Charlie Wilson's Real War

There has been quite a hue and cry in the town of Lufkin, Texas in the United States over the death of former Democratic Rep. Charlie Wilson, who died Feb. 10 of a heart attack at the age of 76.

Good old Charlie, the subject of a book by George Crile titled "Charlie Wilson's War" and later a movie of the same title, was famous for funneling as much as US$5 billion worth of weapons to the mujahedeen in Afghanistan with the help of Ronald Reagan's spymaster, William Casey, and bringing about the end of the Soviet occupation of the country. This act, the common wisdom goes, broke the back of the entire Soviet empire.

"He took his work seriously but he never took himself seriously," said his close friend Joe Christie, who served with Wilson in the Texas Legislature, according to press reports. "He changed the course of history, but he was not self important. That's why he was so [much] fun to be with."

He is to be buried with full military honors on Feb. 23 at Arlington National Cemetery. But the epitaph they probably should carve on good old fun-loving Charlie's tombstone might be "Be careful what you wish for."

Wilson's real legacy might be found in today's Helmand province, where thousands of American Marines, British and Afghan troops, are battling the Taliban, the spiritual and military heirs to what Charlie Wilson wrought with the help of the shadowy Mr. Casey. One wonders if without Charlie Wilson, the World Trade Center towers might still be standing and Osama bin Laden might now be working in his father's Saudi construction company.

Afghanistan was invaded by the then-Soviet Union under the slowly dying Premier Leonid Brezhnev in 1979 while the west stood by. All that President Jimmy Carter could do was cancel America's participation in the 1980 Olympics.

While there is little argument that the Soviet Union probably deserved everything it got, the mujahedeen's war on the puppet government accomplished several things nobody wanted. The invasion by the Soviet 40th Army put an end to a government increasingly beleaguered by factionalism and corruption. It was a lousy government that deserved to go.

But while the mujahadeen that arose in swashbuckling fashion — fueled by slavishly adoring press reports orchestrated, in part, by Wilson and his buddies — to challenge the Soviet invaders might have been romantic to the outside world, what the Soviets did was not all bad, although it was bad enough. The pro-Soviet regime gave women their rights and sent them to school; it loosened the centuries-old strictures of an archaic culture. Seen in that light, Moscow's pipe dream was not so very different from today's legions of American-financed reformers trying to bend Kabul to the ways of the West.

The Soviet-installed secular government attracted the attention not only of Charlie Wilson and his Congressional funding machine bent on punishing Moscow for Vietnam but of thousands of Muslims from across the Middle East and North Africa to the Philippines and Indonesia. They went to Afghanistan to fight, armed with weapons from the United States and its allies – often routed through Singapore and into the hands of the Pakistanis, who then passed them on.

Among those thousands was Osama Bin Laden and what would become the core leadership not only of his own organization, Al Qaeda, but Muslim revolutionaries such as Abdurajak Janjalani, who helped to found Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines. Southeast Asia's Jemaat Islamiyah in Indonesia and elsewhere was led by people who learned their trade in Afghanistan before going on to careers in terrorism.

When ultimately the mujahideen drove out the government established by the Soviets and hanged its puppet leader, Muhammad Najibullah -- minus his testicles and penis -- from the goalpost of the main soccer stadium in Kabul, a million and a half people were dead, millions of refugees had fled to Pakistan and Iran and the country's social and economic structure had virtually ceased to exist.

The warlord rebels then fell on each other in a brutal civil war that killed tens of thousands more Afghans. The Americans, seemingly satisfied with what they had wrought, now saw fit to ignore the country altogether. Hundreds of thousands of children left orphaned from the previous years of fighting and the new savagery ended up in madrassas in Pakistan – religious schools encouraged by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directory – the ISI – and paid for by the Saudi Arabian Wahabists, among the most conservative Islamic sects in the world.

As Afghanistan descended even further into chaos, the ISI saw these now indoctrinated and militant youth growing to maturity in the madrassas as their allies in controlling Afghanistan and establishing a buffer to Pakistan's northwest. They would become the Taliban, who quelled the warlords and took Afghanistan back 10 centuries in time.

Jeri Laber of Human Rights Watch wrote as far back as 1986: "Hundreds of thousands of youths, who knew nothing of life but the bombings that destroyed their homes and drove them to seek refuge over the border, were being raised to hate and to fight, ‘in the spirit of Jihad,' a ‘holy war' that would restore Afghanistan to its people.

"New kinds of Afghans are being born in the struggle. Caught in the midst of a grown-ups' war, the young Afghans are under intense political pressure from one side or another, almost from birth."

Afghanistan, mired in corruption and confusion, fell to the Taliban relatively easily, liberating the militant young Muslims to go home and dream of jihad against corrupt governments in their own countries — and especially against the Americans, who in their eyes supported those governments. Thus the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005, which took hundreds of lives: the 2004 train bombings in Madrid which took the lives of 191 people and wounded 1,800; the London bombings of 2007, which took the lives of 52 people and injured 700; and dozens more incidents across the world.

And of course, the biggest of them all was Osama Bin Laden. He dreamed of driving the Americans out of Saudi Arabia, offended as he was by their presence on holy soil during the first Gulf War in 1991 against Iraq. He wanted to reestablish an Islamic Caliphate that would abolish the national boundaries of the Islamic world and create a single entity that would stretch from Morocco to Indonesia, numbering more than a billion and a half people. The destruction of the twin towers in New York flowed from all of that.

Charlie Wilson's Afghan War gave arms and hope and training to these misguided warriors and their vision of a harsh brand of Islam.

Today, the forces unleashed by the ISI in Pakistan's North West Territories have come back to haunt Islamabad with terrible force. Pakistan has become probably the most dangerous country in the world, nuclear-armed with a tenuous government beset by almost daily bombings. The Taliban is seemingly stronger than ever with a good chance of eventually seizing Kabul and, in Pakistan, undermining Islamabad's ability to meet the needs of its population or ensure internal stability.

And Wilson? John Wing, who traveled with Wilson on his journeys to Pakistan and Afghanistan, was quoted at a memorial service Sunday saying of his friend: "He'll be missed from the Golan Heights to the Khyber Pass, from the Caspian to the Suez and in the halls of Congress, for his civility, his willingness to listen and help and not posture."

Heckuva job, Charlie.