Snatching Defeat From the Jaws of Victory

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on August 9, 2014

Released on December 21, 2007, twenty-eight years to the month after the Soviet Union launched Operation STORM 333, decapitating the Afghan government and plunging the country into a decade-long war, Charlie Wilson’s War tells a story centred on Representative Charles Wilson of Texas (Tom Hanks), a conservative Democrat, Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), a Right-wing Christian socialite in Houston who has taken the Afghans to her bosom because of her hatred for communism, and Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a blue-collar case officer at the CIA who is the epitome of the adage that one can get anything done in Washington so long as one does not care who gets the credit. Between them they cajole Congress into moving its appropriations from $5 million to $500 million, which will be matched dollar-for-dollar by the Saudis, to help the Afghan resistance combat the Red Army’s occupation of their country.

For all the movie’s faults in accuracy—its underplaying of the role the senior administration officials like President Ronald Reagan and CIA Director William Casey played being the most salient, its overplaying of the role the Stinger surface-to-air missile had in turning the tide—one is still struck by the overall ethos. Max Boot summarised it this way: “[Y]ou’ve got to love a movie in which the Soviets are the bad guys and we’re the good guys, a movie in which the main characters talk unapologetically about how much they love killing Russians. How many other pro-American Cold War pictures has Hollywood made?” As Boot notes, one of the few prior films that comes close is The Three Kings (1999), which is entirely devoted to lambasting the United States and the broader West for having liberated Kuwait in 1991 and then declared a ceasefire that stopped the Coalition troops at the Iraqi border—betraying the subsequent Shi’a rebellion against Saddam Hussein that we had incited. Demanding more intervention, and in “internal affairs” too, is novel ground for Hollywood.

There are two deforming aspects to the film. One is that Ms. Herring’s own extreme Christianity is allowed too salient a part, and, because the film rather overplays how small was the pro-Afghan faction in the American government, it is allowed to be insinuated as a fairly pronounced subtext that there is a danger America will fight a religious war in Afghanistan. The second is a moment when Rep. Wilson is being prevailed upon by Ms. Herring to increase the budget for the Afghan anti-Soviet commanders and Wilson suggests this would be difficult for him because “[he’s] elected by Jews … Congressmen aren’t elected by voters, they’re elected by contributors. … I’m one of Israel’s guys on the Hill and I don’t know how they’re going to feel about me taking up the cause of Muslims.” This is a horrible allusion to the “Jewish Lobby” thesis of the War on Terror, and though it is not played up again—indeed it is brought to attention that Israel, with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, was the chief armourer of the mujahideen—it is a wretched section of an otherwise admirable film.

The set-pieces in the film are brilliantly done.

Rep. Wilson’s first major trip to Pakistan was in 1982, allowing one of the more amusing scenes of the film. Wilson was a hard-drinking, cocaine-fond character—and liked to cultivate this as a public image, even as he skilfully worked the legislative process behind the scenes. On arrival, Wilson forgets, or isn’t aware of, the Islamic prohibition on alcohol, and requests of Pakistan’s military ruler, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq which whisky he has on tap. Having been abruptly told no dice, and sat through a meeting with two other officers (at least one trained in Britain), Gen. Zia says that the Congressman has numerous “character flaws” but they trust him to get this done. Rep. Wilson remarks to his companion that one is somewhere near rock bottom when one’s character is attacked by a man who has demolished democracy and murdered his predecessor.

But this visit, to Islamabad and then the refugees in Peshawar, ignites in the Congressman a desire to see the Red Army out of Afghanistan. A fifth of the Afghan population is in Pakistan, and two million refugees have flowed into Iran, which is three years into the Islamist revolution of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and two years into a terrifying war with Saddam’s Iraq. Wilson meets with the station chief in Islamabad and offers him a blank cheque, only to be told that the provision of weapons to the guerrillas would “draw attention”. The Congressman points out incredulously that the Cold War is not a secret. When he mentions this to Avrakotos, he is told that the CIA wishes to “bleed” the Soviets in Afghanistan—to keep having them pour money and troops in, and to hand them their Vietnam.

Gen. Zia is given probably the best line about the CIA. An “unimpressive track record” is his summary, and as proof he offers that nobody at Langley foresaw the Soviet takeover of Afghanistan—a full-fledged invasion of tanks and artillery and 130,000 troops crossed an international frontier, and the CIA had to read about it in the newspapers. And the picture, too, of the lack of expertise and resources that are often devoted to major events rings true. In the film Avrakotos is portrayed as having three regular men plus himself on the Afghan desk and a freelance weapons expert. This may or may not be literally true, but it does give some idea of the problems of the CIA. In Afghanistan then, and more famously in Iraq recently and now in Iran, the CIA have essentially nobody on the ground; no contacts, no turned agents, and largely unwilling to risk their own people to learn about a target at shoe-leather level.

The section on the forming of an alliance between Israel and three States with distinctly hostile records against her—the Saudis, who disseminate the most virulent strain of Islamic puritanism, Wahhabism, which includes the most toxic antisemitism; the Egyptians, who have only just laid down their arms after an actual hot war with Israel; and Pakistan, even then a major organiser of the Third World bloc for demagogy against Israel at the United Nations and elsewhere and obviously among those that refuse to recognise the Jewish State—is rather good. It’s not possible to know if the sequence it portrays is accurate, but the spirit of it—a very small group in Israel working with a Pakistani regime that remains hostile in public—is no doubt correct.

Wilson’s first meeting with Gen. Zia provides a throwaway line that is the central one—especially with the benefit of hindsight. Requesting funds for the Afghan resistance, the General intones that “arms and funding should flow through us”. Therein was the problem. The Pakistani military-political elite now often present a self-pitying picture in which they were dragged into America’s war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and then abandoned to deal with the aftermath. As Professor Christine Fair demonstrates in her new book, Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War, the truth is the reverse: Pakistan co-opted the Americans into their jihad policy in Afghanistan.

A bit of background.

First, Afghanistan. The Afghan monarchy was overthrown in July 1973, and the King, Mohammed Zahir Shah, driven into exile. The new president of the republic, Sardar Mohammed Daoud Khan, fell to a Marxist coup d’état in April 1978, the so-called “Saur revolution”. Afghanistan was transformed into a one-party communist dictatorship under Nur Muhammad Taraki and his People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). The brutality and radicalism of Taraki’s government provoked an insurrection that was heavily religious and tribal in colouring. Taraki was deposed in September 1979 and replaced by Hafizullah Amin. There was a lot of faction fighting in the PDPA, but both Taraki and Amin came from the most extreme wing, the so-called Khalq faction. Amin was not trusted by the Soviet Union, as J. Bruce Amstutz’s book explains (pp. 43-45). Moscow’s first attempt to kill Amin in October 1979, luring Amin to a meeting with Taraki on the pretext of reconciliation, backfired, and Taraki was killed in the firefight, Amstutz notes. Amin’s continuation of the policies that alienated so much of the public, his purge of the party apparatus to remove the more pro-Soviet elements, and his clear effort, including outreach to Pakistan and America, to gain for Afghanistan a measure of independence from the U.S.S.R. alarmed Moscow, which tried twice more to assassinate him. When that failed, Amstutz writes, the Soviets decided on invasion, banking on a minimal American response—Vietnam was in the recent past, the Iranian regime took the Embassy hostages with no reply, the Soviets and Cubans had intervened in Yemen earlier that year without American retaliation, and so on. The Soviets installed Babrak Karmal, leader of the more “moderate” Parcham faction of the PDPA, as president.

The 1973 Afghan coup created an immediate problem for Pakistan because Daoud Khan favoured Pashtunistan—the creation of an ethno-state for Pashtuns who reside on both sides of the Durand Line. Fortunately for Pakistan’s authoritarian Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a lot of Islamist oppositionists—Burhanuddin Rabbani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Ahmad Shah Masud, etc.—fled to Pakistan after Daoud Khan acceded to office. Before the end of 1973, Bhutto directed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to create militias that could be used against Daoud Khan’s regime, and the language of this resistance would be Islamist: Pashtun nationalism risked Pakistan’s territorial integrity; Islamic identity allowed Pakistan to reach into Afghanistan in the guise of brotherhood. By the time of Bhutto’s downfall in July 1977, in the military coup by which Zia seized power, 5,000 anti-Daoud militiamen had been trained by ISI in the tribal border zone—the seedbed of the future operations against the Red Army. The creation of anti-Kabul insurgents continued under Zia and accelerated in 1978 after the communist takeover in Afghanistan, as did the integration, material and ideological, of men like Hekmatyar with Pakistani Islamists, notably Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam. This process helped unify the insurgency and more firmly bring it under Pakistan’s influence. This is all long before the Soviets cross the Amu Darya.

On the American side, President James Carter is presented with options to counter Soviet influence in Afghanistan in March 1979 and Operation CYCLONE begins in July 1979, providing propaganda and monetary support to the Afghan resistance. Allegedly weapons begin at the same time. But, as Fair notes, the U.S. could not and did not supply this aid through Pakistan because in April 1979 the U.S. had sanctioned Pakistan after detecting its work toward a nuclear weapon. This is not the course a U.S. hell-bent on including Pakistan in their Afghan policy would take. After the Soviets stormed the Afghan frontier, Carter tried to reverse course, offering Zia $400 million in aid to shore-up the country; Zia denounces the offer as “peanuts” and waited for Reagan to take office and offer better terms, which he did—eventually. Fair explains (p. 77) that Reagan had to go the Congress to get the sanctions waived, so the first tranches of U.S. support to Pakistan for the anti-Soviet war arrive in 1982, and the ISI channels the U.S. aid to the clients and proxies it began building and running nearly a decade before. (Fair also makes a convincing case that the reapplication of the sanctions through the Pressler Amendment in 1990 was closing the barn door after the horse had bolted: Pakistan was an undeclared nuclear-weapons state by then, and the U.S. knew it, having made a tacit condition of waiving the sanctions that Islamabad not overtly detonate a bomb.)

Another of the more stirring moments is when Rep. Wilson is gathering support and notes that Afghanistan was the central front of the Cold War. Not Cuba; not Czechoslovakia. For all the myth-making about Mikhail Gorbachev now, the reality is that in his first three years in office (1985-7) he killed 555,000 civilians in Afghanistan—more than the previous six years combined. Wilson demands that the House realise that the Afghan resistance are “fighting our enemies for us”.

By the spring of 1987, the Mujahideen have begun to bring down Soviet aircraft, and in April 1988 the Geneva Accords are signed that commit the Soviets to withdrawal. They do so under the cover of a final victorious battle, and the survival of the communist puppet regime in Kabul, even after the Red Army is out, give a superficial cover to this. But it cannot be hidden, as the news report at the end of the film has it, that the Afghans have been enabled to “defeat the mighty Soviet Union”.

The end of the film is in many ways the best part, the most infused with meaning. Rep. Wilson begs the Congress to continue funding for what would broadly be called “nation building”—hospitals, schools, roads—in order to finish the job and secure the victory in Afghanistan. They reply that they have East Europe to think about, and that some tiny, bankrupt, rock-dominated State that isn’t even really a State on the other side of the world is of no concern to them right now. Wilson pleads that Americans “always go in with our ideals … and then we leave; we always leave.” How right that is: the American failure to continue engaging meant that the worst elements, like Hekmatyar and in time the Taliban, were able to dominate the scene under Pakistani tutelage, and incubate an even greater menace. The deficiencies of the “realist” ideology were laid bare: the George H.W. Bush administration did not care about Afghanistan once the Soviets were out; the internal collapse and the character of the regime were a matter of indifference. Afghanistan cannot really be said to have any geostrategic value and it has no mineral wealth (at least no such known wealth at the time). Thus, Afghanistan was ignored, and produced the first major attack on the American homeland since 1941.

The film finishes by putting a quote of Wilson’s on the screen: “These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world. … And then we fucked up the endgame.” This is a brilliant encapsulation that does not only apply to the U.S.’s Afghan policy in the 1980s.

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