American Forces Press Service
BAGHDAD, Dec. 16, 2011 – Back in March 2003, Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III gave orders for the 3rd Infantry Division’s lead elements to cross the border into Iraq to launch Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Yesterday, as he helped case the colors of U.S. Forces Iraq, Austin said the campaign has spawned an experienced, integrated force that’s learned important lessons during the conflict.
“We are a much more seasoned force, across the board,” Austin told reporters after joining Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Ambassador James Jeffrey and other U.S. and Iraqi leaders to mark the end of the U.S. military mission here.
“If you look at the experience in our ranks,” Austin said, “it’s just incredible.”
Austin noted the many service members who, like him, have multiple deployments under their belts.
He returned for his third deployment to Iraq in September 2010 as commander of U.S. Forces here. Austin also served in Afghanistan, and between combat deployments, was the director of the Joint Staff and chief of staff at U.S. Central Command.
From these vantage points, Austin helped to shape the campaign as it evolved over time, and said he and the U.S. military learned important lessons in the process.
“The biggest lesson is that we have to be adaptive,” he told reporters.
“We came into this country fighting a conventional type of fight, mid-intensity, and quickly transformed into a counterinsurgency,” he said. Then the focus shifted toward stability operations.
These three types of operations required the military to adopt different approaches and techniques, Austin said.
“We adapted our equipment, our tactics,” he said. “We learned to embrace the Iraqi people, to learn more about the culture, [to] get them more involved in the fight for their country.”
The process sowed “a certain degree of humility” within the military ranks, he said, with members “humble enough to realize that they don’t know everything.”
“They are willing to continue to learn and they are willing to embrace new ideas,” the general said. “That is … what we see from our military.”
Austin noted, for example, how far the U.S. military has advanced the concept of joint operations.
“Look at us and how we are fighting now,” he said. “I think we did a marvelous job coming in here and fighting a joint fight.”
But working together over the course of the Iraq war, “we really have embraced this notion of jointness to the degree that I really have to stop and think about what service the person is in now,” he said.
Now, working together on plans and operations, members of different branches “are thinking about mission first and unit first,” he said, rather than “service first.”
When service members do focus on their individual service branch, Austin said it’s in terms of “what capability they can provide” to the operation.
Austin said he’s also seen a striking evolution within the reserve components since 2003.
“When we started this [conflict], you could look at troops and figure out if they were active component or Guard or reserve,” he said. “You can no longer do that. Our willingness to work together has really closed whatever gap there was initially.
“And we really are a joint force, we are a total force,” the general added. “So there have been a lot of good lessons.”
Austin said he welcomes a new chapter in the U.S. relationship with Iraq. “We really are serious about having a long-term relationship with … an Iraq that is sovereign, stable and secure,” he said.
Austin said he considers himself fortunate to have helped create the conditions for Iraq to succeed, and to be able to bring U.S. Forces Iraq’s mission to an end.
“Eight years, eight months and 26 days ago, as the assistant division commander for maneuver for the 3rd Infantry Division, I gave the order for the lead elements of the division to cross the border,” Austin told participants in yesterday’s end-of-mission ceremony.
“As fate would have it,” he said, “I now give the order to case the colors today.”