As we approach next month’s report by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, the debate about Iraq will intensify. One key point of discussion will be a threshold question: How important is Iraq in the larger war against Islamic extremism? Is Iraq a central battleground in the fight against jihadists, or a distraction?

Many leading political figures seem to believe Iraq is almost incidental to the wider struggle. In the August 7 Democratic debate in Chicago, for example, Senator Barack Obama said this: “I want us to fight on the right battlefield, and what that means is getting out of Iraq and refocusing our attention on the war that can be won in Afghanistan.” In a June 3 debate, Governor Bill Richardson said he would “move them [troops from Iraq] to Afghanistan to fight al Qaeda.” And in the June 14 issue of The Politico, we read this: “[Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid again told Bush that it was ‘time to transition the mission in Iraq’ in order to refocus attention on Iran and, more specifically, Afghanistan, which both Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have called the real central battlefront in the war on global terror.”

The problem with this view is it constitutes wishful thinking of a high order. Whether we like it or not, whether we wish it were the case or not, Iraq is a central battleground in the war against Islamic extremists. The jihadists, and al Qaeda in particular, have made it so. They have declared their intentions time and again — and they have backed up their intentions with savagery.

Osama bin Laden has himself said, “The most important and serious issue today for the whole world is this Third World War, which the Crusader-Zionist coalition began against the Islamic nation. It is raging in the land of the two rivers. The world’s millstone and pillar is in Baghdad, the capital of the caliphate.” Bin Laden has also said this: “The whole world is watching this war and the two adversaries; the Islamic nation, on the one hand, and the United States and its allies on the other. It is either victory and glory or misery and humiliation.” And this: “I would like to tell you that the war is for you or for us to win. If we win it, it means your defeat and disgrace forever as the wind blows in this direction with God’s help.” And this (in a message to Muslims in Iraq): “This is a war of destiny between infidelity and Islam.”

Ayman al-Zawahiri, the ideological leader of al Qaeda, has put these conflicts within a larger context. In his words, “The war with Israel is not about a treaty, a cease-fire agreement… national zeal, or disputed borders. It is rather a jihad for the sake of God until the religion of God is established. It is jihad for the liberation of Palestine, all Palestine, as well as every land that was a home for Islam, from Andalusia to Iraq. The whole world is an open field for us.”

And in a letter to the late leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, the Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Zawahiri wrote this:

“So we must think for a long time about our next steps and how we want to attain it, and it is my humble opinion that the jihad in Iraq requires several incremental goals: The first stage: Expel the Americans from Iraq. The second stage: Establish an Islamic authority or emirate, then develop it and support it until it achieves the level of a caliphate — over as much territory as you can to spread its power in Iraq … The third stage: Extend the jihad wave to the secular countries neighboring Iraq. The fourth stage: It may coincide with what came before: the clash with Israel, because Israel was established only to challenge any new Islamic entity.”

We are dealing with an enemy that believes, in the words of bin Laden, “Death is better than living on this earth with the unbelievers among us.” The al-Qaeda Charter, for all its malevolence, has the virtue of clarity. It states, “there will be continuing enmity until everyone believes in Allah. We will not meet [the enemy] halfway and there will be no room for dialogue with them.” As if to reinforce the point, an al-Qaeda training manual says this:

“Islam does not coincide or make a truce with unbelief, but rather confronts it. The confrontation that Islam calls for with these godless and apostate regimes, does not know Socratic debates, Platonic ideals nor Aristotelian diplomacy. But it knows the dialogue of bullets, the ideals of assassination, bombing, and destruction, and the diplomacy of the cannon and machine-gun.”

We best take them at their word.

Iraq and Afghanistan are separate theaters in a larger global struggle. The United States can leave Iraq before a decent outcome is attained — but if we do, the wider war will not end; it will only intensify — but with the United States in a substantially weaker situation.

An American defeat in Iraq would reinforce the impression among jihadists that the United States is the “weak horse,” that when bloodied we will flee, and that in the end, their will is simply stronger than ours. And if the critics have their way and deny General Petraeus the time he needs to help bring about a decent outcome in Iraq, the jihadists will be right.