About a month before the United States invaded Iraq, Al-Jazeera aired an audiotape purportedly from Osama bin Laden. It was a gloating call to jihad against the "crusaders" in Iraq. U.S. officials seized on the tape as proof that Saddam Hussein really was in league with the master terrorist. But the truth was just the reverse, as many Arab commentators noted at the time, after listening to the full tape.
Unfortunately, most Americans never had a chance to hear or read the full transcript. Many U.S. news organizations, scared off by a Pentagon and State Department worried that bin Laden was issuing orders through such communiqués, didn't air the comments or transcript in full.
Yet the full transcript printed in English in some foreign publications, including The Australian newspaper in Sydney, was revealing - and potentially prophetic.
In the Feb. 11, 2003, audiotape, the person purporting to be bin Laden predicts the coming Iraq war will let the faithful cast off Iraqi "apostates" and "hypocrites," including the socialist infidel Saddam, and afford a new opportunity to embarrass and bloody U.S. forces.
Although a crude piece of propaganda, the tape shows bin Laden (or his pretender) to be cunning in how the war could advance the cause of terrorism. The saddest bit is the way the United States played into his hands.
The whole premise of the war on terror is to unbalance al-Qaida by going on the offensive, not sitting and "taking it." In many parts of the world, that's been an effective mechanism for getting at the terror network both from within and without, going after bin Laden's regional lieutenants, drying up the "swamps" where his network went for training and indoctrination, rallying the nations of the world - Muslim, Hindu, Christian and others - to the cause.
Yet dark plots to unleash new mass-casualty weapons against Americans remain high on al-Qaida's agenda. With luck, we can hold off these "dark winds." Our mili tary and intelligence agencies are gaining new insights in how to hunt down the plotters. Nonetheless, al-Qaida operatives will misread last Sunday's elections upset in Spain as a victory for fear and division - their very tactic in going after defenseless aid workers and "collaborators" in Iraq.
Today, nearly one year after the United States sent that first barrage of missiles and bombs into a ritzy Baghdad district, hoping to kill Saddam, it seems evident to all but Americans that the Iraq war was a major setback in efforts to defeat bin Laden and his terrorist adherents.
President George W. Bush calls Iraq the terrorism war's "central front." But Iraq is an important battleground only because bin Laden has been allowed to choose his terrain, instead of the reverse. Liberating Iraq, as beneficial as that might be for most Iraqis, has handed al-Qaida a new swamp of unrest and intrigue into which to march believers and recruit others.
The latest Pew Research Center survey of global attitudes, released Tuesday, found the war "has undermined America's credibility abroad" and magnified discontent with U.S. policies. Attitudes soured even in Britain, our staunchest ally, where only 43 percent - down from 61 percent last May - think their country did the right thing in backing the U.S. decision to use force in Iraq. Barely more than a third of Britons think the Iraq war has aided the overall terrorism fight.
The irony is that in Iraq, most people are happier. A recent ABC News poll found that 56 percent of all Iraqis feel their lives are better now than before the war. Still, many are dissatisfied with everyday hardships and the lack of security, and 46 percent to 48 percent of polled Iraqi Arabs think the U.S. war was wrong, and humiliated Iraq.
The coming handover of power to Iraqis July 1 will prove a fiction, as the new leaders will still be propped up by U.S. firepower and taxpayer dollars.
A year ago, the United States launched a war whose motives remain murky, whose costs have spiked as high as $7 billion a month and whose end date remains uncertain. To date, more than 550 brave Americans have died and thousands more have been injured in mind and body.
Having taken Iraq, we owe it to ourselves and to the Iraqis not to leave a terrorism-riddled swamp behind. Yet U.S. officials are ducking their responsibilities to be open and honest with the American people in refusing to give Congress detailed estimates of how long the Pentagon expects troops to remain in the country and how much next year's operations will cost.
Nor are Iraq and Afghanistan the only battlegrounds. Violence is eating at the edges of this war.
At least eight died yesterday in Kosovo riots, and more than 15 NATO peacekeepers were injured. More than 1,400 Marines are patrolling Haiti. Terror plots have bloodied Spain, Iraq, Indonesia, Morocco, Pakistan, Turkey, Kenya, Russia, Saudi Arabia and India.
It will take focus and dedication to trample bin Laden's vision of a new Islamic caliphate or, failing that, an apocalyptic religious war in Iraq.
The United States must keep al-Qaida guessing. No more free passes for Osama.
Sullivan is The Plain Dealer's foreign-affairs columnist and an associate editor of the editorial pages.
© 2004 The Plain Dealer