Charlie Wilson’s Legacy


Former Congressman Charlie Wilson, who died on February10, was America’s answer to James Bond, the fast-moving, globe-trotting character in Ian Fleming’s novels, who foiled enemies and conquered beautiful women with ease. Wilson’s achievements in Congress were not many. Often he had other things on his mind. However, as a member of the House Appropriations Committee, his role in pouring money and weapons into Afghanistan to fight the Soviets in the 1980s is beyond dispute. Wilson’s portrayal by George Crile in his book Charlie Wilson’s War and by Tom Hanks in the 2007 Hollywood film enhanced his reputation.

The prime mover of United States policy to support Islamist groups in the final phase of the Cold War was Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser. President Carter himself signed the first, secret, order that began channeling U.S. aid to the Mujahideen. The move lured the Soviet Union into a disastrous military invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. The prosecution of the war against the Soviet occupation forces would have been impossible without President Ronald Reagan and his CIA director, William Casey. From Kalashnikovs to advanced Stinger missiles, all that might help the Mujahideen in defeating the Soviet Union was fair game. Such was their ideological commitment and focus on the bull’s eye, without regard for what might follow.

In later years, when he had retired from Congress, Charlie Wilson seemed to acknowledge what few defense hawks of that era can do even now. Speaking of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan following the Soviet defeat, he said, “That caused an enormous amount of real bitterness in Afghanistan and it was probably the catalyst for Taliban movement.” His comment, in 2001, was extraordinary for the fact that it was made at all when the trend of ahistorical abstractions had become fashionable. Despite the monstrous nature of the 9/11 attacks, the notion that terrorism started on that day lies at the heart of problems in countering it.

Afghanistan has puzzled and challenged external intervenors throughout its history. Each time, impudence has made military intervention look easy. Initial military successes have followed. Why it has been difficult to extricate without paying a high price tells something about the Afghan people that no intervenor seems to have really understood. The British and the Russians found this in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Now the United States and allies are in a similar situation. President George W. Bush’s post-9/11 ambition of transforming Afghanistan into a Western-style democracy has been scaled down under the Obama administration. What to do instead is far from clear, except to resort to the fire-fighting measures of Gen. Stanley McChrystal to prevail over the Taliban, and to raise large Afghan military and police forces to take over security, so U.S. troops can draw down or get out.

Afghans are much more canny and wise than their detractors think. The formulation of a successful plan for the country requires a deeper understanding of Afghan society, its potential and limits. It is important to recognize that not all Afghans who have taken up arms to oppose foreign troops are Taliban. The presence of foreign troops in the country tends to unite Afghans. It is particularly true of Pashtun tribes, dominant in the south and east. When foreign troops are not in the country, tribal conflict comes to the fore. The same Afghan code of honor, which dictates that every protection and hospitality must be extended to a guest, also expects the guest not to behave in a manner contrary to the interests of the host. There were indications both before and after 9/11 that many Afghans felt Osama bin Laden was crossing the limits of this code and were uncertain about how to deal with him.

When leaders have emerged without outside intervention, Afghan society has been relatively peaceful. This was the case for four decades before the monarchy was overthrown in 1973 by the king’s own cousin. For centuries, attempts to create a centralized system in Afghanistan have failed. The Pashtun tribal system and various smaller ethnic communities have been, and want to remain, decentralized.

Afghanistan needs a plan that shows proper regard for these characteristics of Afghan society. Such a plan must have regional powers – Pakistan, Iran, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, China and India – as cosignatories. But with the recent deterioration in U.S. relations with China and Iran, it is difficult to see how a start can be made.

DEEPAK TRIPATHI is the author of two forthcoming books – Overcoming the Bush Legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan and Breeding Ground: Afghanistan and the Origins of Islamist Terrorism (Potomac, 2010). His works can be found on http://deepaktripathi.wordpress.com and he can be reached at: DandATripathi@gmail.com.

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