On Sept. 11, 2001, Kathy Kelly was in New York City, participating in a liquids-only fast against U.S. economic sanctions that were costing Iraqi children their lives. After the attack, her first question was to ask who was so angry that they would undertake such a heinous act. The next was to identify where the criminals were from — and it wasn’t Afghanistan.
Opposed to the war in Afghanistan from the beginning, Kelly joined a group that marched from Arlington National Cemetery to the United Nations, carrying a banner that said, “Our grief is not a cry for war.” She also opposed the “surge” of U.S. troops in 2009 under President Barack Obama.
Kelly is one of the founding members of Voices in the Wilderness, later Voices for Creative Nonviolence, which closed its campaign in 2020 because of the difficulty in traveling to war zones. She is a co-coordinator of the Ban Killer Drones campaign and an activist with World Beyond War.
Over the years, she has traveled to Afghanistan nearly 30 times. She spoke with me by phone on Aug. 21, describing the suffering of the Afghan people and how she prays the world doesn’t forget them. This is an edited transcript.
NCR: You’ve been in touch with folks in Afghanistan. What’s your perception of what’s happening on the ground?
Kathy Kelly: This has been a terrible, terrible week for the people of Afghanistan. U.S. allies, people who worked with the U.S. military, contractors or NGOs feel they are at great risk and many are stranded. But also at great risk and with very slim possibilities of evacuation are a group of young idealists dedicated to forming a nonviolent community within Afghanistan that has been active since 2008. They now face extreme dangers. Having already manifested bravery and passion under difficult surroundings, they deserve to be helped to a place of safety. There are many panicked messages coming from Kabul, saying, “My life is at risk. Can you help me get out?”
There is hope that perhaps some people could get to a neighboring country, like India. But right now the embassies are closed down, there aren’t commercial flights and many people don’t have passports. And the less well-to-do not only need visas, they also need funds to cover airfare if they were to get a flight.
I’m afraid the reality right now is that many people will most likely have to wait until the dust settles to see how the Taliban will govern. But right now those who have had any contact with Westerners are feeling extreme alarm and feel that they’re not safe even to leave their homes. Some of them are actually changing their residence once every six or eight hours just to try to avoid any searches of their homes.
Some of the images in the news are very difficult to watch: the chaos at the Kabul airport, a baby being handed over a fence. What is your reaction?
Of course, the level of anxiety is very high. And I can only imagine the panic and the alarm that people I know are feeling. I can’t help but notice that in the last week, there has probably been 20 times more coverage of Afghanistan in mainstream media than there has been in the last 20 years. The drama is certainly riveting and awful.
But I wish that there was also constant coverage of the fact that Afghanistan has drought in most of its provinces, that people have a hard time getting access to clean water, that 41% of the children have stunted growth, that the one out of three young girls suffers from severe anemia. And now a new wave of COVID is going through the country. So many hardships have been going on before the Taliban arrived in Kabul.
I think in the U.S. people had the impression that somehow the United States was helping in terms of humanitarian issues in Afghanistan. But that’s not really true. There wasn’t a marked improvement in the basics of health care, or in terms of nutrition. Education has not been available to the majority of the people, although it did get better for young girls in in the cities.
The people who really are the “winners” in all of this — and in the history of U.S. occupation and invasion — are the military contractors, the ones who manufacture the war planes and the bombs and the drones, and the Hellfire missiles and the Apache helicopters and the material for building bases and equipping soldiers. Those are the people who win in these situations.
And then, of course, war isn’t over when it’s over. The trauma that ordinary people have suffered over all these years will be with them for the rest of their lives…