Charlie Wilson Rest In Peace

Author with Charlie Wilson

By Aisha Fayyazi Sarwari

Now is a good time for anyone and everyone to say, I knew Charlie Wilson, the Democrat Congressman credited with the launch and success of the Afghan war in the 70s. He was popular in an extraordinary way: a controversial yet a very effective politician who worked across party lines to galvanize a movement and get a military cause fulfilled in another continent.

I knew Charlie Wilson too, very briefly in Washington almost a decade ago. Heading Wilson Associates, a small outfit that had the gigantic task of creating a positive image for Pakistan, he often worked closely as an advisor to the Pakistani Embassy, my employer then, where we would discuss campaign contributions, new articles and controversies in the press about Pakistan and the diplomatic climate of Pakistan, US and Afghanistan.
“Do you know what country spends the most on PR in the US?” He asked in the board room once. I guessed it would be Israel. I worked at the Pakistan Embassy and was in those days obsessed about the unfairness of the negative perception of Pakistan in the leading papers. “No. That country is Saudi Arabia.” He corrected.

“So you see, it’s not about who thinks what of a country but its about doing the right thing and keeping at it. Pakistan should do the right thing.” He said, waving a magazine at me with a cartoon of a big elephant called Saudi Arabia.

Post-9/11, Pakistanis in the US didn’t really know how to navigate the new terrain they found themselves in. A friendly and open country had become hostile: the call-in radio shows were full of vitriolous blabber against the only country they could remember the name of: Pakistan, and the TV shows were even worse, calling in experts that swore that Pakistan is a can of untamable jihadis, and the books from the likes of Fox News anchors. In the backdrop of the feeling that Pakistan was a concept on paper that could trun to ash anytime, Charlie Wilson was a breath of fresh air.

Hung on his office wall, above his work desk was the first stinger missile that Afghans used to shoot down the Russian helicopters. He was very Che for me then: and certainly a liberator for those Afghans, dirt poor and war ravaged with no recourse to stand up on their feel and protect themselves. Also on his wall was a picture of him horsebacking in traditional shalwar kameez on the boarder of Pakistan and Afghanistan, looking very local. I saw that picture and knew then what I see every day in the streets and villages of Pakistan: That this country is not a concept, its real, and everything real has its own course toward progress. 

When he talked about a time when there was only Russia and a creeping shadow of the US, it seemed hard to imagine. It was a time of terror: Enough to spark McArthyism paranoia in the US against the rise of Communism. Charlie Wilson, driven by what I think was his own strong sense of standing up for the underdog, and less by Christian fundamentalism, he championed the cause of Afghans against the Russaian occupying force and architected a modern covert war, that was as secret as it was complicated. It damaged the Russians though a surprise attack, by routing the ammunition from Pakistan. Charlie Wilson was as good a general as he was a politician, and got a military award from the US army. Although despite his strengths at building alliances with the Pakistani Dictator, General Zia, he is often accused of creating a mess that the defeat of the Russians left behind in the region.

By far the most damaging thing that Charlie Wilson did by orchestrating this modern war is that he supported the use of religious fervor to ferry up the independent fighters against infidel Russians. This created both a savior complex in the US as it created a rescue thrill for the Muslim movements in the region.

Most religious rhetoric, even when the Russians are bled out of Afghanistan in the holy war, now yearns for a new era of an Islamic state to defeat another set of infidels: the Americans, the Pakistani collaborators, the Indians etc. The logic of the Afghan war was a just one, simply by virtue of it being against an oppressive force, but with the fuel of Islamic jihad, which no doubt can be argued as a need of the time, had only created a myopic solution, with absolutely no clean up component.

For many years after the afghan war, Charlie Wilson lobbied for an operation that disarms the militant groups feeding into what we now know as Al Qaida, but the efforts and results were both too late.

Now as things stand Pakistan has a cost of terrorism which measures up to USD 35 billion, and an average of 200 suicide attacks against the law enforcement agencies, the Pakistan Army and the civilians – All that can be mapped as a direct fall out of the Afghan war’s mismanagement.
With Charlie Wilson’s death, Pakistan has lost a great friend, someone who actually remembered and acknowledged the pivotal role played by Pakistan in US world politics. With Charlie Wilson gone, a link to that era is lost. Now it will be harder for the new generations to imagine what the world was like then. 

