Opinion: Charlie Wilson’s war and the politics of blowback

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BOSTON — Charlie Wilson, the high-living Texas Congressman who did so much to support America’s covert resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, is dead.

But “Charlie Wilson’s War,” the title of a book and film about his exploits, lives on.

The Soviets are gone. Indeed the Soviet Union is gone, but the war in Afghanistan rolls on, with no clear end in sight. In one of the ironies of history we have become the new Soviets in the sense that it is Americans who are now fighting and dying in Afghanistan against many of the same religious warriors that Charlie Wilson and the United States supported.

In CIA-speak, the 30-year war represents the greatest and most devastating example of “blowback” in the agency’s history. Blowback is the unintended consequence of an operation that turns around and savages its handlers.

To the end of his life Charlie Wilson regretted that, once the Soviets had retreated back across the Oxus River, more wasn’t done to stabilize the country. And there are those that say, in hindsight, that even during the Soviet period we should not have put so much faith in the religious extremists to fight our proxy war. There were more moderate, pro-royalist factions in the resistance to whom we might have turned. They were ruthlessly suppressed by the more extreme Islamic militants on our side.

At the time it was thought that the Islamic warriors were better fighters. During World War II, Winston Churchill was asked why he backed the Communist Tito in Yugoslavia instead of the pro-monarchist resistance leader Draza Mihajlovic. Churchill replied, “because he kills more Germans.”

Others said the U.S. made a mistake of funneling everything through Pakistan’s intelligence services, thereby giving Pakistan too much control. But, then as now, the argument that you cannot really do anything in Afghanistan without Pakistan, prevailed.

However, the inspired efforts of the United States and Pakistan to arm and train a resistance to the Soviet Union’s grab of Afghanistan led inexorably to 9/11 and the “Forever War,” as Dexter Filkins so aptly named the current struggle.

Charlie Wilson wasn’t wrong. The Soviet Union had broken all the rules of the Cold War. The Red Army had taken over an entire country for the first time since the 1940s. Some in the West thought that the Soviets were seeking the warm waters of the Arabian Sea. We know now that they only wanted to keep Afghan Communists in power. There had been revolts spreading throughout the country since the Communists seized power in Kabul in 1978. By 1979, Moscow saw a danger that the Afghan Communists might actually fail, and that the infection would spread and infect the Muslim Soviet republics.

Pakistan’s President Zia un Haq, who presided over the anti-Soviet campaign, explained his country’s war aims. “We have earned the right to have Afghanistan, a power which is very friendly to us,” he said. We have taken risks as a frontline state, and we will not permit a return to the pre-war situation, marked by a large Indian and Soviet influence, and Afghan claims on our territory. The new power [in Afghanistan] will be really Islamic, a part of the Islamic renaissance, which you will see, will someday extend itself to the Soviet Muslims.”

When the holy warriors that the U.S. and Pakistan had unleashed began to fight among themselves after the Soviets left, Pakistan saw its influence fading away. The Soviets were gone, but India and Iran were backing the Tajik-led guerrillas of the Northern Alliance. The need, as Pakistan saw it, was for a pro-Pakistani militia to take the field. And so Pakistan organized the Taliban, made up of Pashtuns who live on both sides of the border, and sent them north to restore order and take power. The blowback from that decision is haunting both Pakistan and the United States today.

The “strategic depth” that Pakistan sought in Afghanistan has proved an illusion. Pakistan has not come to grips with it yet, but the Taliban is now a greater threat to Pakistan than its historic enemy, India.

From Pakistan’s point of view, the American war in Afghanistan simply removed a pro-Pakistan government in Kabul, crude as it was, and replaced it with a Northern Alliance-led government that is pro-Indian. The view from Islamabad is that America’s Afghan war is destabilizing Pakistan by forcing militants to flee Afghanistan to take up refuge in the wild, ungovernable parts of the northwest frontier.

What would have happened if the resistance to the Soviets had never been raised? Would the Soviet Union have collapsed anyway? Would a Communist Afghanistan be an ex-Communist Afghanistan today, with whom the West enjoys decent relations like Kazakhstan? Or was it Charlie Wilson and the Afghan resistance that finally undid the Soviet Union?

Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, was once asked if he had seen the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War?” He said he didn’t have time to see movies, but at one time he had seen a great deal of Charlie Wilson.