The present strategy and tactics for the prosecution of the war in Iraq are not leading to victory. A number of commentators (notably Andrew Krepinevich) have argued that we can turn the current situation around if we employ more troops and change our strategy to the "oil-spot" strategy. This involves pacifying a small segment of the country (or City of Baghdad) and then gradually expanding the perimeter of the pacified portion until more and more of the country is pacified. This means occupying and holding ground rather than the current tactics of smash and grab that have characterized the US's approach so far.
I fear that this is too late. Success in war, as in most things, is path dependent. That is, the viable options available today are constrained (either practically or psychologically) by the decisions made in the past. In practice, there is nothing (except Shinseki's 200,000 troops) to stop us adopting the oil-spot strategy, but psychologically the situation is very different.
Both Americans and Iraqis have been strongly influenced by the Bush administration's decisions of the past two years. Americans have been devastated by the reliance on inaccurate intelligence information that led to the declaration of war. We all remember the administration telling the inspectors "we know exactly where the WMDs are." We couldn't understand why they didn't tell the inspectors the locations (The administration argued that it was because intelligence sources would be compromised). We now know they didn't tell the inspectors because they couldn't. There were no WMDs. Americans were disappointed by the UN's decision not to replace its destroyed mission with a bigger and better one; the flight of the UN represented an early and major victory for the insurgents. Americans were devastated by the prisoner abuses of Abu Ghraib; they are outraged by the lack of accountability for this abuse at the highest levels in the military and the government and the seeming approval of this abuse by the now-Attorney General; those that know are disgusted by the administration's resistance to Senator John McCain's demand that prisoners should be treated according to the principles laid down in the Geneva convention and the torture treaties which are embodied in the US Army Field Manual.
The Iraqis who welcomed the Americans as liberators were outraged in the first days after the war as coalition troops stood by (except for guarding the oil ministry) as Iraq was looted. They were aghast as the National Museum was broken open and its irreplaceable treasures were scattered to the four corners of the earth. They were distressed as reconstruction contracts were given to foreign contractors using foreign employees rather than to local businesses who had the capacity to undertake most of the work and who would have employed local labor. Like Americans, Iraqis were outraged at the abuse of prisoners. Any moral high ground occupied by the Americans in comparison with the regime of Saddam Hussein was lost the night those soldiers took their incriminating digital photographs and distributed them around the world.
Neither Americans nor Iraqis have much confidence left in the Bush Administration. After all that is gone before can we believe the oil-spot strategy? We have an Army that cannot even keep the green zone bomb free. We have a presence on the ground in Iraq that cannot control the road from downtown Baghdad to its airport. Surely that is the test of the futility of adopting the oil-spot strategy. If we could do it, we would at least have done it in that small corner of Iraq. Or if it could be done, we would have expanded the areas around Iraqi police stations and recruiting centers, but we haven't done that. It seems that we are incapable of implementing the strategy on the ground in Iraq. Can anyone provide convincing evidence that it can work? Can anyone estimate the number of troops that it will take to make it work?
Perhaps prior to the discovery that Iraq lacked WMD, the oil-spot strategy might have worked. Perhaps prior to the looting, the oil-spot strategy might have worked. Perhaps prior to Abu Ghraib, the oil-spot strategy might have worked. Now, after all that has happened, I fear that this oil-spot strategy will generate yet another stain on America's honor with the implementation involving a scorched earth policy with inhabitants confined, not to the safety of their ancestral villages, but to concertina wire surrounded concentration camps. That, no doubt, is the way we would do the implementation.