“Hollywood will make a film on me.” He said signing his NYT bestseller, Charlie Wilson’s War. I smiled at his unabashed vanity. That is how he must have won the confidence of the politicians, diplomats and fighters alike.

12 Comments

Filed under Afghanistan, Pakistan, USA

12 responses to “Charlie Wilson Rest In Peace

  1. Midfield Dynamo

    It is safer to have an intelligent enemy then a foolish friend.
    A job half done is undone.
    Charlie Wilson was a pawn used by the establishment as a facade to give legislative credibility to covert decisions made in dark conference rooms.
    Had the US not made such an impetuous contribution to the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan. Imagine the situation now, after thirty years, most likely Afghanistan would have been similar in character to one of the Central Asian States. Better for Russia, more tolerable for the rest of the world, certainly Pakistan would be more prosperous politically, economically and culturally.
    I wonder how the author has taken such pride in associating herself with such a person and the nostalgia for the end to an era. It was that era which must bear the responsibility to the world’s woes of today.

  2. subalternate

    Pakistan was one of the three governments that recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Stop with the whitewashing the historical record.

  3. Ron

    With all due respect to the author i wanna point out two things:

    1)Its NOT love for Pakistan BUT to screw the USSR that motivated this guy.

    2)Every major military operation has something called an “Exit Strategy”. He had none. That’s why we see what we see today…….

  4. hoss

    Good Article Aisha.
    However, Wilson did not orchestrated the war. It is a fiction. He was merely Reagon Admin’s point man because of the committee appointment he held.

    According to the book by George Crile upon which the film is based, the hot tub scene took place in June 1980. Crile describes Wilson’s sudden conversion to a sympathetic position toward Muslims as occurring in October 1982 when the Texas congressman, fully-clothed, visited Lebanese refugee camps after the Israeli invasion of that country.

    Previously a staunch supporter of the Jewish state, Wilson was shocked by what he saw in those refugee camps, instilling in him empathy toward Muslims that evolved into his zealous support of the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

    “But surely the most glaring omission in the film is the fateful trade-off accepted by President Ronald Reagan when he agreed not to complain about Pakistan’s efforts to acquire a nuclear weapons capability in exchange for Pakistani cooperation in helping the Afghan rebels.

    On page 463 of his book, Crile characterizes this deal or understanding as “the dirty little secret of the Afghan war” –- General Zia al-Haq’s ability to extract not only “massive aid” from Washington but also to secure Reagan’s acquiescence in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program via a congressional waiver of U.S. nonproliferation laws in December 1981.”

    “This history remains a taboo topic for many within the Washington Establishment, especially those who look back favorably on the Reagan presidency.

    Bob Woodward in his 1987 book Veil about the notorious CIA director of the era (William Casey) and Joseph Persico in his voluminous Casey biography published in 1990 discuss the aid program for the Afghan mujaheddin.

    But these authors don’t mention the Reagan-Zia bargain and how the congressional exemption granted to Islamabad in late 1981 effectively negated any intelligence reporting about the Pakistani nuclear weapons program from that point on.”

  5. Majumdar

    In retrospect I wonder if Pak did the right thing by supporting USA’s war or the US by supporting the jihad. On the positive side, certainly it ensured Pak’s nuclear status.

    As regarding the USSR it cud have collapsed anyway eventually out of economic stagnation, the arms race that USA forced upon it and the dissatisfaction in Soveit Union’s own and East European citizens. Perhaps the Afghan War advanced the date by 15-20 years.

    But had the USSR invasion of A’stan worked (not that invasion of one country by another is a good thing) there is a chance, however remote that A’stan may have been somewhat of a progressive Muslim nation. Certainly it is of no help to have a Talibanised A’stan next door (or maybe it is if that is what Pakistanis want for Pak as well)

    Regards

  6. yasserlatifhamdani

    Majumdar,

    The fear these guys had was of the red empire taking over South Asia… I think Aisha is not an uncritical admirer of Mr. Wilson… she has pointed out the obvious pitfalls of the approach that the US took.

