The Longest War: Afghan People Face Fearful Future as American Troops Prepare to Exit the Ravaged Country
Kathy Kelly, co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, talks to Laura Flanders about the economic and social conditions in Afghanistan and what the US "departure" and a "light-footprint strategy" look like to Afghans.
The war in Afghanistan is America's longest war. It's also the most invisible. In eight hours of grilling of the man who would be the next Defense Secretary, the subject barely arose.
No Republican Senator had even one question on the topic for Chuck Hagel, even though, if confirmed, he would be responsible for winding up the US military presence there. And the few questions from Democrats weren't much better. Entirely focused on the fate of US troops, they ignored the fate of the people in the country the US invaded a decade ago.
Kathy Kelly has built a very different sort of relationship with the people of Afghanistan. During 12 trips to that country as an invited guest of the Afghan Peace Volunteers, she's lived with the local people in a working-class neighborhood of Kabul. She's paid attention to what Afghans need and say. The Coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, she's as clear as day that, at least for Afghans, the war is not ending, and, neither is the US engagement. The only thing that appears to have ended is the public's attention.
"I think what the United States has, from the majority of the US public, is a kind of amnesia, a sense of being mesmerized," said Kelly when we spoke days after her most recent visit. "There's [a sense that there's] nothing we can do about it, look how hard we've tried, and that simply isn't true."
The US may be pulling out most troops, but the conflict in Afghanistan continues, and so does the US debt to that nation. Said Kelly:
Look how many people: Security contractors, military people, weapon-making corporations, war profiteers made enormous sums of money while the widows and the orphans get pushed up the mountainside to live in one-room hovels without water.
This interview was recorded in New York. The edited video may be watched in full at GRITtv.org.
Laura Flanders: 2013 begins for the US military with a kind of exit sign on the country of Afghanistan, the idea being that most US troops will be gone by the end of 2014, and maybe as soon as this spring. What does 2013, and what President Obama calls a "light footprint strategy" look like to the Afghans?
Kathy Kelly: Well, there are so many questions raised by the idea of withdrawal. Certainly people are afraid, because with the mention of withdrawal maybe, I would say, about a year-and-a-half ago what began as an influx has now become just a pouring in of weapons and ammunition and training people to use weapons, and people are very, very fearful ... Every distinct ethnic group or tribal group has felt, well everyone else is gathering up weapons, we must do it too.
What would the "light footprint" of the United States be? I think the United States is and has been and will be very, very interested in roadways that allow the United States to be a part of extracting precious minerals, fossil fuels, natural gas out of Afghanistan. I think the United States is very interested in being a counterpoint to China and Russia. They don't want China and Russia, for instance, to have availability of cheaper fuels and natural gases and precious ores.
LF: When were you last there, and what was life like for the Afghan people you were living amongst?
KK: Well, I was there from mid-December 2012 to mid-January 2013, and I know what I just described is a terrible picture, but most days I felt so much happiness. We would roll up our bedding and quick-turn the room that we'd been sleeping in to a place to have a very light and quick breakfast and that would become a classroom where these avid students are trying to learn English, and then down the hall the seamstresses would come.
Laura, I think I had told you a previous time that 100 children died because of the harsh winter in Afghanistan in 2012. It was a terrible scandal and it's spilling into 2013. Since the spring, we have been in touch with Afghan women coming to us crying and saying, I think I'm going to lose my mind. I think I'm going mad, I'm becoming mentally unstable. And you say, Sakina, what's the matter? Sakina, what's wrong? And it's always the same answer: I cannot feed my children. And then when you ask, Well, what do you have? Stale bread and tea without sugar. So, the Afghan Peace Volunteers turned their own home into a place which could be a seamstress workshop. It might sound absurd, but the curtains went up, women wearing burkas and some not; people from different tribal backgrounds came together and learned how to sew on these antiquated old sewing machines. What they made couldn't quite compete with products that were coming from Pakistani or Chinese factories so, when the cold approached we asked, What do you need? and they immediately said, Well, what we and what everyone needs are heavy blankets. And we said, Make them, make them. We'll get the nationals to pay for them. They have made 2,000 of these big, heavy ... quilts.
