When I visited Kabul as a peace activist in 2014, at the height of the U.S. troop surge, I spoke with "Esmatullah," a pseudonym for a high school student I had known for four years. He urged me to tell parents in the U.S. not to send their sons and daughters to Afghanistan.

"Here it is very dangerous for them," he said. "And they do not really help us."

For many years, the U.S. claimed its mission in Afghanistan improved the lives of Afghan women and children. But essentially, the U.S. war improved the livelihoods of those who designed, manufactured, sold, and used weaponry to kill Afghans.

My young friend was deeply troubled by many incidents in which the U.S. directly attacked innocent people or trained Afghan units to do so. Two decades of U.S. combat in Afghanistan made civilians vulnerable to drone attacks, night raids, airstrikes, and arrests. More than 4 million people became internally displaced as they fled from battles and scarred, drought-stricken lands.

"Saifullah," a pseudonym for a university student in Kabul who spoke with me in 2019, said he was an anarchist. He didn’t place much trust in governments or militaries. He instead felt a strong allegiance toward the grassroots network he helped build, a group I would normally name and celebrate but must now refer to as my "young friends in Afghanistan," for their protection.

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The brave and passionate dedication they showed as they worked tirelessly to share resources, care for the environment, and practice nonviolence made them quite vulnerable to potential accusers who may believe they were too connected with Westerners.

It's difficult to forecast how Taliban rule will affect them or how much the former government is to blame for the Taliban's takeover. Yet, we should be honest: The Taliban are in power today because of a colossal mess the U.S. helped create.

It is now our obligation as U.S. citizens to insist on paying reparations for the destruction caused by 20 years of war. To be meaningful, reparations must also include dismantling the warfare systems that caused so much havoc and misery.

Our wars of choice were waged against people who meant us no harm. We must choose, now, to lay aside the cruel futility of our forever wars.

My young friend Esmatullah now longs to flee his country. He doesn't want to be driven by fear, but he deeply wants to use his life to do good and build a better world.

Ultimately, Afghanistan will need people like him if the country is to experience a future where basic human rights to food, shelter, health care, and education are met. It will need people who have already made dedicated sacrifices for peace, believing in the Afghan adage, "Blood doesn't wash away blood."

The people of Afghanistan will need people in the U.S. to embrace this same teaching. We must express true sorrow, seek forgiveness, and show valor similar to that of the brave people insisting on human rights in Afghanistan today.

Kathy Kelly of St. Charles, Illinois, is a peace activist, author, and co-coordinator of the Ban Killer Drones campaign (bankillerdrones.org). She produced this column originally for The Progressive magazine.