As he campaigns with the weight of a deeply unpopular war on his shoulders, Senator of Arizona frequently uses the shorthand “” to describe the enemy in in pressing to stay the course in the war there.
“Al Qaeda is on the run, but they’re not defeated” is his standard line on how things are going in Iraq. When chiding the Democrats for wanting to withdraw troops, he has been known to warn that “Al Qaeda will then have won.” In an attack this winter on Senator of Illinois, the Democratic front-runner, Mr. McCain went further, warning that if American forces withdrew, Al Qaeda would be “taking a country.”
Critics say that in framing the war that way at rallies or in sound bites, Mr. McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, is oversimplifying the hydra-headed nature of the insurgency in Iraq in a way that exploits the emotions that have been aroused by the name “Al Qaeda” since the Sept. 11 attacks.
There has been heated debate since the start of the war about the nature of the threat in Iraq. The Bush administration has long portrayed the fight as part of a broader battle against Islamic terrorists. Opponents of the war accuse the administration of deliberately blurring the distinction between the Sept. 11 attackers and anti-American forces in Iraq.
“The fundamental problem we face in Iraq is that there is not a single center of gravity, as in the cold war, but a whole constellation of contending forces,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism and counterinsurgency expert at . “This is much more fractionated than most people could imagine, with multiple, independent moving parts, and when you have that universe of networks, you can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach.”
The entity Mr. McCain was referring to — , also known as Al Qaeda in Iraq — did not exist until after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. The most recent consider it the most potent offshoot of Al Qaeda proper, the group led by that is now believed to be based on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
It is a largely homegrown and loosely organized group of Sunni Arabs that, according to the official American military view that Mr. McCain endorses, is led at least in part by foreign operatives and receives fighters, financing and direction from senior Qaeda leaders.
In longer discussions on the subject, Mr. McCain often goes into greater specificity about the entities jockeying for control in Iraq. Some other analysts do not object to Mr. McCain’s portraying the insurgency (or multiple insurgencies) in Iraq as that of Al Qaeda. They say he is using a “perfectly reasonable catchall phrase” that, although it may be out of place in an academic setting, is acceptable on the campaign trail, a place that “does not lend itself to long-winded explanations of what we really are facing,” said Kenneth M. Pollack, research director at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the .
But some students of the insurgency say Mr. McCain is making a dangerous generalization. “The U.S. has not been fighting Al Qaeda, it’s been fighting Iraqis,” said Juan Cole, a fierce critic of the war who is the author of “Sacred Space and Holy War: The Politics, Culture and History of Shi’ite Islam” and a professor of history at the . A member of Al Qaeda “is technically defined as someone who pledges fealty to Osama bin Laden and is given a terror operation to carry out. It’s kind of like the Mafia,” Mr. Cole said. “You make your bones, and you’re loyal to a capo. And I don’t know if anyone in Iraq quite fits that technical definition.”
Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is just one group, though a very lethal one, in the stew of competing Sunni insurgents, Shiite militias, Iranian-backed groups, criminal gangs and others that make up the insurgency in Iraq. That was vividly illustrated last month when the Iraqi Army’s unsuccessful effort to wrest control of Basra from the Shiite militia groups that hold sway there led to an explosion of violence.
The current situation in Iraq should properly be described as “a multifactional civil war” in which “the government is composed of rival Shia factions” and “they are embattled with an outside Shia group, the ,” Ira M. Lapidus, a co-author of “Islam, Politics and Social Movements” and a professor of history at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in an e-mail message. “The Sunni forces are equally hard to assess,” he added, and “it is an open question as to whether Al Qaeda is a unified operating organization at all.”
In recent months, Mr. McCain has also been talking more about the threat posed by Iranian influence in Iraq, bringing him in line with American military officials, who in the wake of the Basra fighting seem increasingly convinced that Iranian support for Shiite groups now constitutes the primary security threat in Iraq.
