On this 9/11 anniversary, we ask if we are safer — but are we smarter?

On this 9/11 anniversary, we ask if we are safer — but are we smarter?
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Twenty years after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor that took nearly 3,000 lives, America was in ascendancy after magnanimously rebuilding Japan and Germany and setting them aright with the ideals of liberal democracy. The country was riding a wave of optimism and runaway industrial might. No one doubted America’s preeminent perch in the world.

Twenty years after the sneak attack on 9/11 that took nearly 3,000 lives, the feeling in America is different; there is a sense of unease. The attacking foe was not a mighty military machine with well trained, standing armies. It wasn’t even a nation. America hasn’t vanquished that foe. If anything, 20 years later, the adversary is reinvigorated and more determined to harm our country.

Why the different outcomes? Looking back over the past two decades, there are many factors but three notables emerge.

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The first was a faulty assumption colored by post-World War II thinking that nations perceived as posing a terror threat could be rebuilt in the image of Western democracies and eliminated as “safe havens” for terror training. A derivative assumption was that “hearts and minds” could be changed in the countries to which we sent troops. Our leaders on 9/11 were children of the WWII generation who had grown up basking in American momentum. Their reference points were molded a certain way.

And so, after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. launched a global war on terror (GWOT) colored by a nation-building outlook that had worked well before. Given the still raw emotions of 9/11 and our post-WWII perceptions, it seemed like the correct path. The efforts to enact the plan were honest, earnest and performed in good faith. But the GWOT strategy was flawed. Those of us involved in leadership at any point over the past 20 years must be humble and contrite enough to acknowledge that.

Winning hearts and minds was a particularly naive goal articulated in the GWOT strategy.  It stemmed from U.S. over-optimism that the American way could dent a 1,400-year-old civilization habitually resistant to the West from the Crusades through colonialism. It was a gross misread of history and culture. It is more likely that America’s 20-year occupation turned untold hearts and minds in those regions toward the violent extremists.  

Perhaps most ominously, the current administration’s abrupt Stockholm Syndrome withdrawal from Afghanistan undoubtedly has fueled perceptions that a ragtag peasant militia caused the American superpower to flee in ignominy. If the world’s jihadists ever doubted that the god of their warped theology was on their side, they almost certainly don’t now. We have handed them a powerful recruitment tool for gullible suicide attackers not even born yet.  

Many of the assumptions baked into the GWOT have not been validated in 20 years of effort.  Despite all the human and material treasure the U.S. has poured into Afghanistan, it will emerge on its current trajectory as the world’s primary terrorist safe haven, much as it was 20 years ago.  This is a self-imposed defeat and should be a lesson for future leaders to reference.

The second factor was a misread of the nature of a terrorist. Terrorists — wearing no uniform and blending among the populace — are not an army that can be met and defeated in a traditional military sense. Those who have battled terrorists of every ideology over the past 50 years understand that the most effective strategy focuses on the elimination of the leaders.  

Unending crops of malformed, dupable followers can be seeded and harvested by manipulative sociopaths and convinced to die. These cowardly leaders, however, do not want to die or spend life in a prison. An optimum U.S. strategy among our military, intelligence and law enforcement communities should focus on making it very costly for anyone to assume a leadership role in the Taliban, al Qaeda or ISIS. The strategy of direct military engagement and occupation is over.  The fight against terrorists is far from over. Our “go-forward” strategy needs precision and a deeper understanding of certain realities.

The third factor was shaped by WWII as well, when a formidable military-industrial complex emerged which, as President Eisenhower warned, requires constant vigilance.  

The GWOT was significantly outsourced to the private sector. Cynical though it may sound, war is good business. If there is one overriding objective in the federal contracting world, it is this: Don’t let the contract end. Not everyone was eager for us to leave Afghanistan. Make no mistake, industry is populated primarily by patriots, but business currents are swift and powerful and need to be taken into account.

The suburbs around Washington have become some of the richest per capita in the nation. “Warfare welfare” is a powerful political force. The country absolutely needs a private-sector capacity to go to war at any point, but this also requires balance against the artificial perpetuation of war because it can be tremendously lucrative for companies that know how to hover around D.C. policymakers and habitually recruit staff directly from the Pentagon.

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Eisenhower called it “the disastrous rise of misplaced power” — disastrous because excessive business drivers inevitably collide with the blood sacrifices of our youths, some of whom weren’t born when the GWOT started. The profit and loss equation of a 20-year war seems out of balance. The immense profit is largely enjoyed by those who didn’t directly suffer the loss.  Perhaps the companies benefiting from wartime wealth could restore some balance with the families that made the most painful sacrifices.

Over 7,000 of our nation’s young have given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tens of thousands more have suffered horrific, life-altering injuries. None — repeat, none — of these sacrifices has been in vain, despite some of the narratives over the past few weeks. Their selfless honor stems from each individual’s will to place his or her life on the line for the security of the rest of us. This nobility is not diminished by faulty government decisions or strategies. 

On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, may we rejoice in the successes and honor the sacrifices that have helped keep us safe, while learning lessons that will inform smart strategies going forward and help us avoid future anniversaries of unease.

Kevin R. Brock, former assistant director of intelligence for the FBI, was an FBI special agent for 24 years and principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He independently consults with private companies and public-safety agencies on strategic mission technologies.