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Mistakes made in the wake of 9/11 could serve as cautionary tales for Israel


The attacks by Hamas on October 7 have been called Israel's 9/11. While President Biden visited Israel in a show of support, he also delivered a warning. The United States made mistakes in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. NPR's Quil Lawrence spoke to diplomats and military planners about what that warning means for Gaza.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: If you ask those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan what lessons they have, it's not as much about the fighting. It's about how to rebuild after.

RAPHAEL COHEN: We got the first half of combat operations right. But after that, we ran into trouble.

EMMA SKY: What we learned from our wars is you can't just go in, destroy an enemy and then leave.

DONNIE HASSELTINE: It was incredibly challenging. And I don't think the military is always the best organization to do that rebuilding, but it's often the only organization that can.

LAWRENCE: That was Raphael Cohen, Emma Sky and Donnie Hasseltine. We'll hear more from all of them. Hasseltine was a marine officer in Iraq after the U.S. campaign that destroyed the city of Fallujah, which he says is the closest parallel to what Israel is facing now.

HASSELTINE: Even if you destroy every terrorist in Gaza, you still have a case where you have an area without resources, without jobs and a very young population. And when you combine those things together, that is the breeding ground for almost every terrorist organization in history.

LAWRENCE: But even if the U.S. learned that postwar planning is important, it's not something the U.S. actually ever did very well, says Raphael Cohen. He was an army officer in Iraq. He's now at RAND.

COHEN: You have to begin thinking about these issues ahead of time. It's not something easy to do. It's not something that we have a template that we can sort of sell the Israelis on like, well, if you only follow these five steps, this is going to fix your problem.

LAWRENCE: But he says from Israel's side, Hamas is an existential threat that has now killed more than a thousand Israeli civilians.

COHEN: And just like it would be inconceivable for then-President Bush and the United States government not to do something in a big way after 9/11, I think it would be extraordinarily hard for the Israelis to do the same here in Gaza. The political calculus is such that they have to go in, regardless of the consequences.

LAWRENCE: Veteran diplomat Emma Sky advised U.S. commanders in Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel. She says the U.S. had trouble empowering new governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, in part because the Americans had lost moral authority.

SKY: I think there's a really important lesson in dehumanization after 9/11, and you had the so-called global war on terror. The response to that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Muslims. It led to the U.S. violating human rights, and it did huge damage to America's reputation in the world.

LAWRENCE: She says it's the same thing if Israel makes no distinction between all the Palestinians living in Gaza and the Hamas members and other militants Israel wants to deter. If there's no clear military target to an Israeli airstrike, it can just look like blind revenge. That's another lesson from 9/11, says Carter Malkasian.

CARTER MALKASIAN: So after 9/11, we wanted to destroy al-Qaida and make sure they couldn't do it again. And, of course, the United States never officially did anything in Iraq or Afghanistan because of vengeance.

LAWRENCE: He advised American generals in Afghanistan and Iraq during the worst battles of those wars.

MALKASIAN: However, to say that vengeance wasn't present would be definitely incorrect. As one starts to fight, as casualties are suffered on the other side, then that will create their own feelings of vengeance. And so that can create a larger and more difficult conflict.

LAWRENCE: And not just within Israel and the Palestinian territories, says Emma Sky.

SKY: Russia and China are trying to present themselves as the leaders of the Global South. And, of course, you're listening to the language coming out of Iran. And so it all becomes - whatever's happening in Gaza becomes a proxy war for something much bigger globally.

LAWRENCE: And with President Biden's embrace of Israel, its actions in this war carry consequences for the U.S. as well.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.