. On Dec. 14, 2006, three years and a day after Saddam was hauled out of his hole, Lt. Gen. Odierno returned to take day-to-day command of Coalition forces in Iraq. His mood since then has been far more sober. "You now have different groups ... trying to vie for power within Iraq," Odierno told NEWSWEEK in an interview last week from his headquarters at Camp Victory near Baghdad. "That's what makes this extremely more complex than this has been in the past. It's not simply Sunni insurgents or Al Qaeda that we're fighting anymore--fighting is the wrong term--we're trying to influence [Iraqis] to operate within the confines of the government."

The words sound odd coming from a traditional Army warrior known for his kick-in-the-door tactics. But Odierno's transition from certainty to complexity--and from fighting to "influencing"--mirrors the journey made by the U.S. military as a whole. After weeks of intensive discussions, President George W. Bush is expected to announce his new Iraq strategy as early as next week. Most of the debate has centered on whether to "surge" 20,000 or more U.S. troops into the Baghdad area in an effort to succeed, at long last, in securing the Iraqi capital. The question is whether those forces are the right tool for the job at hand--can any number of U.S. troops stop what has become a Sunni-Shiite civil war?--not to mention whether they're even available.

Odierno knows very well that success requires more-subtle tactics than the ones he was once criticized for. An internal Army report in December 2003 concluded that Odierno's Fourth I.D. had indiscriminately rounded up so many military-age Iraqis that prisons like Abu Ghraib overflowed. Odierno rejects the accusation of overaggressiveness, calling it "anecdotal" and adding: "We executed more [reconstruction] projects than anyone else. All that has been forgotten." But he concedes that "a lot has changed since the last time I left" and that he's learned much about fighting an insurgency.

The White House insists it knows that simply adding more troops isn't the answer. The plan being considered is far more nuanced than what has been reported in the media, a senior aide to Bush, who would only discuss the talks in Crawford anonymously, told NEWSWEEK. He said it includes money for new jobs programs and reconstruction aid for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, as well as efforts to further shore up his political base. "We know the counterinsurgency plan is clear, hold and build," says the source. "We have to talk about surging troops and surging resources as being equally important."

Even so, the debate over tactics has intensified inside the Pentagon. Bush is now trying to sort through wildly conflicting advice. His Joint Chiefs of Staff supports the conclusions of the Iraq Study Group that, rather than sending in a new influx of U.S. troops, American advisory teams embedded with Iraqi forces should be quadrupled so Iraqis can take control more quickly. Some hawks, led by two outside advisers, former Army vice chief of staff Gen. Jack Keane and military historian Frederick Kagan, are instead urging Bush to "win the battle of Baghdad" himself. They say he can't wait for the Iraqi government, Army or police to secure the country.

U.S. Army officials fret they don't have the forces or equipment for the kind of long deployment (perhaps 18 months or more) that would be required. According to a former senior Army official who would describe the internal discussions only if he was not identified, "Keane told the president: 'Don't you dare let Army and Marine Corps tell you they can't do it.' Soon afterward, Gen. Richard Cody, the vice chief of staff of the Army, called Keane in and gave him the actual figures on readiness, telling him: 'Look, here's the status of these brigades today. It's not doable'." Keane did not respond to several calls asking for comment, but the senior White House aide denies that the Pentagon is resisting any surge plan. "The military leadership is committed to doing what is required to be successful," he says.

Kagan worries Bush will end up splitting the difference and decide on a smaller, short-term offensive. That, Kagan says, would be disastrous, repeating the failure of Operation Forward Together in Baghdad last summer and fall, which he blames on too few U.S. troops (about 8,000). By putting the onus for stabilizing Baghdad on U.S. forces again, a troop surge would also reverse the policy of the soon-to-depart overall commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, who is Odierno's boss. "This is the antithesis of the strategy Casey's been pursuing for two years, which is more and more Iraqi control," says Kagan. Maybe the only certainty any longer is that Odierno's new mission is sure to be a lot harder than finding Saddam Hussein.