It was a joy to see that happening and it was a good project. The seamstress cooperative is going on and I think about every mother, at around 2 o'clock, sends her kid over to the building for classes of little people for studies in math and English. It's a very busy, very joyful scene. We'll sometimes all just collapse and watch a movie late at night. There's lot's of discussion. For most people there is this overarching anxiety.
I just yesterday woke up to news that they had all been awoken by huge explosions, and the ministry of traffic control had been attacked by the Taliban in Kabul - which is very bold and assertive news - and in the previous week their version of the CIA - the National Directorate of Security - had been attacked. So, it doesn't look very good for Kabul's future and Kabul had kind of been the bubble.
LF: We hear so much about the military situation, especially the situation for the US military in Afghanistan; I don't think people really know the economic reality of people in Afghanistan today, and the environmental one.
KK: Well, the World Bank says 36 percent of the people are at or near the poverty level. Unemployment is very, very high, or a lot of people may have some kind of employment, but it's not enough for them to get by.
Just anecdotally, I went with two young women and two young men on kind of a social visit to see where their families live up the hillside (which looked like a mountain to me), and by 20 minutes, I had to say stop. My heart was hammering. So, we stopped; I caught my breath, but while we were stopped, I looked and saw these women in flimsy garments; it's freezing cold; they've got huge containers of water on their heads and on their shoulders. These are the widows and orphans that get pushed up [the mountainside to live] because the higher you go, the less access there is to any kind of piped water, and so the rent comes down, and they live in one-room hovels. [These women] sell almonds all day long, crack the almonds, use almond shells for their fuel (because they can't afford wood or coal) and then they sell the almonds in the marketplace. Well, they at least have a roof over their head. There are 400 new refugees displaced by the war in Afghanistan every single day. One out of five children does not live beyond the age of five; one out of every 11 women dies in childbirth. All of this is happening while the United States has spent $2 billion - $2 billion per week - on its US military presence. Have we no ability to be scandalized anymore?
LF: Mostly what we hear about in the US today is that the war that we're familiar with is ramping down. Is it?
KK: Well, I think a lot of US people will be eager to think the war is ramping down; it was humanitarian war, we helped a lot of women and children.... This makes my Irish temper hit the roof. OK, it will certainly cost less to not maintain big, huge sprawling military bases, but the United States is helping to build three new prisons, and Camp Integrity is a ten-acre encampment that the United States is building, hiring the former Blackwater Company...
LF: The mercenaries.
KK: Yes, the infamous ... They have been convicted of having killed Afghan civilians, convicted of stealing weapons from the United States military, but now they got the contract to build the camp where people will be trained in special operations tactics.
It is, I suppose, a slimmer, budget, but it doesn't necessarily mean that the Taliban won't have good reason to say the infidels, the foreigners, the western troops, NATO, ISAF [International Security Assistance Force]; they're all still here, so we'll keep fighting. We'll fight and we'll keep on sending suicide bombers. They have a long, long line of people who queue up ready to be suicide bombers. They seem to get a lot of support from other countries. Now the United States is saying our partner countries have this "Road Map to Peace": Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Qatar, Turkey and Britain. That's hard for people in Afghanistan to hear.
KK: Well, for instance, Pakistan is on the other side of the Hindu Kush Mountains - reportedly, constantly feeding in new Taliban fighters. There was recently a massacre in Quetta of 103 Afghans who sought refuge [there]. It was the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Pakistan militant group, who claimed responsibility. So, people don't feel safe; they don't know where they could trust anyone. Some say, 'look it hasn't been easy for our young ones trying to learn your language, English, now are we to learn Chinese?' They don't know where to find a friend.
