Eli Steele: How Biden’s Afghanistan failure and the Fallen 13’s bravery changed my views on 9/11

By | September 10, 2022

When Shana Chappell gave birth to Marine Lance Cpl. Kareem Nikoui on Jan. 4, 2001, little did she know that her newborn’s first months on this earth would be the only time that America was not at war during his lifetime. On Sept. 11, 2001, America suffered her most deadly attack since Pearl Harbor. President George W. Bush launched Operation Enduring Freedom and the war in Afghanistan officially began on Oct. 7, 2001. As Shana nursed her baby in the small horse town of Norco — some 60 miles east of Los Angeles — she had no way of knowing that her son, along with 12 other warriors, would lose his life 20 years later at the end of America’s brutal and tragically failed war in Afghanistan. 

When the ISIS-K suicide bomber exploded feet away from the Abbey Gate at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul at 5:36 p.m. on Aug. 26, 2021, Kareem became the last of the 2,421 Americans to be killed in this war. Shana would be the first to argue that the death of her son mattered no more than any of the others, and it doesn’t. Every life is of worth. Yet there is something different about Kareem and the 12 others who have come to be known by their families and fellow Americans as the Fallen 13. 

Through no fault of their own, their deaths became irrevocably tied to one of America’s darkest moments in history. While the Fallen 13 held fast to their honor and to the humanitarian obligations of America up until their last breaths, their leaders favored political expediency over the realities on the ground and broke faith with them. 

I first met Shana at Kareem’s gravesite in Norco several weeks ago. I had been asked to help with Fox News’ Heroes of Kabul series to mark the first anniversary of the Aug. 26 tragedy. I found Shana to be a hard-charging, tell-it-like-it-is kind of a woman with a heart of gold. When I asked her during the interview what she thought of how the leaders handled the Afghanistan withdrawal, she didn’t blink: “What leaders?” She asked why President Joe Biden, who voted for the war in Afghanistan as a senator in 2001, refused to say the names of the Fallen 13, even during his State of Union speech. She then prefaced her next question with respects to the George Floyd family and asked why this same president mentioned Floyd by name, invited his family to the White House, and praised him as a hero, but not her son and the others.

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We live in hyper-political times these days, but her tone struck me as more existential than anything. She could not fathom how little her son’s life mattered to his commander-in-chief. 

When I left her that day, I thought it might be the last time I saw her. A week later, on a Saturday night when I was watching a movie with my two kids, I received a text message from her inviting me to join her on the Aug. 27 memorial caravan from San Clemente to Norco. The name of the caravan: “Say Their Names.”

On the day before the caravan was to take place, I learned that Biden finally said the names of the Fallen 13 to mark the one-year anniversary. When I arrived in San Clemente the next day with Shana, it was clear among the Marines — active and inactive — that the president’s words rang hollow.

Shana then showed me a transcript from the White House website where a reporter asked the president after his speech if he had been in contact with any of the Gold Star families in the past year. Biden replied: “Not today, but I have spoken in the past.” The last time Shana spoke to the president was at Dover where she received her son’s casket. She later sent a formal request through Rep. Ken Calvert, asking for a meeting with the president. To date, she has been ignored. 

As I walked among the motorcycles, cars and lifted trucks with impressive flags, the smell of gasoline and the nearby Chick-fil-A in the air, it became clear to me that it would be We The People, not the government, that would honor and memorialize those who gave their all. They refused to treat the Fallen 13 as an acceptable loss or, worse, collateral damage. 

Shana had told me that Kareem had always wanted to be a Marine ever since he saw Marines in their dress blues at a local mall when he was four years old. From that young age, he strove to conduct himself with honor and basic human dignity. The one memory that touches Shana the most is when the owner of a local liquor store followed Kareem and his younger brother outside with tears in his eyes. Shana feared that her boys had done something wrong. Instead, the owner told her that after paying for the snacks they had looked him in the eye on their way out and said, “God bless you.”

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Even after Kareem joined the Marines out of Norco High School, he sought to be the best. His fellow Marines told me of how he would bring them home to Norco from Camp Pendleton and, instead of sleeping in and pigging out, he would push them onto grueling runs and hikes, often with weighted backpacks. 

