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Sept. 11 attacks still influence foreign policy, security decisions 20 years later

In the days following the attacks, the powers of the president expanded under the War on Terror. Some of those changes are still in place.

AUSTIN, Texas — On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacked the U.S. As the days, weeks, months unfolded, the attacks brought sweeping changes to foreign policy, security and counterterrorism efforts by the U.S.

U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Austin) has a background in counterterrorism and national security. Twenty years after the attacks in New York, he still remembers watching TV with his daughter when the second plane hit during the breaking news programming.

"It woke up the American people to the threats that are still out there today," McCaul said.

Over the past two decades, McCaul said many threats have been thwarted, but there will always be the next one.

"The bad news is today, with our complete evacuation [from Afghanistan], we don't have the eyes and ears on the ground anymore," McCaul said. "We don't have that intelligence capability to see the threat so we can stop the threats from occurring. And that's something that I've been really pushing the administration on, that we're completely out of there now, but we need to have that intelligence surveillance recognizance capability."

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"It would be very difficult to pull a 9/11-scale attack, I think, today with that great amount of sophistication," McCaul said.

Despite all the changes in policy, not everything led to a desired result. Many president-level decisions led to mistakes, according to Aaron O'Connell, the director of research at the Clements Center for National Security at University of Texas.

"The critical failings came from decisions that put our own goals in contradiction with our methods and led to the worst possible impression of the United States as a foreign occupier," O'Connell said.

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O'Connell served as a Marine for more than 25 years, and was deployed to Afghanistan as a result of 9/11 in 2010-2011. He said "success" in the War on Terrorism should not be defined by military lives.

"We are not the scorecard for success in a war," O'Connell said. "The FBI and the CIA share information they didn't used to before. We have a Department of Homeland Security. There's been no threat from a foreign government, no foreign Islamist attack that has come to the United States on the scale of 9/11 in the last 20 years."

O'Connell added while the U.S. has seen individual successes over the past 20 years, many of the decisions have not changed the prevalence of terrorist threats or actions.

"Attacks are up four fold from 2000, the number of Islamist groups has more than doubled, as has the number of global lethality from terrorism," O'Connell said. "Roughly one to 20 people die each year from terrorism. That was true before 9/11 and it's been true all through the 20 years of the global War on Terror."

As the U.S. has evacuated troops and citizens out of Afghanistan, both O'Connell and McCaul agree that the idea of "nation-building" through military means has not worked either.

"Those military campaigns are the things that have been most destructive to the world and to American values at home and to America's society, where we now have to contend with the reputation of a nation that tortures, where we now have to contend with a reputation of a nation that started a war in Iraq, that had nothing to do with al-Qaida, and that was obvious and patently known to all who looked. So those are huge costs. Those are definitely not worth it. They were, in fact, counterproductive," O'Connell said.

"I think it was well-intentioned," McCaul said. "I think all along, though, it probably should have been a counterterrorism mission to take the threats out, and we need that intelligence capability as well."

The country can continue moving forward, though, keeping the impacts of 9/11 in mind, according to O'Connell and McCaul.

"We've got to acknowledge that the current heavily militarized approach to counterterrorism has neither made America safer nor has it made the world a safer [place]," O'Connell said. "We should not throw out the idea that the United States can be helpful in nonmilitary ways, even to the most fragile of states ...
What we were doing in Iraq and in Afghanistan was militarized nation-building run by the military. That's not the same thing as using development and diplomacy and indeed the bully pulpit of the president, the United States, to help nations become more secure through cooperation with the United States and to tackle common problems, including the root causes of terrorism."

"Some would say the war is ended, but I can tell you the threat has not," McCaul said. "I think we need to share the burden of what comes next, but we still have to move forward with a intelligence capability to see have eyes and ears in Afghanistan, but also in the region where we have gone dark. This will have major national security consequences if we don't fix it."

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