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Mideast tour showcases challenges facing calm, inquisitive CentCom leader

Sailors and Marines crowded the flight deck of the USS New Orleans for a chance to see the head of Central Command, Army Gen. Joe Votel of Tampa. Votel addressed the group as the amphibious docking ship navigated the Strait of Hormuz near Iran. [Howard Altman | Tribune]
Published Jul. 31, 2016

BAGHDAD

On a scorching July morning, Joe Votel arrives in the Middle East on a much different mission than those that brought him here the first few times.

In October 2001, Votel was a colonel parachuting into Afghanistan as commander of the 75th Ranger Regiment. His goal: to capture the Kandahar airfield as well as the home of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Less than two years later, he was in Iraq, helping to seize airfields there.

On this day, Votel, the Army general who runs U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base, isn't floating to earth with killing in mind. He walks down the gangway of an enormous, gray cargo jet on a mission infinitely more complex.

Almost four months into his new job at MacDill, Votel, 58, is visiting Baghdad to learn more about how the fight against the Islamic State is going. He wants to get "a good handle," he says, on how Iraq's often warring local forces are working to accomplish a defining objective of the fight — recapture, hold and restore order in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

But the march toward Mosul is just one priority for Votel during an eight-day tour across some of the 20 nations that make up the CentCom region. He left Tampa on July 7 and spent time in Afghanistan, Bahrain, the Strait of Hormuz and Jordan before wrapping up in Iraq. A Tampa Bay Times reporter was one of five journalists who accompanied him.

"Each trip makes a really unique opportunity to understand what is happening," says the CentCom leader, logging his fifth visit to the region since taking over in March.

As a Ranger commander, Votel was at the tip of the combat spear. Now he's on the other end, one of those deciding how to use U.S. power to help developing nations stand on their own in the world's most dangerous region.

One guiding principal — the motto of Votel's former unit — still holds true for the soldier and commander: "Rangers Lead the Way."

• • •

Votel, who oversees U.S. military operations in a swath of the globe stretching from Egypt to Kazakhstan, grew up in St. Paul, Minn. He was the youngest of six boys and one of nine children.

His oldest brother, Dick Votel, 18 years his senior, recalls the future commando and CentCom leader as a thoughtful young man.

"Joe will listen and think about what he has heard,'' Dick Votel said. "He isn't shy at all, but he wasn't an A-type personality."

Votel grew up with three uncles who served in the military. But it was a trip to Maryland that sparked his interest in a life of service.

"Joe and my folks came to visit us in Baltimore," Dick Votel said. "We did some touring, and one of the places we took him to was the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. He was about 11 or 12 and decided he wanted to go into the service and to one of the academies."

It was more than a passing fancy.

Votel did well at Cretin High School, an all-boys Catholic military school. He earned an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he graduated in 1980. Among his classmates was Raymond "Tony" Thomas III, who succeeded Votel this year as commander of the MacDill-based U.S. Special Operations Command.

• • •

The reflective, inquisitive Joe Votel described by his oldest brother is the same Votel taking stock of progress in Kabul, Afghanistan, during his July visit.

He has many questions when he speaks with those in Afghanistan now commanding one of the Middle East wars that have taken the lives of nearly 7,000 U.S. troops and cost the nation more than $4 trillion.

Sitting in the center of a U-shaped conference table, notebook folded open next to a camouflage hat with four silver stars signifying his rank, Votel takes part in a video teleconference with military leaders in the southern Afghanistan province of Helmand.

Votel hears about the state of the battle against the Taliban, the enemy he first faced 15 years ago.

The Afghan general in charge of Helmand tells Votel about how changes in political and military leadership have helped in regaining control. Afghan military casualties have been slashed there and a key road has reopened.

Later, at a joint news conference with Army Gen. John Nicholson, the new commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Votel leaves most of the talking to his subordinate. Nicholson says he has received what he sought from the White House — additional troops and the added authority to use them.

He dismisses a United Nations report that says the Taliban control more territory than they have since 9/11.

"They confuse presence with control," Nicholson said. "They are certainly present in many areas, but control? No. Maybe 14 or 15 districts out of 400 are controlled by the Taliban."

Still, Afghanistan remains a tough fight. The U.N. says 2016 has been a record year for civilian casualties — more than 5,100 killed or maimed in the first six months. Nearly a third of them are children.

• • •

Two days later, Votel dons a helmet, goggles and flight vest and settles in for the hour-plus ride from Manama, Bahrain, to a U.S. naval ship aboard two V-22 Ospreys, the tilt-rotor craft that can fly like an airplane or helicopter.

They drop down on the deck of the USS New Orleans, an amphibious dock ship longer than two football fields with more than 600 Marines on board ready to react anywhere in the region on short notice. The ship is moving east past Iran through the Strait of Hormuz.

For Votel, plying waters more than 900 miles away from landlocked Afghanistan, the visit is a reminder of the vastness of the area he commands.

"United States Central Command was started in 1983," he tells a crowd of sailors and Marines during an "all-hands" meeting to catch a rare glimpse of a CentCom commander.

"And the reason it was started was because of the place we are going through right here, and because of our requirement as a country to ensure we had access to the resources that came out of this area."

