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The Grassroots Battle to End the Drone War

by DENNIS BERNSTEIN

Long time peace activist, Kathy Kelly, is co-coordinator of the Chicago-based Voices for Creative Nonviolence.  Kelly just returned from her twelfth trip to Afghanistan, and is now trekking 195 miles across Iowa, with other members of her group and other peace groups, to call attention to the extreme violence and suffering she says is, in large part, a direct result of U.S.  military occupation there. And a real killer at the core of the policy, asserts Kelly, is the expanding and “deadly” U.S. drone program there.

I caught up with Kelly, via telephone, last Thursday, as she continued to walk the 18 miles she was planning to cover by that day’s end. The peace activist described in detail some of the things she saw and heard on her most recent trip to poverty-stricken and war-torn Afghanistan.  She emphasized, time and again, that the situation on the ground there, for everyday people, is both tragic and deadly. And the fear of being droned to death by the U.S. military or murdered by the Taliban as collaborators has now driven millions of people out of the exquisitely beautiful Afghan countryside into the capital, Kabul, which has little to offer in the way of work, housing or food for the 5 million people who now try desperately in any way they can to make ends meet.

Kelly recounted one horrific story after another, regarding the impact of U.S. Drone policy. “There were two young men who were studying to be doctors,” said Kelly on June 20th.   “One doctor was a pediatrics specialist, and the other was in his third year of medical school.  They were in a car driving along the road that happened to be going near an airport, and there had been a suicide bomb attack at the airport,” said Kelly, “so immediately the skies were covered with surveillance [drones], and out of fear for their lives these two guys and their driver, Hekmatullah, dove out of the car, because they thought they’d be safer if they weren’t in a vehicle, just huddled along the roadside, but to no avail. A missile hit them directly, and the driver was instantly killed. The young student doctors survived the initial attack,” said Kelly “and they could be alive and with us today,” but instead of seeking immediate medical care for the budding doctors, the U.S. military, upon arrival, hand cuffed them and then sought orders about next steps.

“After the U.S. military arrived,” said Kelly, “they handcuffed them, as they were bleeding profusely, and on the roadside.  One of the young men, Siraj,  pleaded for his life. ‘Please, please, I am doctor,” he said, “let me live, please save my life.’ And they didn’t try to save his life.  He died on the roadside; he bled to death.  They took the other one to an airport and there seemed that there was a possibility that he might be transported or medically evacuated.  But they must have taken some time before the orders could be given, and he bled to death in the airport…They’re bleeding profusely on the roadside, they’re begging for help, they are handcuffed, and they are allowed to die.”

Kelly said “another man told us about how there was a day when children, little children had gone out to collect fuel on a mountain side, and I’ve heard this story repeatedly told.  They were mistaken in the early morning hours for being possible fighters and all of them were killed. There were nine children, in all…”

Kelly says there is no end to the tragic stories of deadly violence that  result from U.S. military policy. “Another man talked about how two farmers had gone out with the daughter of one of the farmers, to work in their fields.  And a tank fired missiles and killed them,” Kelly continued “We also talked to some people who’ve been attacked by night raids,” she said, “and one man talked about how suddenly his house was targeted for a raid, and U.S. forces came into his home, killed his two nieces right before his eyes.  They were preparing themselves to go to bed, they had long beautiful hair. ‘How could anybody think that they were insurgents?’ he asked me. So he closed up his house, and his family left and came to Kabul.”

MILLIONS DISPLACED FROM THE COUNTRYSIDE LIVING IN DESPERATION

Kelly said the situation in Kabul is absolutely desperate. Thousands of Afghans are fleeing the countryside every week, fleeing the terror of the drones, and ongoing ground operations by the U.S. military, as well as from the revenge killings by the Taliban. The statistics for people fleeing the countryside are “staggering” said Kelly, “and once you go outside of Kabul, you realize how vulnerable people feel, living in provinces where even if they are hit once by let’s say the United States or NATO airborne vehicles, then they are also more vulnerable  to a possible Taliban attack.  Because the Taliban might say ‘Well, somebody in this community must have been working with, or collaborating with, the U.S. NATO forces.’  And so sometimes whole communities just pick up and go.”

The war creates 400 new refugees, every single day.  And where are people going to go? The cities are already bursting and overcrowded, with nothing close to the infrastructure that’s needed for rising populations.  And there aren’t jobs for people, but they panic and they flee.  And I don’t blame them.”