    What is important to realize is that there are good things and bad of every move. As a nation state, Pakistan would not have felt that bad about the USSR and a communist state in Afghanistan, had Afghanistan not had a hostile policy towards Pakistan vis a vis NWFP. After all Bacha Khan and Ajmal Khattak (who we have discussed in another article below) and others in Pakhtoon nationalist camp were found in Kabul backed by the Kabul regime. (Strange twist of fate… that Bacha Khan had in 1920s- then there as part of Tehreek-e-Hijrat of the Khilafat movement- laughed at the King of Afghanistan’s suggestion that Pakhtun lands of the British Empire should be part of Afghanistan)

    Charlie Wilson and his backers had a very naive view of history and culture. It is ironic that Texas liberal democrat Wilson described Zia ul Haq as the “Winston Churchill of our times” and his financial backer… that Texan right wing nut… Joanne Herring?…. said Zia had to hang Bhutto because Quran has death penalty and Quran is the constitution of Pakistan. Who in either of these political camps can own this these statements today?

    However… I admire Charlie Wilson’s story if for nothing else…his personal achievement… he did play a very important role… not as important as he projected it but important nonetheless … in one of the greatest historical events of our times… the fall of Soviet Union.

    Today we look back to a bipolar world and remember in bouts of nostaglia the Soviets and the balance they gave the world. It is forgotten that at the heart of it, Soviet Union was a brutal, expansionist and a totalitarian ideological state. If we must venture into “what ifs”…the road to the global nuclear holocaust following a third world war is not that unimaginable.

  7. Majumdar

    Yasser,

    the road to the global nuclear holocaust following a third world war is not that unimaginable.

    Actually, there was very little chance of that happening. At the end of the day, USSR was an imperialist power and not very revisionist, at least after Brezhnev took over. They wud have been as wary of risking a nuclear war as the Americans or rest of the “free world”

    Your balance characterisation of the USSR is basically correct.

    Regards

  8. vajra

    @Majumdar

    ‘At the end of the day’, yes.

    In 1961, someone who is – say – 35 to 40 years old today would have been 9 to 14 years before making his bow on earth. Unfortunately, in that year, nuclear war did not seem quite so unlikely. And Brezhnev was the soured, rotten-on-the-stalk part of Soviet Russia; during the 50s and the 60s, especially the 60s, you had to be here to sense the sense of being under siege that the free world was under. It did seem at one stage that the Reds would win.

    I sincerely hope that our children will be able to look back at this grim period of international terrorism and laugh at our fears, and that they too will be privileged to have a witty, cynical commentator who is able to dismiss the prospects of disaster due to this with an airy wave of his elegant, well-manicured hand.

  9. Majumdar

    Vajra da,

    I was a young kid during the last days of the cold war- 16 when USSR left A’stan- naturally I can’t claim to experience what people of your generation wud have experienced in the 1960s and 1970s. Although, when I was growing up Frederick Forsythe and folks like him were still the big fiction authors.

    I sincerely hope that our children will be able to look back at this grim period of international terrorism and laugh at our fears

    Amen.

    and that they too will be privileged to have a witty, cynical commentator who is able to dismiss the prospects of disaster due to this with an airy wave of his elegant, well-manicured hand.

    Hopefully, my toddler will one day grow up to be this commentator on PTH. (While one of Vishwasbhai’s avatars will be there predicting the imminent doom of Pakistan)

    Regards

  10. Majumdar

    Btw, is it true that Charlie Wilson hated India, Gandhi and Nehru.

    Regards

  11. ylh

    Never came across anything to suggest that …but he did consider India to be a hostile country.

  12. Johnny

    Charlie Wilson did a great thing for the world by setting in motion a train of events that would turn Pakistan into an abbatoir of Islamic suicide bombing terrorism. Every week there is a major terrorist attack, sapping the moral and soul of Pakistan. Excellent work, Charlie.