Sunday, May 18, 2008

Charlie Wilson’s War: America’s First Jihad

Lessons to be drawn from the largest covert operation in history

When the Russians invaded Afghanistan in 1979, it was an international emergency. The Cold War was still on, and we were bitter enemies with the Soviet Union. President Jimmy Carter's response, tepid at best, was one of his worst moments. Carter declared Afghanistan the "greatest foreign policy crisis confronting the US since WW II", and ordered a boycott of the Moscow Olympics – basically an empty gesture.

From the Afghan side, there were no such empty gestures. As George Crile tells the story in Charlie Wilson’s War, the Ruskies quickly became acquainted with Afghan customs of Honor, Hospitality and Revenge:
At sunrise on the second day of the after the Invasion. a Soviet sentry spotted five large size bags on the edge of the tarmac at Bagram Air Base in Kabul. The soldier was not initially concerned - until he pushed his rifle against the first of the burlap bags and noticed blood oozing on to the tarmac. Explosive experts were called in to check for booby traps. What they discovered was far more menacing. Within each bag was a young Soviet soldier wrapped inside his own skin. As best the medical examiners could determine, the men had died a particularly gruesome death: their skin had been sliced at the stomach while they were still alive and then pulled up over their heads.
Crile adds that the Russians were destined to learn the same lessons the British learned in 1842 when a tribal chieftain who explained his laughter by saying,
I can see how easy it was for you to get your troops in here. What I do not understand is how you plan to get them out.
Enter Charlie Wilson

Charlie had graduated 8th from the bottom of has Annapolis class. As a naval officer he joined Jack Kennedy’s presidential campaign. Late in 1960, an opening occurred in his local congressional seat and Wilson(while still in uniform) he ran, won and was sworn in to office the same time his hero, JFK was. He rapidly made his reputation as the “Liberal from Lufkin (TX)”. By the time The Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Wilson was influential in the House Defense Appropriations Sub-Committee. Wilson had been firmly in the AIPAC camp, and owed his rapid ascension to power and influence in Appropriations to Friends of Israel. But a 1982 trip to the Middle East exposed him to the plight of Muslim refugees in Pakistan and Lebanon affected him deeply and won him over to the mujahideen.

Wilson saw first-hand the effects of the Soviet scorched earth campaigns: unperturbed by any embedded media, the Russians were carpet bombing villages, poisoning wells, killing livestock and causing half the Afghanistan population to flee their homes. You can definitely throw in there an ample amount of raping and pillaging.

The Reagan administration had been content to titrate its aid to the Afghani Mujahideen. They were content to have both Afghanis and Ruskies slowly bleed each other. The CIA bought up and shipped in WWI-era Lee-Enfield .303 bolt-action rifles for the Mujahideen. On his first of many trips to Pakistan, Charlie resolved that this was no way to ‘kill Russians’. For their unwarranted invasion of Afghanistan, Charlie resolved to become personally instrumental in a more punitive retaliation.

It helps to understand Charlie Wilson's predisposition toward reprisals if you know something about Charlie's dog, Teddy. My own abridged version:
In 1946, Charley was 13. Charlie was inseparable from his dog, Teddy. He also had a cranky neighbor named Charles Hazard who was an elected city official and who threatened all dogs that pooped on his lawns. One day Teddy died a slow and agonizing death as Wilson and all his friends watched helplessly. It turned out that Teddy had been fed some hamburger mixed with ground glass. Charlie knew who was responsible. That night, Charlie poured gasoline over Hazard's exotic plants and front lawn and touched it off. But Charlie wasn't finished. He scammed a learner's driver’s license so that he could carpool all of the town's Afro-Americans to the polls on election day. En route to the polls, he would tell his riders about Teddy’s death. When the votes were tabulated the morning after the election, Hazard couldn't understand what had happened. Just so he got the message, Charlie came around in the evening to yell at him.
As the movie makes clear, there was a strong desire to “get even” with the Soviets by tying them down in a quagmire in Afghanistan comparable to the one into which the U.S. sank in Vietnam. Working back-channels, Wilson helped procure millions of federal dollars and funnel the money to Afghan resistance fighters.

The CIA had a time-honored policy of never introducing into a conflict weapons that could be traced back to the USA. So the first response of the CIA was to ship all of the Soviet Weapons they had been stockpiling for this purpose.