Mr. McCain acknowledged those concerns on Tuesday night in an interview with Chris Matthews on MSNBC when he said that “we now see the Iranians beginning to reassert an age-old Persian ambition, as you know, to increase their influence, particularly in southern Iraq.”
In talking about both threats, Mr. McCain tripped up last month on a visit to the Middle East, when he mistakenly said several times that the Iranians were training Qaeda operatives in Iran and sending them back to Iraq. Prompted by one of his traveling companions, Senator of Connecticut, Mr. McCain corrected himself, saying that he had misspoken and had meant to say Iran was training “other extremists” in Iraq.
And Mr. McCain went beyond what he usually says and what his foreign policy advisers believe during a back-and-forth with Mr. Obama at the end of February. It began when Mr. Obama said at a Democratic debate that while he intended to withdraw American forces from Iraq as rapidly as possible, he reserved the right to send troops back in “if Al Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq.”
Mr. McCain seized on the remark. “I have some news,” he said at a town-hall-style meeting in Tyler, Tex. “Al Qaeda is in Iraq. It’s called ‘Al Qaeda in Iraq.’ My friends, if we left, they wouldn’t be establishing a base. They’d be taking a country, and I’m not going to allow that to happen.”
In general, Mr. Obama’s views track with those of many independent analysts. In a speech last August, he criticized President Bush by saying: “The president would have us believe that every bomb in Baghdad is part of Al Qaeda’s war against us, not an Iraqi civil war. He elevates Al Qaeda in Iraq — which didn’t exist before our invasion — and overlooks the people who hit us on 9/11, who are training new recruits in Pakistan.”
Senator , who wants to begin withdrawing troops, has spoken of leaving some troops behind to fight Al Qaeda, deal with Sunni insurgents, deter Iranian aggression, protect the Kurds and possibly help the Iraqi military. She warned last year of the dangers if Iraq turned into a failed state “that serves as a petri dish for insurgents and Al Qaeda.”
Few, including Mr. McCain, expect Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a Sunni group, to take control of Shiite-dominated Iraq in the event of an American withdrawal. The situation they fear and which Mr. McCain himself sometimes fleshes out is that an American withdrawal would be celebrated as a triumph by Al Qaeda and create instability that the group could then exploit to become more powerful.
“Al Qaeda in Iraq would proclaim victory and increase its efforts to provoke sectarian tensions, pushing for a full-scale civil war that could descend into genocide and destabilize the Middle East,” Mr. McCain said this month. “Iraq would become a failed state. It could become a haven for terrorists to train and plan their operations.”
Randy Scheunemann, Mr. McCain’s senior foreign policy adviser, said during a recent conference call with reporters that in the event of an American pullout, “you might not necessarily see a single entity taking charge.” But such a withdrawal could empower Shiite militias in the south and Kurds in the north, leaving Al Qaeda “free to try to impose its will” and lead to increased sectarian violence that “would be very likely to draw neighbors into the conflict,” he said.
While “it is absolutely incorrect to describe the Sunni insurgency in Iraq as driven by Al Qaeda, you can’t properly talk about Iraq without talking about Al Qaeda in Iraq” and its importance in the larger war against terror, said Reuel M. Gerecht, a former Middle East specialist at the who is now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “Bin Laden is a pretty good judge of the history of his own organization and its future, and he looks upon Iraq as the great battle, the make-or-break issue that will decide the fate of the ummah,” the global community of Islamic faithful.
When Gen. , the senior military commander in Iraq, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, Mr. McCain sought an endorsement of his focus on Al Qaeda. But General Petraeus responded with an evaluation more nuanced than the argument Mr. McCain typically offers on the campaign trail. Al Qaeda “is still a major threat, though it is certainly not as major a threat as it was, say, 15 months ago,” he said.
In response to another of Mr. McCain’s questions, General Petraeus replied, “The area of operation of Al Qaeda has been greatly reduced in terms of controlling areas that it controlled as little as a year a half ago.”