July 18, 2005


Charlie's war, act two (William Fisher, 7/19/05, Asia Times)

Today's media have all but forgotten that the emergence of Afghanistan's Taliban can be largely attributed to the policies of the US 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 Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

In the 1980s, Charles Wilson, a colorful and powerful Democrat from the East Texas Bible Belt, was a member of a Congressional appropriations sub-committee. 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 mujahideen drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan.

In those days, the mujahideen were viewed by the US 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 mujahideen 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 mujahideen 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 mujahideen 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 February 15, 1989, General Boris Gromov, commander of the Soviets' 40th Army, walked across Friendship Bridge as the last Russian to leave Afghanistan. The CIA cable from its Islamabad station to the agency's headquarters said, "We won." Wilson's own note said simply, "We did it."

If you've never read George Crile's Charlie Wilson's War, it's a hoot. The reality is that some Muslim extremism is a small price to pay for ending the Cold War. The tragedy is that keeping our aid to the mujahadeen secret made them think that they won the war themselves. The U.S. role should have been open and that of the triggermen minimized.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 18, 2005 12:45 PM

The US abandoned Afghanistan after the Soviets left. The Iranians and Pakistanis saw an opportunity to gain influence in the weakened country, continuing to offer arms in exchange for strict loyalty-- loyalty of a sort that the US never demanded. The Pakistani ISI-allied Taliban eventually mostly won the ensuing civil war. The rest people know.

Posted by: John Thacker at July 18, 2005 1:00 PM

"...keeping our aid to the mujahadeen secret..."?

Was there anyone on the planet who didn't know we were helping them?

Posted by: Brandon at July 18, 2005 1:19 PM

I think these things are overstated sometimes. After all, who blamed Mrs. Wilson when Dennis murdered that hobo down by the bridge. Sure she baked him cookies all the time, but how was she to know...

Posted by: RC at July 19, 2005 4:49 PM