There was once a telephone call with Noam Chomsky and the Afghan Peace Volunteers whom I stay with, and I think he likes these kids, and the youngest said, Professor Noam, what do you think of reparations? And I've always thought that Professor Noam Chomsky's answer made sense. He said, "That's a very important question. Any humane, civilized society would pay reparations for the suffering caused in Afghanistan." It isn't just the United States. It's Britain; it's Pakistan; it's Iran; it's the former Soviet Union. All of their weapons have littered that country, and all have tried to rob and exploit it.
LF: Is there anything else that the US people owe the Afghans?
KK: Well, I think we owe them an apology. We [owe them educating ourselves enough] to be able to say, "We're sorry, so very sorry." Two million people have died in that country over decades of warfare. We extended war by another decade, and were they responsible for Osama Bin Laden? Can we give any clear coherent reason as to why over ten years we extended our presence, our military troops, our $2 billion a week? And what is there to say for it: The infrastructure is still so terrible; the environment, the air, the water is bad. I myself got pneumonia this last trip, and I think I was in solidarity with the half the country and I got the antibiotics; it's a terrible exceptionalism, really.
LF: One of the arguments (and there were many made for the US intervention in Afghanistan) was [securing] rights for the Afghan women. Do we leave them now, insofar as we leave, with more rights, with more security?
KK: President Karzai's government wouldn't exist without being propped up by the United States. His government has tried to please and placate various warlords, various extremely traditional and conservative people (I mean just about every cabinet level of minister is a former warlord) so, somebody managed to push him into signing a document which has now rolled back women's rights very seriously. A woman cannot have equality with men in the workplace and [a] man can demand to the woman to whom he is married or multiple women - sex on demand - she cannot deny him; she cannot disobey his order; this is the law. And that's quite a rollback. It might have been practiced by the Taliban, but he's turned it into actual legislative reality. So, you wouldn't say it's gotten easier for women.... The statistics are very brutal for women in the rural areas. I mean, to die in childbirth without a midwife, to be existing in conditions that are second only to sub-Saharan Africa in terms of impoverishment. This is a terrible thing for women; their lives are so harsh that the life expectancy is between 42 and 45 years of age for a woman.
LF: Is the US really cutting and leaving?
KK: Well, I think that the United States' military industrial complex can say look we did not suffer losses. We made a lot of money in the war in Afghanistan and the companies did well. And maybe the 21st century military is going to cause them to retool a little bit, but they made plenty of money on selling weapons, weapon-making products and military materials. Also, the security industrial complex, that's the other big controller in our society with all of our prisons and all of our emphasis on security. Well, security contractors made plenty of money. So, I think it would be wrong to say that the kind of captains of industry in our country lost in Afghanistan, but apart from them, what gains could you possibly see? In the pipelines? This maybe a fraction of an inch on the map of extension of the UNOCAL-designed pipeline from the 1990s - a Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India pipeline. They haven't built the roadways that they said that they would build. Hilary Clinton's new silk routes - they don't exist. There are lots of figments of their imagination for what might have happened and I think actually China will be looked upon as the country that could perhaps be a stabilizing force, or possibly Russia. And for the United States to join forces now with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia - the Wahabi elements in Saudi Arabia - with the very conservative, fundamentalist jihadists who occupy the power relationships in Pakistan - can't possibly be viewed as a gain if you're thinking about security for people in the United States. What the United States government has won is the indifference of the US public and they need that in order to take us into the next war.
LF: Before we get to the next war, are US troops really leaving? Barack Obama talks about all the troops out by the end of 2014; Leon Panetta talked about halfway through this year the troops would be out of combat. Does that mean that they're really gone?
KK: I think if Karzai somehow managed to get the Loya Jirga to say the United States troops cannot have immunity. If he by any chance fails to give immunity to any US troops, then I think the US is out of there. I would take Barack Obama at his word. In Iraq, that happened: they didn't get immunity and they all cleared out except for the State Department and people that were protecting the State Department, and civil war battles are continuing in a very nightmarish Iraq today. It's hard to speculate what the future will be for Afghanistan. My guess is somewhere in between three and 10,000 troops will remain and that security contractors will be in full supply. Do you know every plane ride over there and every plane ride back - this was my 12th trip - three quarters of the plane is filled with security contractors. Where do they all go? I have no idea. There are plenty of westerners going over there to train other people to kill and to use threat and force. Meanwhile, health security, food security, education security, job security - those are dismissed.
