The New York Times reports today that the Iraqi government under Nuri al-Maliki is planning to construct a trench cordon around Baghdad to restrict traffic in and out of the city. This would seem to indicate that the Coalition command (who presumably had a hand in these plans) has finally decided to implement something akin to Andrew Krepinevich's proposed "Oil Spot Strategy." On the one hand this new plan is hopeful news, as it demonstrates that both the Iraqi government and the Coalition command are taking proactive steps to stem the rising tide of chaos in Iraq. On the other hand this strategy could all too easily amount to "too little too late."
Establishing order in Baghdad and allowing it to "seep outward" toward the rest of the country is the last best hope for the current Iraqi government. Though Krepenivech deserves credit for articulating this strategy, its current implementation does underscore some of the shortcomings in his original formulation (and, to be fair to Krepenivech, in the original strategic planning of the Bush White House). If building such a cordon around Baghdad now is such a good idea one must naturally ask why it was not done three years ago. The answer, of course, is that there were not enough soldiers then to build and maintain such a cordon. This is the most unrealistic promise made in Krepenivich's strategic manifesto- that an "oil spot" strategy could employ fewer rather than more troops to prosecute an effective counterinsurgency.
In this regard the plan to build a Baghdad "Oil Spot" does offer a glimmer of hope for the Iraqi government. The number of Coalition troops in Iraq has not significantly increased (though it is notable that more troops have been deployed to Baghdad itself in the face of the current crisis), thus the commitment to this new plan hopefully evinces that the Iraqi Armed Forces have increased in size and combat readiness to make such a strategy practicable.
As optimistic a trend as that may be, any objective analysis must acknowledge that the current situation is very grave, and that the prospects for success are not high. The strategic task that must be accomplished by the planned "oil spot" cordon is vastly more complicated than the implementation of such a strategy would have been three years ago. Though Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is dead, his legacy lives on in the horrific sectarian violence sparked by the Samarra mosque bombing in February. Before the Samarra bombing the only effective task of an "oil spot" cordon around Baghdad would have been to stop Sunni insurgent provocateurs from launching terror attacks within the city limits.
Now that the genii of sectarian violence is already out of the bottle, however, simply keeping insurgent terrorists out of Baghdad will not be enough to restore order. Inside the cordon thrown up around Baghdad someone (either the Iraqi Armed Forces or the Coalition) will have to move very aggressively against the Shi'ite militias that are on the rampage against Sunni civilians. The currently planned "oil spot strategy" will in fact have to contend with a countervailing "oil spot" strategy, one being violently carried on even now by groups like SCIRI and the Mahdi Army. The indiscriminate mass-killing of Sunni civilians by Shi'ite militias can only have one aim- to drive Sunnis out of Baghdad and transform it into a Shi'ite stronghold. As Baghdad is indisputably the economic, demographic, and political center of any Iraqi state, ethnically cleansing Baghdad is the first logical step in any attempt to bring the Iraqi government uncontestably under Shi'ite (clerical) control. Even as the Iraqi government attempts to turn Baghdad into an "oil spot" of stability from which effective control over the nation can be extended, radical Shi'ite groups are trying to make Baghdad an "oil spot" from which a new Shi'ite sectarian order can be imposed on the nation as a whole.
Establishing a security cordon around Baghdad will help stem the tide of Shi'ite radicalism by virtue of reducing the incidence of insurgent terror attacks that enrage Shi'ites and drive them into the radical camp. The Iraqi Armed Forces can most likely be relied upon in that regard, as they are composed principally of Shi'ites and have little reason to sympathize with the goals of the Sunni insurgency. Such a campaign will not be enough to quell the radical Shi'ite "oil spot" campaign, however. The SCIRI militias and Mahdi Army must be disarmed, and that task will require a sustained campaign that will undoubtedly necessitate recourse to force of arms. Toward that end the Iraqi Armed Forces are far less reliable, as their sympathy for their coreligionists (combined with their own concern for self-preservation) may trump their loyalty to the nascent Iraqi government. Even if they could theoretically be relied upon, it will take an enormous degree of courage and political will for Nuri al-Maliki and his governing partners to superintend such a potentially violent campaign against their own political allies. Perhaps they secretly plan to rely on Coalition forces to execute the "internal" phase of this oil spot campaign. If this is the case, it remains an open question whether the Coalition can restore order in Baghdad without the logistical, political, and intelligence support of the Maliki government (or whether the Maliki government will make such resources available to the Coalition in sufficient supply).
There are some good signs that the Maliki government is sincere in its desire to carry through on this new plan and restore order both in Baghdad and Iraq at large. The recent meeting between Maliki and Ahmedenijad of Iran may be counted among such signs. Any campaign to rein in Shi'ite radicalism stands a much better chance if political pressure can be brought to bear on SCIRI and the Mahdi Army from Tehran even as IAF and/or Coalition forces apply military heat on the ground in Baghdad. Still, one must acknowledge that the task is very difficult and the stakes are very high. As well advised and proactive as this Baghdad cordon plan may be, it must be judged the last best hope of the Maliki government. If this new strategy fails to establish order in the capital, it is difficult to see how the Maliki government can preserve any structural coherence in the long term, or how Iraq can avoid a slide into unbridled anarchy.