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July 7, 2005

Charlie Wilson's War, Act Two

by William Fisher

Though it happened just over 20 years ago, today's media has all but forgotten that Afghanistan's Taliban was largely the creation of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and a hard-drinking, party-loving Texas congressman who helped funnel billions of dollars in arms to "freedom fighters" like Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar.

The congressman was Charles Wilson, a colorful and powerful Democrat from the East Texas Bible Belt. During the 1980s, Wilson was a member of a congressional appropriations subcommittee. From that position of power, he funneled billions of dollars in secret funding to the CIA, which used the money to purchase weapons to help the mujahedin drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan.

In those days, the mujahedin were viewed by the U.S. as "freedom fighters," and were so-named by then-President Ronald Reagan, who praised them for "defending principles of independence and freedom that form the basis of global security and stability."

In that Cold War environment, chasing the Russians out of the country trumped all other considerations. Among the weapons funded by Congress were hundreds of Stinger missile systems that mujahedin forces used to counter the Russians' lethal Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships.

And there were also tens of thousands of automatic weapons, antitank guns, and satellite intelligence maps. According to author George Crile, Wilson even brought his own belly dancer from Texas to Cairo to entertain the Egyptian defense minister, who was secretly supplying the mujahedin with millions of rounds of ammunition for the AK-47s the CIA was smuggling into Afghanistan.

From a few million dollars in the early 1980s, support for the resistance grew to about $750 million a year by the end of the decade. Decisions were made in secret by Wilson and other lawmakers on the appropriations committee.

To help make his case, Wilson exploited one of the decade's scandals, the Iran-contra affair, arguing that Democrats who were voting to cut off funding for the contras in Nicaragua could demonstrate their willingness to stand up to the Soviet empire by approving more money for the Afghan fighters.

Many Muslims from other countries volunteered to assist various mujahedin groups in Afghanistan, and gained significant experience in guerrilla warfare. Some of these veterans have been significant factors in more recent conflicts in and around the Muslim world.

The effort was successful. On Feb. 15, 1989, Gen. Boris Gromov, commander of the Soviets' 40th Army, walked across Friendship Bridge as the last Russian to leave Afghanistan. The CIA cable from the Islamabad station to the agency's headquarters said, "We won." Wilson's own note said simply, "We did it."

Pakistan's then president, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, who had allowed the weapons to move through his country on CIA-purchased mules, credited Wilson with the defeat of the Russians in Afghanistan. "Charlie did it, " he said.

Thus, the largest covert operation in the CIA history ended with Russia's humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan.

But in Charlie Wilson's War (2003 Grove/Atlantic), George Crile notes that the U.S.-financed war against the Soviets in Afghanistan also helped create the political vacuum that was filled by the Taliban and Islamic extremists, who turned their deadly terrorism against the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.

After the Soviet withdrawal, the CIA tried to buy back the weapons they had supplied, but were largely unsuccessful.

Until Wilson's retirement from the House in 1996, he enjoyed a reputation as a relentless womanizer, perpetual partier, borderline drunk, and general roué.

But Wilson's questionable reputation proved to be a brilliant cover for his passionate anti-Communism. He was also an ambitious politician, perfectly willing to vote for military contracts in his colleagues' districts in return for votes to support the mujahedin.

When the Soviet Union pulled its troops out, however, the mujahedin did not establish a united government. Its members broke into two loosely-aligned opposing factions, the Northern Alliance and a radical splinter group known as the Taliban. In the ensuing civil war for control of the country, the mujahedin was ousted from power by the Taliban in 1996.

The mujahedin regrouped as the Northern Alliance and in 2001, with U.S. and international military aid, ousted the Taliban from power and formed a new government.

A wealthy Saudi named Osama bin Laden was a prominent mujahedin organizer and financier; his Maktab al-Khadamat (MAK, meaning Office of Services) funneled money, arms, and Muslim fighters from around the world into Afghanistan, with the assistance and support of the U.S., Pakistani, and Saudi governments. Bin Laden broke away from the MAK in 1988, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In the U.S. invasion of the country following 9/11, the brutal Taliban theocracy was effectively defeated – or at least dispersed. But its remnants nevertheless continue to battle the U.S. and its coalition partners, and spell trouble for the fragile government of U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai, which is struggling to deal with the fragmented, warlord-based nature of Afghan society and the devastation of years of war and deprivation.

In the 1980s, opposition to the Soviet Union and communism was widespread among the U.S. public. But many believe the Wilson story is a perfect illustration of good intentions resulting in bad consequences.

Wilson's War succeeded in arming the very people responsible for the terrorist attacks in the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, and who ended up shooting at U.S. and Coalition troops.

Prof. Abdullahi An-Na'im of Emory University Law School told IPS, "Good intentions are not good enough, and we should always be humble and accept the possibility of being wrong. The lesson of the law of 'unintended consequences' of our previous policies is to realize in our current policies that ends never justify the means."

"Pragmatic reasons for any policy must always be consistent with moral rationale. If bad means appear to achieve good ends in the short term, then it is simply that we have failed to appreciate the real costs which in fact outweigh the presumed benefits."

According to a review of Crile's book on the Acorn, a popular Indian blog, "Charlie Wilson's most dangerous legacy is a nuclear-armed Pakistan brought about by U.S. governments closing one eye on Pakistan's covert nuclear program in the 1980s."

"By the way, Charlie Wilson's PR firm is still retained by the Pakistan government to lobby its interests in Washington," the article concludes.

(Inter Press Service)

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  • William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.

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