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‘We were naive’: Ex-CIA, military and diplomatic veterans reflect on lessons learned, 20 years after 9/11

Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks that took 2,977 lives and changed the world forever. It permanently altered the security landscape in the United States and elsewhere, forcing governments to completely overhaul their defense strategies, policies and counterterrorism tactics. 

Twenty years on, events in the very country that harbored the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks — Afghanistan — have seen the War on Terror come eerily full circle.

The collapse of Afghanistan following the U.S. troop withdrawal, and its takeover by the Taliban — the group that hosted al-Qaeda as it plotted its attacks on the West — for many represents a symbolic and devastating failure.  

In the last two decades of the war against terrorism, millions of lives have been lost and trillions of dollars spent. CNBC spoke to CIA, military and diplomatic veterans of the ongoing War on Terror, asking what they feel America has learned — and failed to learn — since Sept. 11, 2001.

What have we learned since 9/11?

Nada Bakos, former CIA analyst

"Honestly, I don't think we've learned that much; I think we're probably destined to be making some of those mistakes again. But hopefully we're done with giant occupations of other countries. 

"I hope that we have gotten to the point now where we understand that we can't spread our democracy and rebuild other countries in our model, in a way that we were naive enough to think would work at that time."

Jay, former U.S. Marine and Afghanistan war veteran 

"We've learned that 20 years of war has made us the best in the world at small unit tactics, but continuing to fight insurgencies is none of our business.  

I think the consequence (of Afghanistan) is nobody's going to be rushing to intervene. Anywhere. Until the trauma of this has all disappeared.William PateyFormer U.K. Ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq

"I think many Americans have learned not to trust their government. 'Leadership' lied to the American public for 20 years, while the actual situation on the ground in Afghanistan was no mystery to the people who served there. This has gone on for two decades as senior 'leadership' moves from the military or government into high-paying defense contractor jobs." 

The One World Trade Center is reflected on a nearby building ahead of the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., September 10, 2021.Carlos Barria | Reuters

"Here's the scary thing though: I don't think the general public has learned anything. They haven't been invested in the GWOT [Global War on Terrorism] on a large scale. If they had been, they would be demanding accountability for the entire thing, with the debacle in Kabul as the catalyst." 

Jay requested his last name be withheld due to professional restrictions on speaking to the press. 

Merging terrorism with religion was the biggest mistake I think that was made. We created enemies which were not there.Sayed Jalal KarimFormer Afghan ambassador to Saudi Arabia

William Patey, former U.K. ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq

"We certainly learned the limitations on the use of force in dealing with a problem such as global terrorism — we've learned it's more complicated, and that liberal democracies are not very good at devoting the necessary time and resources to doing the work. They are impatient, and their political horizons are very short.

"What we've also learned since 9/11 is that the radical Islamist threat remains as potent as ever, it hasn't gone away. And importantly, we've learned that radical Islamist ideology is not Islam. It's different."


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