The CIA hadn't been willing to provide Afghanis with an effective mule-portable anti-aircraft gun. The mujahideen wanted to shoot down the Russian aerial gunships, especially the Mi-24 Hind helicopters. In Washington, Wilson developed a back-channels contact within the CIA named Gust Avrakotos, definitely a maverick. Before they were through, their underground Afghanistan desk had a weapons acquisition scheme which had separately enlisted the participation of the Israeli, Pakistani, and Polish (Communist!) armed forces.
Soviet SA-7 surface-to-air missiles were acquired, along with small arms, sniper rifles, mine detectors. Ultimately, USA's very own Stingers from General Dynamics were supplied. Charlie Wilson's underground CIA clique provided mujahideen with Tennessee mules to transport heavier weapons, and turned a deaf ear to rumors that their freedom fighters abused them by copulating and eating them.

The eventual cost-benefit analysis demonstrated that the Wilson-Avrakotos team had a dramatic effect. In the end they were directing the off-budget expenditure of $750,000,000 annually on the Afghan resistance. A million Afghans were killed and there were 28,000 Red Army KIA’s:
...every dollar that the United States slipped into the insurrection cost the Soviets at least ten to counter. That was the beauty of being on the right side of a guerilla war; it's expensive to fight men who are not afraid to die. They just go around blasting hardware and soldiers without warning - bleeding the occupiers at will.

There was another factor. The Soviets were not using their old weapons in Afghanistan; they were deploying front line troops along with their most sophisticated Hind helicopters, MiG fighters and T-72 tanks - men and machinery that otherwise would be committed to the European battlefield, where as many as 50 divisions of U.S. and Soviet troops sat eyeball to eyeball. Every ruble they spent and every soldier they committed to Afghanistan was one less available for the European front.
Criley correctly comments that, despite Wilson’s wishes, that only the legacy left behind in Afghanistan were their weapons and the confidence on the part of the Mujahideen that Muslims had been able to bring the second greatest world power to its knees. This confidence was reinforced by the fact that Afghans and Pakistanis were thrown back on to their own resources and self-reliance. Along the way, Wilson had lost his Pakistani partner, General Zia ul-Haq, to a plane crash. George H.W. Bush became absorbed in throwing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait (rightly so) and Clinton became absorbed in the wars of Yugoslavian Dissolution. (again, understandably so). All aid, military and non-military was completely cut off by the end of 1993.

In a Criley’s retrospective epilogue, Charlie Wilson is unapologetic:
I truly believe that this caused the Berlin wall to come down a good five, maybe ten, years before it would have otherwise. Over a million Russian Jews got their freedom and left for Israel. God knows how many were freed from the Gulags. At least a hundred million Eastern European are breathing free today, to say nothing of the Russian people. It’s the truth, and all those people who are enjoying those freedoms have no idea of the part played by a million Afghan ghosts.To this day no one has thanked them.

They removed the threat we all went to sleep with every night, of World War III breaking out. The countries that used to be in the Warsaw Pact are now in NATO. These were truly changes of biblical proportion, and the effect the jihad had in accelerating these events is nothing short of miraculous.

These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world. And the people who deserved the credit are the ones who made the sacrifice. And then we fucked up the end game.
I am fully aware that, on the theme of 9/11 unintended consequences, each informed reader has his own individual epilogue to offer on Charlie Wilson's war. I'll record mine as Charlie's above-stated judgment. In the way of a post-epilogue epilogue, I'll offer Charlie's recent conversation with Charlie Rose.

4 Moderated Comments:

Blogger MadMike said...

This is an outstanding film that clearly shows how shortsighted our government can be. Why in the world we didn't learn a life lesson from Afghanistan-Soviet conflict escapes me.

5/18/2008 12:28:00 PM  
Blogger J McKiernan said...

The story is absolutely fascinating...the film I found to be sort of a mixed bag, though I will agree completely with Mike that it shows "how shortsighted our government can be." The current sociopolitical parallels are very clear, and that is obviously why they made the movie.

I should post the review I wrote on Cinema Squared. I was writing elsewhere before we started the blog. "Charlie Wilson's War" was released a couple months before the birth of Cinema Squared, but I will update the review as a "video pick" or something...

Nonetheless, as I said, what a fascinating story, and what a comprehensive post, Vig. Well done. You are right on to stick with Charlie Wilson's final assessment about "fucking up the end game."

Talk about not learning from history and being bound to repeat it...

5/18/2008 05:41:00 PM  
Blogger Beach Bum said...

While I will agree with Wilson that the Afghanistan covert actions did a lot to de-fang the Soviet Empire in the eyes of many freeing entire countries and people in Soviet gulags. But this victory is appearing more and more to be short lived with Putin's Russia looking more and more like some Czarist/fascist state.

5/19/2008 03:57:00 PM  
Blogger Utah Savage said...

Ah yes, I remember it well. Not the film, but out support For Bin Laden, our arming of his "revolutionaries, his freedom fighters." We take the long view, don't we? Who was the president then, that I forgot. Wasn't it Reagan?

5/20/2008 05:09:00 PM  

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