LF: Barack Obama talks about a "light footprint strategy;" he doesn't talk about what's in the sky. What is it like these days for Afghans in the Pakistan region, people living under drone attacks?
KK: You know, beyond Kabul, our friends tell us that it's very, very frightening. The children, they hear a drone overhead when they go to sleep at night.... My friend's sister's husband was killed and a little 5-year-old - his mother is still trying to explain to him that a computer killed [his] father.
There's a great deal of anxiety. Somebody could knock at your door, and in the culture, if that person asks for food or beverage, you give it to them. Well, if it's the Taliban who's appearing on a screen to somebody in Creech Air Force Base, Hancock Field or Whiteman Air Force Base, then you may very well be a subject of a night raid or worse - a weaponized drone could target your house. People know over there that President Obama gets together on a Tuesday, [two dozen] people on a conference call to assemble a kill list of people who will be assassinated that week. Any young person between the ages of 15 and 30 is eligible to be on that list. There's a great deal of fear and tension and nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
LF: What do you say to people in this country who say well, at least it's better than having our armed forces on the ground, putting their lives at risk, people who are perhaps reading reports in the New York Times that say targeting has gotten so much better now, we have cut down on civilian casualties?
KK: I think proliferation is the word to examine. What's going to happen in our world? There was a time when just the United States had the nuclear bomb, and look at us now. I think these weaponized drones will be possessed by countries all over the world, and people in the United States will have great reason to fear. I suppose they might say, blowback, but also what have we become, people who put all of our security in the barrel of a gun? If you look at healthcare, education and unemployment statistics in this country, we're not doing so well.
LF: So, we hear a lot about Washington looking towards the end of 2013 and towards the year ahead? How are Afghans looking at the year before them as we start 2013?
KK: I think there is plenty of trepidation across the country. Quite honestly, I've been in Kabul primarily and most of the young people I've been with are the Hazaras, the most discriminated-against group from Bamyan. Sixty-five percent of the country are under 25 years of age, and even though they are all being told, get weapons, be ready to use weapons, I still hold out some hope that they might realize that it's to the advantage of other people outside of Afghanistan for them to burn themselves out on civil war. Maybe, rather than displace themselves, become refugees, become amputees or die young, they might want to say that they could find ways to move forward. That's what the Afghan Peace Volunteers are all about; they really try constantly to bring together Tajiks and Hazaras. They try to have a living community.... The seamstresses all come from different backgrounds. I see them sometimes: They fight like crazy, but they really manage to hang together for a year with this tailor cooperative, and the English classes are inclusive of children from a variety of backgrounds. So I see in this one little microcosm an arrow that points to a possible moving-through what looks to be an exceedingly dangerous situation. I don't want to minimize it. I mean I think what would I tell these youngsters if civil war breaks out in Kabul, I would say run, run as fast as you can.
LF: Is that likely?
KK: Right now, it seems like that [the] Taliban is very assertive, and we certainly see that in very recent news stories. I would say this has been an important year for education all around Afghanistan for young people. I really hope they can reach out to one another. It might sound naïve, but they might possibly see some better future for themselves if they don't pick up the arms and start shooting and agree to do the bidding of warlords who have blood on their hands already. That's a pretty tall order. Three percent of the country has access to internet - some say maybe six percent - so where is this education going to come from?
Best-selling author and broadcaster, Laura Flanders was the host and founder of GRITtv. "The F Word" is a weekly commentary broadcast Thursday mornings on "WBAI Wake Up Call", 99.5 fm. Find more from Flanders, including video interviews, articles and event information, at GRITtv.org. Follow her on Twitter @GRITlaura.