Charlie Wilson and Afghanistan’s Unwinnable Wars


This piece by journalist and author Edward Girardet was published by The Essential Edge 27 February, 2008.

The United States is sending an additional 3,000 troops to Afghanistan in a bid to improve a steadily deteriorating security situation. One reason why the country is in such a mess, writes Edward Girardet, is because of American polilcy dating back to the Soviet occupation, when Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson – together with Pakistan – helped create international terrorists who have come back to haunt us.

Shortly after the start of America’s retaliatory bombing in Afghanistan in October, 2001, I found myself on “The O’Reilly Factor,” a US Fox television talk show. Bill O’Reilly, the programme’s interviewer, immediately confused the Taliban with Al Qaeda. This, I warned, represented a total misunderstanding of the country’s devastating conflicts over the past two and a half decades. The US strategy also threatened to inflict a whole swathe of new Bin Ladens not just on Afghanistan, but the rest of the world.

I had recently returned from Afghanistan, where I had traveled to meet with Ahmed Shah Massoud, the renowned guerrilla commander whom I knew well from my reporting of the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. Massoud wanted to explore why his homeland was still involved in an ever vicious cycle of destruction, much of it fueled by outside interests. The only option, he maintained via satellite phone, was to establish a broad-based government that included moderate Taliban.

Sandstorms delayed our rendezvous and I had to return to Europe. While in northern Afghanistan, I had unwittingly shared a guest house with the two Al Qaeda assassins who blew up Massoud two days later on September 9. By ridding the country of its last major resistance figure, Al Qaeda could pursue its own more global objectives in the knowledge that the Pushtun-dominated Taliban could now extend their control nation-wide.

All this was of no concern to O’Reilly. He repeatedly interrupted my attempts to explain the rise of the Taliban and the significance of Massoud’s assassination for 9/11. “The American people aren’t interested in history,” he asserted.

The fact that Fox TV – today the main source of news for US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq – represented the patriotic mainstream at the time was disconcerting enough. It was an arrogance also widely embraced by other mainstream media, including the New York Times. At a Washington dinner, the foreign editor (a Brit) of the New York Times and others present rebuked two journalists and myself – all three of us with Afghan experience – for daring to question US policy in the wake of 9/11. The fact that the Fourth Estate had a responsibility to report critically did not seem to bother them. This, I thought to myself, is what it must have been like during the McCarthy era. Except that this was the year 2001and the press – once again – was failing to do its job.

Even today, newspapers like the New York Times and other mainstream media – but also many educated Americans who should know better – are still not that interested in confronting realities on the ground. It is this unwillingness to learn from the past that currently represents the greatest threat to Afghanistan’s international recovery effort.

As history has shown, no one wins wars in Afghanistan. Not even Afghans. America’s unilateral “war against terrorism” is unable to thwart the country’s steadily expanding civil conflict. Washington is further implementing a military-backed counter-narcotics campaign that is only turning irate opium poppy farmers into fresh fodder for Taliban recruitment.

Many NATO military, but also aid consultants and diplomats, remain staggeringly uninformed. So obsessed are they by “quick fixes” or top-down strategies with little understanding of on-the-ground realities that much of what is being done is doomed to failure. It is as if Afghanistan did not exist prior to the Taliban.

Today’s Afghanistan is remarkably déjà vu of the Red Army occupation. Then the communists “controlled” the towns and parts of the countryside. The mujahideen – as the guerrillas were known – were everywhere and nowhere. The Soviets regularly declared victory whenever the guerrillas – “terrorists” for Moscow – were killed or put to flight. More often than not, the mujahideen simply regrouped to fight again. Their strength – but also their weakness – lay in their lack of coordination.

NATO’s war consists of combating a disparate swathe of rebel fronts that include neo-Taliban, former mujahideen, and drug traffickers. Similar to the “freedom fighters” of the 1980s, the insurgents rely heavily on the tribal frontier areas for support, but also from outsiders, such as Pakistani military, sympathetic to their cause. About the only new tactic is the use of suicide bombings, some of them Afghan, others foreign-instigated.

Ordinary Afghans increasingly perceive the international presence as an occupation. They are angered by NATO bombings, the blatant corruption among privileged Afghan elites, and the failure of aid to reach where it is needed most, notably rural areas.

The United States must bear much of the responsibility for this. Following the 1989 Soviet withdrawal, the U.S. ignored the consequences of funneling weapons to Afghan extremist groups, such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami faction. This led to rampant lawlessness enabling the Taliban to emerge in the mid-1990s as a relatively popular movement among Afghans exhausted by war.

Seven years into the intervention, the ignorance is perpetuated by the Tom Hanks movie, Charlie Wilson’s War based on the book by CBS producer George Crile (left with Wilson in Peshawar). Hollywood would have one believe that the pro-Western Massoud was the principal beneficiary for US covert aid, thanks to Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson. In reality, Massoud received very little. The film completely fails to mention Wilson’s involvement with Hekmatyar, a virulently anti-American resistance politician.

Working closely with the Pakistanis, Wilson ensured that Hekmatyar received the bulk of U.S. backing as Afghanistan’s “most effective” guerrilla leader. Many journalists and western aid workers, however, had a completely different assessment. Hekmatyar relentlessly murdered Afghan intellectuals and attacked mujahed rivals. Some State Department officials raised concerns about his blatant efforts to undermine the resistance, but no one listened. Wilson had a war to fight.

By 2002, Washington had designated Hekmatyar an “international terrorist.” The Central Intelligence Agency even tried to kill its former protégé, but failed. Hekmatyar is now operating from along the Afghan-Pakistan border and is believed to be behind some of the worst bombings that have killed and maimed hundreds.

Author Crile, a friend and colleague who died of pancreatic cancer in 2006 not long after the book came out, did not conceal America’s support for Afghan extremists, particularly Hekmatyar (Left in a recent ‘fugitive’ video/photo received by the Associated Press).  Hollywood, of course, remains Hollywood, yet neither Washington nor many US media are interested in highlighting this murky past. By pretending that Wilson was not in the business of creating monsters, this latest spin is hardly doing anyone any favors. Surely, the international community’s costly involvement in Afghanistan merits a better understanding of the way things are.

Edward Girardet is a writer on humanitarian, conflict and media issues, who has covered Afghanistan since just prior to the Soviet invasion in December, 1979. Girardet, who is editor of the Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan, published his latest book Killing the Cranes: A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan in 2011. The above piece is from his not-so-regular Coward in Kabul blog: