Connect to share and comment

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

The Soviets are gone, but the war in Afghanistan rolls on.

Former U.S. congressman Charlie Wilson arrives at the world premiere of the film "Charlie Wilson's War" in Los Angeles, Cali., Dec. 10, 2007. (Fred Prouser/Reuters)

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.