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.