Imagine, they made a funny movie about how the US helped turn Afghanistan into a killing field. It’s the film “Charlie Wilson’s War, a ligthearted look of how a skirt-chasing Congressman and a no-nonsense CIA thug helped bring mountains of weapons and money to the fanatic, women-despising “freedom fighters” who gave us 9/11. It’s certainly material for a “laugh riot”.
To be sure it was the Soviets who did most of the killing. From December 27, 1979 when they overthrew the government of Afghanistan until February of 1989 they ravaged the country. By the war’s end there were a million dead Afghans, another 3 million injured, and a whole generation growing up to think that war and war crimes were the natural way of life. Soviet land mines still litter the country.
Yet the evidence is that the US government wanted the Soviets to invade and did what it could to provoke it. According to Secretary of State Robert Gates 1997 book “From the Shadows” the CIA started giving aid to Islamic rebels in Afghanistan six months before the Soviets invaded. This was confirmed and detailed in an interview with Zbignew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor in 1998 in the French journal Le Nouvel Observateur. In the interview Brzezinski explained that Jimmy Carter signed an order on July 3 of 1979 to give aid to the mujahadeen and that he (Brzezinski) wrote Carter a note that same day saying “this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention”.
Not that Brzezinski objected. To the contrary this is how he answered his interviewer’s question on whether he had any regrets. “Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter. We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.”
Afghanistan would become the next venue for Cold War game playing and the Afghan people would be the pawns.
Charlie Wilson’s role in this whole affair is vastly overstated. After all it was Jimmy Carter who hysterically declared the invasion “the most serious threat to peace since the Second World War.” If ever a country was remote and unimportant in world affairs it was Afghanistan, yet earlier in 79 Carter had seen the total defeat of his boy, the Shah of Iran, so he had to show macho in some other theater. Hard as it may be to believe today, Carter portrayed the Russian move into Afghanistan as the first step to Soviet dominiation of the Persian Gulf and Americans bought it. Carter created the climate for the massive funding of the Afghan and foreign mujahadeen. Nor should we forget Ronald Reagan. His role can be summed up by his colorful statement in 1985 calling the mujahadeen the “moral equivalent” of the US founding fathers.
Yet there is no doubt Charlie Wilson’s enthusiasim was important in bringing about a flood of money and weapons. Wilson, a Democrat and a liberal in domestic matters, was a hard core rightist in foreign affairs. The movie tries to make us believe that seeing Afghan refugees in Pakistan utterly changed Charlie Wilson, but he was a fervent anti-commmunist well before that. He was a good old buddy of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Samoza and fought hard to get Carter to stop distancing himself from the Nicaraguan tyrant. The movie gleefully shows Wilson calling in favors on the House Intelligence and Defense Appropriations Committees and gathering half a billion dollars in weapons for the fundamentalists. The guns and money first flowed through Pakistan giving the US a way to deny involvement and gaining the dictatorship’s ISI intelligence agency a chance to wet its beak.
The movie makes mention of aid going to just one mujahadeen leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud. Actually he received virtually nothing. Nearly half of CIA money went to Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, the most hardline of the mujahadeen. Hakmatyar in his younger days had been notorious for throwing acid in the faces of unveiled women. You can see why that didn’t make it into the film, very difficult to show humorously.
Wilson’s “sidekick” as reviewers describe him was CIA operative Gust Avrakotos, a man who was “crude and hilarious” according to one review. He was a “working-class” guy who ignored the stuffed shirts and got things done. In Greece, where he was posted in the 60’s and 70’s people remember him differently. Avrakotos was in Greece when army colonels overthrew the government and set up a dictatorship. He became the CIA’s chief liaison with the Greek colonels. This fascist regime’s best known victory was rolling over university students with tanks. Its biggest defeat was getting its ass whomped when it faced real (Turkish) soldiers in Cyprus. By 1978 Avrakotos was so villified by the Greek press that he left the country ripe for other adventures.
In the book by George Crile that was the basis for the movie Wilson is quoted as saying that his greatest achievement in Congress was not getting the guns to the mujahadeen, but saving aid to the regime of Pakistani dictator Zia al Haq. The aid was under threat because Zia was secretly building atomic weapons, and in those days the US pretended to be serious about the spread of such weapons. It was against US law to give money to countries building nukes. So every year there was a battle royal in Appropriations about the aid. Yet Wilson had his way. Pakistani cooperation in killing Ruskies in Afghanistan trumped the silly idea that the world should have any kind of handle on nuclear weapons. It’s a pretty funny story yet somehow atomic bombs aren’t mentioned anywhere in the movie.
Mike Nichols who directed the movie had very little to say about the fact that the weapons we gave the mujahadeen ended up being used a a long and bloody Afghan civil war once the Soviets left and that the mujahadeen/warlords mutated into the Taliban and al-Qaeda. “You don’t know the consequences of any act,” Nichols told a reviewer. Crap. Brzezinki knew exactly what he and Carter were getting into. Wilson and Reagan and the rest knew Hekmatayar was openly anti-American at the same time they were sending him the Stingers.
At the end of the movie you see Wilson pleading unsuccessfully for a million dollars for Afghan schools. Then after Wilson ceremoniously gets an award from the CIA there’s a black screen and a Wilson quote something like “It was a glorious victory and then we f’d up the endgame.” As if a few schools and roads would have made the difference. “Our guys” didn’t much believe in schools. They had the nasty habit of killing school teachers for the crime of educating girls.
This movie glorying in our “triumph” in Afghanistan fits well in Washington’s current climate where Democrats fall all over themselves saying Iraq was a mistake, but we should be sending more money and troops to Afghanistan. Sure, we really need to sacrifice more American lives for a warlord “Northern Alliance” government that is so hated that the Taliban is making a comeback
One could imagine another movie about Afghanistan, about real heroic resistance, about the women of the Revolutionary Association of Afghan Woman (RAWA). They’ve struggled against fundamentalism and all the regimes oppressing Afghanistan since 1977. In a recent comunique they wrote “Instead of defeating Al-Qaeda, Taliban and Gulbuddini terrorists and disarming the Northern Alliance, the foreign troops are creating confusion among the people of the world. We believe that if these troops leave Afghanistan, our people will not feel any kind of vacuum but rather will become more free and come out of their current puzzlement and doubts. In such a situation, they will face the Taliban and Northern Alliance without their national’ mask, and rise to fight with these terrorist enemies. Neither the US nor any other power wants to release Afghan people from the fetters of the fundamentalists.”
The activists of RAWA work in secret at great peril inside Afghanistan defending the very basic human rights of women. Theirs is not a funny story, but one worth telling. I don’t expect Mike Nichols to have much interest, but you can check them out at www.rawa.org
STANLEY HELLER is chairperson of the Middle East Crisis Committee (Connecticut) and host of its weekly TV program “The Struggle”. He welcomes email at mail@TheStruggle.org .