These actions were that of a young man who took his oath to the Marines solemnly and who believed in the greatness of our imperfect nation. 

Though I never served, I can understand Kareem’s spirit on a certain level. I have often taken my kids to see the haunting yet beautiful 9/11 memorial on the vast lawn of Pepperdine University where I attended graduate school. As the Pacific Ocean sparkled across Highway 1, I would watch my kids run through the endless display of flags, each one marking the death of an American or a foreigner. When they tired, I would tell them that America was in a long and difficult war to improve things in Afghanistan where the execution of burqa-clad women on soccer fields for minor offenses was the norm. I would also tell them how one of my professors at this university had talked so proudly of the work that she was doing with others to improve the lives of Afghan women and girls as they sought to civilize and modernize their nation. 

There had been many failures along the way, but there was pride to be had in knowing that Americans were fighting in honor of those who perished on 9/11, and there was also pride to be had in those who sacrificed to bring the beacon of hope and freedom to oppressed strangers on the other side of the earth. 

Perhaps that is why Biden’s withdrawal was devastating for many in this nation, whether we agreed with the withdrawal or not. The Trump administration and the Taliban signed the Doha Agreement in February 2020. However, it soon became public knowledge that the Taliban failed to uphold nearly all of its pledges in the agreement. That is why it was a surprise when on July 8, 2021, Biden said, “The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is unlikely.” He added: “The drawdown is proceeding in a secure and orderly way, prioritizing the safety of our troops …”

The entire nation collapsed into the Taliban’s hands by Aug. 16, a stunning collapse that sunk into quicksand any progress that we and the good Afghans had made. The commander-in-chief chose politics over true leadership, politics over the realities on the ground, politics over human rights and politics over the honor of our nation.

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As I rode with Shana in the caravan from San Clemente to Norco, there was mostly silence inside the truck. As the road guards blocked the on ramps to the freeway with their motorcycles so the caravan could pass by intact, I wondered how she could carry this burden that had only grown heavier with the recent suicide of her eldest son, Dakota, who had not been able to come to terms with how Kareem had been taken. 

Shana’s stoic face broke into a sad smile, and she told me the only thing that got her through the last year were Kareem’s Marine brothers, the same men he brought home with him when he was alive. Every Friday, they pack into their cars for the drive from Camp Pendleton to Norco and spend their entire weekends with her. It meant the world to her to know that Kareem’s Marine brothers thought so highly of him that they would do this. They call her mom, and they have become her sons. 

We finally arrived at Norco where a touching ceremony was held. Songs of loss and brotherhood were sung. A local pastor spoke of how we may bring comfort to one another during these times. Shana hugged everybody that was there. Afterwards, we drove out to Kareem’s gravesite to end the day there. 

As I watched Shana and her Marines drink beers and slurp down frozen margaritas during the dying light, I thought of the upcoming 9/11 anniversary. When I return to the flags on the Pepperdine lawn with my kids this year, I know it will not be the same. The hope and the pride that I had in the past years are gone.

At the same time, I cannot leave my kids without hope. I will begin by telling them how our government failed in Afghanistan so that they may know the reality of what happened there. 

Then I will tell them about Kareem and the rest of the Fallen 13. I will tell them how Kareem grew up in an America like theirs where teachers, pastors, coaches, neighbors and parents raised them to value life, honor and basic human kindness. I will tell them how Kareem answered the call to go into Afghanistan without question, even when the entire nation was in a free fall. He and his fellow warriors were greeted by a desperate sea of humanity surging toward them, begging for freedom. Sewage lined the streets along with dead bodies. Even then, Kareem and the others gave away their waters and rations. They gave no thought to their own lives as they helped strangers to safety. On his last day, Kareem rescued three families and was in the process of lifting up a boy when the bomb exploded. Up until their last breaths, each one of the Fallen 13 never betrayed America. I will then tell my kids that it is this hope made possible by the selfless heroism of the Fallen 13 that we must hold onto and build upon as we move forward into an uncertain future.