Votel tours the cavernous ship, and the crew sees a playful side to his inquisitive nature as he carries out the time-honored tradition of handing out commemorative coins.

In the ship's medical area, he asks one sailor about re-enlistment.

"I'm due to re-enlist right now, sir."

"Really?" says Votel. "Ready to go?"

"Yes, sir," says the sailor, and with that, Votel raises his right hand. The room breaks out in laughter.

"I'm ready to re-enlist you," a smiling Votel says. "I'm glad to keep good sailors in the Navy."

Up on deck, it is serious business as the first of five ships belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps moves into position just 500 yards from where Votel is standing.

He tells reporters accompanying him on the trip that Iran hasn't changed its behavior since the signing of last year's nuclear disarmament deal. And he is concerned about its role in the CentCom region.

"We have seen it certainly in Lebanon, seen it back the government in Syria, in activities with the Houthis in Yemen," he says. "It is certainly something we have to pay a lot of attention to."

It is a concern that will come up later in Baghdad.

• • •

Capturing and holding Mosul will require the cooperation of Iraq's three often warring factions — the Shia, Sunni and Kurds. Adding to the complexity, the Kurds have established a de facto nation in the country's north. The timing of any attack depends more on navigating this division than on whether Iraqi forces are ready.

For Votel, it's the latest challenge in a career marked by challenge, including stints as a leader in the special operations community and as an officer in the Pentagon.

In 2003, as roadside bombs were beginning to take a toll on troops in the Middle East, then Brig. Gen. Votel was given command of a new Army organization designed to deal with the problem. It was a priority for Donald Rumsfeld, then secretary of defense.

There was no model to follow, recalled former CentCom Chief of Staff Mike Jones, but Votel — "the quiet, silent type" — pulled it off.

"There was no formed staff, no organization," said Jones, a retired Army major general living in Tampa. "Joe's performance under pressure in that kind of situation told me a lot about his character. He handled it with a calm, cool approach."

Votel also gained respect at Joint Special Operations Command in North Carolina, the secretive command in charge of missions like the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

The man in charge of that mission holds Votel in high regard.

"As my deputy, I trusted Joe to make any and every decision regarding the command," says William McRaven, the retired Navy SEAL admiral whom Votel succeeded at both JSOC and SOCom. "I knew he would make the right decisions every time. While I tended to be a bit 'hot headed,' Joe was always calm and could get more done with the ambassadors than almost anyone."

McRaven points to an investigation he asked Votel to conduct into a botched military operation blamed on poor commando targeting that claimed civilian lives in Afghanistan in 2009.

"It was one of the low points of my command tour," McRaven says.

The U.S. commander in Afghanistan at the time was livid, but Votel's investigation was so tough, thorough and self-critical that it kept him from kicking JSOC forces out of the country.

"We made a lot of changes and the organization got better every month," McRaven says in an email to the Times. "We were able to stay in Afghanistan and do years of more important work for the nation because Joe Votel had left no stone unturned to get to the truth."

• • •

The skills of a diplomat are plainly beneficial in Iraq. A week after a massive Islamic State suicide bombing in Baghdad killed more than 300 people, Votel is meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and President Masoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

There is a long history of hatred and bloodshed between the Kurds, the Shia and the Sunni in Iraq. Before there can be an attack on Mosul, all three parties have to figure out who attacks and who stays to rebuild the mostly Sunni city of some 2 million people. It has been held for more than two years by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

As Votel dines with Barzani in the Kurdish capital of Irbil, the U.S. Army colonel in charge of coordinating the effort in Kurdish territory explains the challenges and successes.

Distrust between the Iraqis and Kurds, who want their own homeland, is so strong that the recent movement of Iraqi tanks to help retake a key airfield 40 miles south of Mosul was delayed until Barzani could personally sign off on the matter.

And while there are improvements, the Kurds are still wary about shipments of ammunition and listening equipment, says the colonel, JR Treharne. The reason: The Kurds are concerned the material and equipment might be used against them, Treharne says, in any future fight for independence.

Still, there is hope.

"At lower levels, we see a great relationship of working together," he says. "They send ambulances forward to wherever it is needed."

• • •

Between his meetings with the Iraqi and Kurdish leaders, Votel sits down with the Times to talk about the challenges of creating an enduring future in a divided Iraq.

It's a mission complicated by the fact that, unlike the 2003 invasion, the United States and its allies now are working through the Iraqi government.

Finding a political solution to how the Shia, Sunni and Kurds can work together to recapture, and more importantly, hold Mosul, is "absolutely critical," Votel says.

"I think 100 percent is really dependent on that," he says. "We don't want to conduct military operations when we don't have the ability to follow successful military operations up with the political element that has to be behind it."

He adds that he is "confident" the parties will "work out a way to take over the city."

Gains by Iraqi security forces against ISIS give U.S. forces a reason to believe this latest enemy will be defeated as an army able to hold territory.

But Votel is already looking ahead to the next challenges.

ISIS could survive as an entrenched insurgent force, for example. And if its defeat leaves a power vacuum, Shia militias in Sunni-dominated Iraq — as many as 100,000 troops, many aligned with neighboring Iran — might move in.

Votel, always inquisitive, asks, "Do they depart? Do they become part of the Iraqi government? What happens? What does that mean for the Iraqi security forces?"

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow@haltman.

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