Ramadi or Baghdad?

Oliver North, reporting from Ramadi, says we are winning there. As I noted last month, a Marine Corps intelligence report suggests otherwise. I don’t know who is right about this, but I do believe that, even if we’re not presently winning in Ramadi and elsewhere in Anbar province, we are capable of achieving victory there. That’s because (as I understand it) we face essentially a unitary enemy in this region — Sunni insurgents combined with al Qaeda elements — and victory is defined as defeating that enemy. In Baghdad, by contrast, we face multiple militias and victory is defined, in part, as preventing them from killing each other and from killing innocent civilians in a city of about six million people.
It is for this reason that I disagree with Cliff May’s suggestion (in an excellent column in today’s Washington Times which apparently is not on the Times’ website) that we “start” the contemplated renewed push in Iraq by “stablilizing Baghdad.” Cliff notes that we said we would do this and the U.S. should make every effort to do what it commits itself to doing. But an unsuccessful “last ditch” effort in Baghdad would likely have political consequences so severe as to prevent us from accomplishing any of the things we committed ourselves to doing in Iraq. And the definition of “success” in Baghdad probably raises the bar too high for us at this time.
Cliff argues that “a victory in the battle of Baghdad, the most diverse area of Iraq with more than a quarter of the country’s population, would have major and beneficial consequences.” If there were such a thing as “the battle of Baghdad,” I’m confident that our troops could win it. But I think it’s misleading to talk about such a battle. As I said, victory in Baghdad is defined not as defeating a foe but as successfully policing a huge city to the point that violence is low enough to declare the entire city “stable.” Defeating even multiple militias is not enough to “win”; we also must prevent them from regaining a foothold in any neighborhood and from engaging in more than occasional random acts of violence against the population.
We don’t speak of policing efforts in Washington D.C., Detroit, or Los Angeles as a “battle,” and I’m not sure it’s helpful to think of policing Baghdad that way either.