By Girish Linganna
As Israel grieved in the aftermath of the October 7 tragedy, where more than 1,400 citizens lost their lives due to the actions of Hamas terrorists, US President Joe Biden visited Tel-Aviv to pledge American support. However, during an appearance with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden also emphasized the need for caution. He drew parallels to the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the United States, where there was a mix of seeking justice and making mistakes.
In recent weeks, many have compared the events of October 7 to September 11, suggesting that Israel could benefit from studying the American response. However, it is important to note that the comparison often extends to the entire US “war on terror”, which spans decades, making it somewhat unwieldy. What Israel is currently facing more closely resembles the specific challenge that the US encountered immediately after the 9/11 attacks, primarily addressing the issue of the al-Qaeda’s safe haven in Afghanistan. While not a perfect analogy, this more limited comparison is more analytically useful.
Over the past 15 months, investigations have been conducted into the core assumptions that guided the US effort in Afghanistan, especially the decisions made by the George W Bush Administration in the initial weeks and months following the trauma of 9/11. Despite the differences between the events of 2001 and October 7, and the vast disparities between a global superpower and a nation of nine million surrounded by adversaries, the early US response to 9/11 offers valuable lessons that could be applied to Israel today.
These lessons include the importance of careful planning and setting realistic goals, understanding one’s own strengths and capabilities and knowing when to collaborate with others. Furthermore, for a country in Israel’[s situation, strategic thinking about allies, adversaries and their motivations is crucial.
There are notable differences between the situation that the US faced after the 9/11 attacks and the one currently confronting Israel. Following 9/11, US President George W Bush compared jihadi terrorism to Nazism and communism, terming an “existential threat to the US and the democratic world”. However, this was largely rhetorical hyperbole. In contrast, Hamas poses a significantly more severe threat to Israel than the al-Qaeda did to the US. Over the past 30 years, Hamas has consistently expressed its intention to eliminate Israel and, on October 7, it demonstrated its capacity to carry out large-scale and previously unimaginable acts of violence.
After 9/11, the US declared a “global war on terror”, which justified a comprehensive US-led war against the Afghan Taliban, even though the Taliban had no direct involvement in, or advanced knowledge of, the 9/11 attacks. In contrast, Israel has made it clear that its primary adversary is Hamas.
The initial phase of the US mission in Afghanistan relied on the Northern Alliance, an Afghan proxy army, with US forces primarily conducting aerial operations. Israel, however, does not have the same luxury and has deployed ground troops in a densely populated urban setting, where distinguishing between the enemy and innocent civilians is challenging.
It is essential to remember that the early US war in Afghanistan achieved remarkable tactical success, swiftly depriving the al-Qaeda of a safe haven and toppling the Taliban from power in just two months. It is uncertain whether Israel will experience similar success in its situation.
However, these differences do not render the analogy irrelevant. Just as the US experienced a profound national trauma after 9/11 that disrupted its national security assumptions, Israel went through a similar experience on October 7, necessitating an immediate and robust response.
The war in Afghanistan commenced less than a month after 9/11 and the Bush Administration did not invest much time in planning for the post-Taliban government. American officials, as well as al-Qaeda leader Osama-bin-Laden, were surprised by the swift defeat of the Taliban. Bin-Laden had expected the US to become embroiled in a prolonged conflict in Afghanistan, but, when the Taliban surrendered and the al-Qaeda remnants were cornered in the Tora Bora cave complex by US and Northern Alliance forces, bin-Laden apologized to his followers for leading them to the brink of destruction.
Israeli leaders should pay attention to the subsequent US actions after the initial success in Afghanistan in 2001. The decision to invade Iraq lacked strategic coherence, alienated such crucial allies as France and Germany and diverted attention and resources away from the much-needed post-conflict reconstruction in Afghanistan.
Despite the US stating that their priority was to establish a stable and secure Afghanistan, they lacked the expertise and resources to achieve this goal. Even under ideal circumstances, the US would have faced challenges in effective nation-building in Afghanistan. But, with focus diverted to Iraq, this task became insurmountable.
Israel should take a lesson from the US and refrain from any impulse to engage militarily with Iran or the Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel should focus on Gaza and prioritize minimizing the military threat from Hamas. Specific, achievable tasks—such as eliminating Hamas’s military and political leadership and destroying their arms caches and tunnel network—should be the primary objectives. Going beyond these goals could lead to a prolonged and unresolved conflict.
