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Charlie Wilson's Warlords

By Ivan Eland
February 20, 2008

Editor’s Note: The dominant U.S. narrative on the end of the Cold War is that it was won by Ronald Reagan with his costly, hard-line foreign policy, including the covert war in Afghanistan. But many intelligence analysts consider that conventional wisdom a myth. [See, for instance, Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]


In this guest essay, Independent Institute’s Ivan Eland examines this Cold War question in the context of the recent Hollywood movie, Charlie Wilson’s War:

Both the book and movie Charlie Wilson’s War glorify the “colorful,” liberal, Democratic congressman’s successful crusade to bludgeon the reluctant, neoconservative Reagan administration into dramatically escalating funding, arming, and training of radical Islamists fighting against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Although the zestful life and escapades of Wilson make for an entertaining and true-to-(Wilson’s)-life movie, both the book and movie give short shrift to the dire, long-term policy consequences of Wilson’s and Reagan’s proxy war.

Hollywood had to use almost none of their usual poetic license to embellish reality to make the film interesting, because the raucous Wilson was more entertaining than fiction.

For example, on a trip to conservative Islamic countries, he took along his own belly dancer, whose uniquely risqué American adaptation of the traditional art form raised eyebrows.

And this was one of the tamer stunts the boozing, womanizing, and alleged drug-taking congressman pulled off. But entertaining exploits masked disastrous policy failure.

The danger of this movie resembles that of Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK, which took liberties with facts surrounding John F. Kennedy’s assassination to imply a conspiracy involving Vice President Lyndon Johnson.

The problem with one-sided movies of historical events, such as JFK and Charlie Wilson’s War, is that they permanently emblazon in the public’s mind simple ideas about complex events that may be in dispute among historians.

Although the book version of Charlie Wilson’s War at one point acknowledges that the causes of the Soviet Union’s fall are still debated among historians, it then proceeds to enshrine the overall message that the reason the Soviet Union expired was that Wilson and Reagan gave the Soviets a costly, Vietnam-like quagmire in Afghanistan.

Empires most commonly collapse because their economies can no longer support their expensive foreign escapades.

Undoubtedly, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan was costly and may have quickened the “Evil Empire’s” demise, but the root cause was the nonviable and dysfunctional state-owned economy, in which the workers pretended to work at producing items that no one wanted to buy and the creaky state-owned industries pretended to pay them in worthless currency.

After the Red Army left Afghanistan and the Soviet regime collapsed almost three years later, Wilson argued only that he had hastened its demise by five or ten years.

But at tremendous cost. As with many U.S. adventures overseas, funding non-communist forces—even though they happened to be Islamic radicals—to fight the Soviets seemed like a good idea at the time.

Giving the U.S.S.R. its own military quagmire, in answer to the Soviets’ doing the same to the United States in Vietnam, was sweet revenge.

Yet the main channel through which the Afghan mujahideen got their American-funded arms and training was the Pakistani intelligence services. For their own purposes, Pakistani intelligence gave preference to arming and training the most radical Islamists, as opposed to Ahmad Shah Massoud, the best anti-Soviet fighter.

Unfortunately, U.S. funds were used to train such Islamists in urban terrorist techniques.

On 9/11, this training came back to bite the United States, because many of the hijackers were veterans of the Afghan War.

Also, the mujahideen’s victory over an occupying Soviet superpower emboldened the Islamists to attempt to defeat on its home turf the other superpower that was occupying and intervening in Muslim lands (the U.S. has had ground troops in the Persian Gulf since the end of the first Gulf War, and heavily supports autocratic and corrupt Arab governments and Israel).

 After 9/11, the United States tried to kill two of its favorite commanders in the mujahideen: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who helped Osama bin Laden escape from Tora Bora when he was cornered during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and Jalaluddin Haqqani, who harbored bin Laden and is now a prominent Taliban leader.

Therefore, what seemed like sound policy at the time, giving the archrival Soviets a bloody nose in an insignificant backwater country, has inadvertently generated one of the few major threats to the U.S. homeland in America’s history: anti-U.S. Islamist terrorism.

Of course, the Soviets had a plethora of nuclear warheads aimed at the United States, but even now, after the demise of the U.S.S.R., a semi-hostile Russia does still. Although this threat is existential, it has been managed by the two countries to reduce the chance of nuclear war.

Since most empires disintegrate due to financial problems, and because the dysfunctional Soviet economy made the U.S.S.R. especially susceptible to this fate, the United States, during the Cold War, might have been smarter to abandon its aggressive containment policy, which actively challenged potential Soviet inroads anywhere in the world.

Instead, the U.S. could have concentrated on securing the centers of economic and technological power—in Europe and Japan—and let the Soviets have economic “basket cases” in the third world, such as Angola, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Colombia, Laos, Cambodia, South Vietnam, and even South Korea (underdeveloped when North Korea invaded in 1950).

In this alternate scenario, the Soviet Union and its empire likely would have collapsed—this time from the expense of occupying, funding, and administering these backwater countries—but the United States could have saved much blood and treasure that it expended during the Cold War.

It is ironic that during the Cold War, liberals like Charlie Wilson and neoconservatives like Ronald Reagan agreed on pursuing this costly and interventionist containment strategy.

The venues in which they preferred to challenge the Soviets may have differed—the neoconservatives preferred the futile effort to support the contras in Nicaragua, while the liberals preferred backing the mujahideen in Afghanistan—but they had the same foreign policy.

The interventionist consensus continued after the Cold War and ultimately led to the blowback of 9/11.

It shouldn’t be any surprise that liberals and neoconservatives alike have opted for an interventionist foreign policy, since both support government activism at home (again, with differing preferences as to the areas of mischief).

But unfortunately, 9/11 demonstrated that the cost of overseas meddling by Charlie Wilson, Ronald Reagan, and their liberal and neoconservative brethren in the state apparatus might be even higher than the cost which accrues from government intervention domestically.

Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland has spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. His books include The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.  

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