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
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
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
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)