In the case of Afghanistan, the US military’s confidence led to the belief that American troops could not only win the war, but also establish peace—a task far beyond the core competence of the US military and civilian agencies, such as the State Department and USAID. The US presence in Afghanistan, while well-intentioned, often incited terrorist attacks and military reprisals that harmed innocent Afghans.
Similar to its American counterpart, the Israeli military is a formidable war machine with the necessary weaponry and technology to deal significant blows to its adversaries. However, it is ill-equipped—both culturally and tactically—to manage a long-term military occupation of the Gaza Strip. Israel should assess its strengths and determine which allies, including the US and Arab states with peace agreements, can provide support. Collaboration with the UN and the Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, should also be considered. Despite Israeli mistrust of the UN due to a perceived anti-Israel bias, it may be the most suitable global organization with the expertise and credibility to lead effective post-conflict stabilization efforts in Gaza. Any plan for Gaza’s post-conflict phase should take the UN into account.
There are potential lessons for Israel in understanding the USA’s misjudgement and mishandling of the Taliban after 9/11. Even though the Palestinian Authority publicly condemns Israel’s offensive in Gaza, it help deal with the situation once the war clouds settle. Israel should do everything it can to avoid turning the Palestinian Authority, which has recognized Israel and pledged support for a two-state solution, into an enemy. The Palestinian Authority’s limited authority and rampant corruption will make this difficult, but there are public steps that can be taken to build goodwill.
Unfortunately, Tel-Aviv seems bent on taking the opposite path. Before October 7, there string of settler-led violence in the West Bank, which has only intensified since the attack. Israeli leaders are turning a blind eye to this violence as many of them sympathize with the settlers—an important segment of the current government coalition. This inaction is both morally wrong and politically ill-advised. Israel cannot hope to rely on Palestinian Authority support for help in administering post-war Gaza if it continues to allow settlers to attack Palestinian villages and their residents with impunity.
Israel needs to halt the West Bank violence immediately and put in place confidence-building measures, such as effecting limitations on settlement growth, granting West Bank Palestinians more permits to work in the country, releasing tax revenues that Israel collects for the Palestinian Authority and freeing Palestinian political prisoners.
But, over and above, Israel must address the underlying issues that spur support for Hamas. That means sitting down with the Palestinian Authority and negotiating a political resolution to their differences. Just as the US should have accepted that the Taliban had a role to play in Afghanistan’s future, so too must Israel make tough political choices to end its conflict with the Palestinians. Ultimately, this would be the guarantee for the country’s safety.
This will not be straightforward. Prime Minister Netanyahu has dedicated years to portraying the Palestinian Authority in a negative light and subjecting it to humiliation. Should Netanyahu step down—something that a majority of Israelis desire once the conflict is resolved, as indicated by recent polls—it would contribute to the efforts of repairing relations.
Many Palestinians might perceive a Palestinian Authority-led administration in Gaza as a collaborating regime. However, it is important to remember that, when the US entered Afghanistan, the prevailing belief in Washington was that Afghans would resent the US presence. Surprisingly, most Afghans actually welcomed the US forces and saw them as liberators. It is unlikely that the situation in Gaza will unfold the same way, even though many Palestinians would be relieved to be free from Hamas.
The majority of Palestinians do not have intentions to engage in acts of terrorism against Israelis; they simply desire normal lives. Israel should avoid actions that further alienate them, as a heavy-handed occupation would only fuel more resentment. It is possible that some of the young boys who were searching through the rubble in Gaza after the Israeli airstrikes in 2014 may have grown up to become the young men involved in the tragic events on October 7.
The situation in Gaza presents numerous challenges. Both Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians will undoubtedly endure suffering and loss. However, it is crucial to recognize that every nation has the right to defend itself against terrorism, and Israel is no exception. In the aftermath of 9/11, the US engaged in a war with the al-Qaeda, seeking justice. Subsequently, US leaders made a series of counter-productive and poorly considered decisions that squandered the early successes in Afghanistan, resulting in a difficult and protracted conflict. If Israel were to make similar missteps in its battle against Hamas, it could face similarly dire consequences. (IPA Service)
(The author is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru.)