Has the United States lost the will to fight? Just when it appears that the tide might be turning against al-Qaida in Iraq, a growing chorus of US senators and congressmen are calling on President George W. Bush to carry out a rapid withdrawal of American military forces.
It has only been a month since Bush's military "surge" reached its full capacity, but that hasn't stopped the weak knees of the critics from growing ever more wobbly.
And though various media accounts now indicate that the injection of additional US troops already has Osama bin-Laden's Iraqi disciples on the run, the impatience of some shortsighted politicians in Washington threatens to hand the terrorists the devastating victory which they failed to achieve on the battlefield.
Indeed, if you listen carefully, you can almost hear the sounds of laughter bursting forth in Teheran, Damascus and other terror capitals in the Middle East.
The leaders of the jihadist movement are surely preparing to break out the non-alcoholic equivalent of champagne as they toast what seems like an impending American reversal.
But before the decision-makers in Washington hastily embrace retreat, they might want to take a step back and consider just how detrimental, demoralizing and even destructive withdrawal can be.
FOR PROOF, they need only look to Israel's recent experience in this regard.
Twice in the past seven years the Jewish state has turned tail and fled, pulling its forces out of Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005. Tired of fighting a determined foe, successive Israeli governments decided to throw in the towel and hope for the best.
In both instances, Israel's retreat was carried out in a rapid and precipitous manner, with little thought given to the day after. The result, of course, was nothing short of disastrous.
The extremists of Hizbullah and Hamas drew strength from Israel's respective pullouts, pointing to them as tangible proof that violence and bloodshed not only pay, but pay quite handsomely.
After years of promising to outlast the vaunted Israeli military machine, Hamas and Hizbullah did just that, seizing on Israel's loss of resolve and riding a newfound wave of popularity in their wake.
The terrorist groups benefited politically, organizationally and militarily, capitalizing on Israel's move by winning new adherents to their cause and consolidating their power.
Consequently, Hamas is now in control of Gaza, and Hizbullah is running a virtual state within a state in Lebanon.
Domestically, Israelis lost a great deal of faith in the military and in its ability to get the job done when necessary. For a country under siege, nothing could be more perilous.
So instead of leaving the problem behind, pulling out has only energized Israel's foes, weakened the country and its resolve, and brought the threat posed by the terrorists still closer to home.
There is no reason to think that an American withdrawal from Iraq would prove any different.
JUST ASK Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida's number two. In a videotape issued last week, he once again reaffirmed that his organization views Iraq as the central battleground in its confrontation with the West.
Calling on Muslims worldwide to support the anti-American insurgency, al-Zawahiri pointed to the US's loss of resolve as a reason to celebrate. "Rejoice, for victory is near," he said, "the herds of crusaders have begun to split up and their sole concern has become searching for a way out."
In this respect, proponents of a rapid US withdrawal are simply playing into the enemy's hands. By broadcasting vacillation and weakness, they are undermining America's efforts far more effectively than any tape al-Zawahiri could ever release.
Sure, Iraq does not border America. But it doesn't have to. Short of another 9/11-style attack, there is nothing that would do more to invigorate the bad guys than to see the US in retreat.
The chaos that would ensue, not only in Iraq but throughout the region, would inevitably bring about cataclysmic results for all concerned.
As Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari said at a news conference in Baghdad on Monday, "The dangers vary from civil war to dividing the country or maybe to regional wars." These are possibilities which cannot, and must not, be taken lightly.
THE FACT IS that what happens in Iraq matters. Not just in Baghdad, but in Teheran, Pyongyang and in Gaza City too. A weakened America means a strengthened foe, one even more determined to press forward with attacking Israel and the West.
As Israel's experiences with withdrawal over the past decade have made clear, retreat in the face of terror is simply not an option, and one can only hope that this lesson will not be lost on the powers that be in Washington.
For in the tinderbox that is the Middle East, an American pullout from Iraq might just be the spark that will lead to an even greater conflagration.