“And, meanwhile,” said Kelly, “the levels of unemployment, the levels of hunger, the levels of disease, after all these years of warfare, have made life so miserable for people within Afghanistan.  Who understands that pattern of life? I feel very close to a particular family there.  And the mom in that family spent some time with me and she said she never has electricity, maybe between one and three in the morning they might get electricity.  Three to six percent of the country has access to the internet.  The education system has become so very corrupt. It’s really hard for a young person to land a position in a university, unless they’ve got some pretty good connections. It is said that the seats are filled even before the entrance exam is even taken.”

And Kelly emphasized it is nearly impossible for people to find work or food in the cities over crowed with internal exiles fleeing the fighting and drone war in the countryside. “Because of the high rates of unemployment people aren’t able to bring adequate food into their families,” lamented the peace activist. “It’s not unusual for people to subsist on bread, and potatoes, and tea. The anemia and ill health amongst young women is such that one out of every eleven women dies in childbirth.  There are health clinics that have really tried, very, very hard to improve health care delivery but it remains the most difficult country in the world in which a person can be a woman.”

Kelly noted that the living conditions that thousands of Afghans now endure are taking its toll in many terrible ways.   “They’re beset with trauma and nightmares,” said Kelly. “Also, I’ve had a chance to listen to young people who formerly were trained as Afghan Special Forces operatives, and they are reeling from the memories of the stories that they are forced to live with. Likewise, veterans of U.S. wars suffer Post Traumatic Stress, to the extent that we learn of 22 people committing suicide every single day. U.S. military commanders have said that one of the worst causes of harm to U.S. military people is self-inflicted injury.”

Kelly said the violence recently struck very close to home for her. “I breathed this huge sigh of relief last week, when we got word that in spite of the fact that every window in the home that I stay in when I’m there with Afghan Peace Volunteers was broken because of an explosion just a block away… at least no one had been hurt.  Three people closer to this attack were killed and 30 were injured. These kinds of incursions are happening in Kabul, and all throughout Afghanistan all the time,” said Kelly, referring to a bombing that could have left her maimed or dead if she was still in the country.

WALKING ACROSS IOWA

As Kathy Kelly walks across Iowa, with members of Vets for Peace, and other antiwar groups, she carries a sign that says  ‘Drones create enemies, and decrease security.’  “What kind of a future are people looking toward, in terms of ever getting a break from war, after war, after war?” she laments.  “I firmly believe that the most civilized thing to do would be to end the drone war immediately, and campaign for reparations to be paid.  And to entrust that funding to U.N. groups that have distinguished themselves as having less of a corrupt track record than others.”

Kelly appears to be well aware that while the 195 mile walk across Iowa will be a relatively flat hike, it is going to be an uphill battle to end the drone assassination policy she so thoroughly detests. She says her resolve to resist only increases with the level of suffering she witnesses in every visit to Afghanistan.  She remains undaunted in her determination to resist the U.S. government’s. drone program.

“Certainly the peace movement has been doing its best to call attention to the places where the drone warfare is being conducted, and that’s in the Hancock Air Field outside of Syracuse, where people have been taking the issue into the courts repeatedly, and going to jail for ten day and fifteen day stretches.  Now, at Creech Air Force Base, and certainly at Whiteman Air Force Base, and I know now the Ripley Field, outside Minneapolis as well as Volk Field in Wisconsin.  These are all places where people are letting it be known that they don’t want to be pulled into drone warfare, that they understand that the proliferation of the weaponry and the creation of enmity and antagonism don’t bring us security. ”

Kelly said that the tragic bottom line is that the military is engaged, first and foremost, in a program of pacification to pave the way for U.S. corporate hegemony over vital and sometimes rare natural resources in Afghanistan.  She asserts that “the U.S. wants be able to control the pricing and the flow, of resources like natural gas, fossil fuels, lithium and other rare earth minerals that are likely to be mined in the future.”

“Meanwhile, in the present,” Kelly concluded, “in terms of job creation, in spite of the fact that the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan’s report on Afghanistan says that the amount of money spent on development has approached $100 billion, you can’t see the effects of that kind of development aid within the country either within or beyond Kabul.”

Dennis J. Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom.  You can access the audio archives at www.flashpoints.net. He can be contacted at dennisjberstein@gmail.com.

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