Until we learn lessons of 9/11, we’re more vulnerable to terrorism

Getty Images

The 20-year anniversary of 9/11 is a moment to pause and reflect. The worst terror attack on U.S. soil was a watershed moment — and sadly, we have not learned many of the right lessons.

As I wrote in my recent book, it was inspiring to see the American people and politicians come together under the red-soaked banner that declared America was attacked. Partisan finger-pointing was suspended and in a show of generosity and resilience the country rallied to help those grievously hurt, reach for bereaved families, and put in place needed reforms to law enforcement, the intelligence community and transportation security designed to make us safer.
These things have prevented another catastrophic attack on U.S. soil for a generation.

But some things also went terribly wrong and have generated a threat environment where America is arguably less safe than it was two decades ago.

First, we went beyond the carefully tailored use of military force authorized by Congress (with only one dissenting vote) days after the attacks. The mission was to go after those who attacked us and degrade or destroy their ability to do so again. We have recently learned that we were so effective that Al Qaeda was on the verge of surrendering. We have also learned that we had Osama Bin Laden in our sights at Tora Bora. In both cases, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and a group of neoconservatives urged President George W. Bush to do more — including to engage in what we now know was a war (in Iraq) based on cherry-picked intelligence. Had our leaders (including me, then as a member of Congress) had the wisdom to resist mission-creep — including financial support for warlords which only fed the kleptocracy in Afghanistan  — we would arguably have been spared the anguish of a messy end for the “forever war” and the tragic deaths of 13 Marines and scores of Afghans who helped us at Kabul airport in late August.

But there’s more. As we amped up our military engagements, we also established Guantanamo Bay prison (commonly referred to as “Gitmo”), employed interrogation techniques there and in other “black” sites that violated the Geneva Conventions and our laws against torture, and operated virtually without input or oversight from Congress. All of this fed a recruiting narrative that our values and behavior were worse than the values and behavior of those engaged in holy jihad against us. It worked.

And we used technologies like weaponized drones that, despite the care of operators and our protocols for reducing collateral damage, resulted too often in the deaths of civilians and the “boomerang effect” of creating more enemies than we destroyed.

To his credit, President Biden has long been skeptical of our approach and has moved to curtail a series of actions taken by his predecessors. He has asked Congress to repeal the thread-bare authorizations for our 2001 mission in Afghanistan and our 2002 mission in Iraq. Instead, he wants Congress to replace them with carefully drawn instructions on future engagements. He is reducing the number of prisoners at Gitmo with the aim of finding the way to close it. He has dramatically reduced the use of weaponized drones as a tool of choice in our many military activities — an exception was the recent drone strikes, which he personally authorized, on ISIS-K targets. These efforts are part of Biden’s foreign policy strategy to use a whole-of-government approach that relies on soft power to replace the military-only lens that has created a backlash.

No doubt Biden’s effort to end the military mission in Afghanistan will face enormous criticism because of the loss of life and our reduced leverage in dealing with an unreliable and unstable Taliban leadership going forward. But two questions must be asked:

1) If not now, when?

2) Had we shown the wisdom of President George H.W. Bush in refusing to expand our Iraq mission in 1991, killed or captured Osama at Tora Bora and accepted the proposed surrender of Al Qaeda 20 years ago, would America be stronger today?

To me, ending the military mission in Afghanistan now is the right decision, and it is tragic that we squandered two key political opportunities in 2001. That said, the toxic partisanship that has engulfed our politics in recent decades is not due solely to mistakes after 9/11. But the bottom line is our vulnerability to foreign extremism has increased. Moreover, our vulnerability to domestic terror — some inspired by foreign interests and some fomented by radicalized elements on the political right — has also increased.

It is indeed a toxic brew, but not beyond our capability to deal with. Remember that on 9/11 America was under attack. America and our institutions are under attack again. If we pull together and stop the finger-pointing, restore congressional limits on presidential war-making — and put country over party — then we may finally have learned the right lessons from 9/11. Let’s pause and reflect on that.

Jane Harman is distinguished fellow and president emerita of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She served nine terms in Congress as a Democratic representative from California and was ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee. Her book, “Insanity Defense: Why Our Failure to Confront Hard National Security Problems Makes Us Less Safe,” was released in May by St. Martin’s Press. 

Tags 9/11 9/11 20th anniversary Congress Jane Harman Joe Biden National security terror act Terrorism White House

More National Security News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video