In this Aug. 30, 2021, photo provided by the U.S. Air Force, a Air Force aircrew, assigned to the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, prepares to receive soldiers, assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division, to board a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft in support of the final noncombatant evacuation operation missions at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul Afghanistan. Credit: Senior Airman Taylor Cru / U.S. Air Force via AP

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That is the death count from Sept. 11, 2001. You’ll see 2,996 mentioned elsewhere, but that number includes the 19 al-Qaeda terrorists. They don’t deserve to be counted.


That is the number of Americans lost to enemy action in Afghanistan from 2001 to the present.

At this point, America has officially withdrawn from that country. Our equipment is in the hands of the Taliban, who are doing “victory parades” with their new materiel.

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden claimed that his efforts brought an end to “20 years of war in Afghanistan.” Seven years ago, President Barack Obama declared that 2014 was the end of the war in Afghanistan by the cessation of “combat operations.”    

It’s all nonsense. And America’s effort in Afghanistan was squandered by four successive presidents, two from each party.

President George W. Bush was on watch when the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked two decades ago. He did an admirable job rallying the country, providing stability and inspiration. His administration identified those responsible — a little-known organization called “The Base,” or, in Arabic, “Al-Qaeda” — and clearly indicated they would be pursued and held responsible.

“The Base” was being harbored by “Students.” Or, in Pashto, the “Taliban.” Bush gave the Taliban an ultimatum to turn over those responsible for the attacks of Sept. 11. They refused, and the United States — together with NATO allies — went to war.

By December 2001, the Taliban was effectively routed and Afghanistan’s security was delegated to the UN-approved International Security Assistance Force, ISAF.

However, rather than level with Americans and leverage the patriotic fervor to explain that it is entirely possible our involvement with Afghanistan could become a generational effort, Bush encouraged everyone to go to Disney World. The intent was good; we should not live in fear, and a strong economy is in our national interest.  

But it lost the opportunity to rally as a nation and pull together in shared sacrifice. One Marine put it well in 2006: “We’re at war. America’s at the mall.”  

Then, shortly after the Taliban’s fall, America took its eye off the ball and pivoted toward Iraq. Which helped elect then-Sen. Barack Obama to the White House.

Obama campaigned on ending our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. This goal was greatly supported by the current president.  

Yet, when Obama made good on his goal of withdrawing from Iraq, the country devolved. Infamously, when challenged over the rise of an extremist group known as “ISIS,” Obama called them a “JV Squad.” Affiliates of that “JV squad” killed 13 Americans last week.  

To his credit, Obama seemingly learned from his mistakes in Iraq. And while he politically wanted to withdraw from Afghanistan, he maintained a small presence of fewer than 10,000 Americans to help secure the country. This always stuck in Joe Biden’s craw. He was a vocal proponent as vice president for full withdrawal.

Donald Trump took office with an incoherent Afghan strategy. At first, he was focused on simplifying rules of engagement and encouraged destruction of enemy forces. Later, he wanted to be the one who ended our involvement. His absolute worst move was compelling the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban fighters from secured prisons.  

Which brings us to Biden. Obama’s former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said he believed the current president has “been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” And his zeal to withdraw from Afghanistan — a policy he failed to achieve as vice president — is another mark on that timeline.

Unlike Iraq, most Afghans wanted us to stay. Our  NATO allies believed the mission continued to be important. Throwing about big scary numbers about already-spent amounts in Afghanistan is a great deflection, but ultimately irrelevant to the decision. The past does not dictate the future; the real question is what would it cost us to remain.

As our geopolitical contests with Russia and China continue, Afghanistan was a strategic location. As a nation we made a choice to engage with, we had a moral imperative. And in terms of American lives, we are losing more Americans to COVID every two days than we did over the past 20 years total in Afghanistan.  

American forces are in Germany, Japan, Italy, Korea and countless other countries. We remained after a war in those areas. We provided stability, which created prosperity, which enabled friendship.

What we need is leadership. And over the past 20 years, with respect to Afghanistan, we failed to receive it. It is time to demand better.

Michael Cianchette, Opinion columnist

Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.