Revisiting America’s war in Afghanistan

September 26, 2008

File photo of Afghan riding a donkey past a destroyed tankI finally got around to reading Charlie Wilson’s War (much better than the film and considerably longer) about the U.S. Congressman who managed to drum up huge amounts of money to fund the mujahideen fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980′s.

George Crile’s book - about how the CIA channelled money and weapons through Pakistan to defeat the Red Army in Afghanistan and helped bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union – was first published in 2002.  But it’s even more relevant today as the United States struggles to defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and realises it will never succeed as long as ”the enemy” has sanctuary in Pakistan. It is the only war that the United States has fought on both sides.

This is a tale of how ill-equipped Afghan tribesmen were turned into “technoguerrillas” with American money and a romantic notion of defeating the “Evil Empire”.  I realise this story has been told many times since 9/11. And I acknowledge the obvious perils of judging history with hindsight – back then U.S. policy was seen through the prism of the Cold War, whereas now it is defined by ”the War on Terror”. But there are still lines in “Charlie Wilson’s War” that are worth repeating here:

1998 file photo of Russian special units officers at wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier“The basic law of modern guerrilla warfare,” writes Crile, “is that no insurgent movement can survive without a sanctuary for its fighters. The Vietcong depended on Cambodia and North Vietnam … Without Pakistan, there could not have been a sustained resistance (to the Soviet Union).”

In short, exactly the same problem the United States is facing today.

Then there are the weapons supplied to the mujahideen, that the CIA at first bought expensively and unreliably on the black market - ”like trying to get laid in a city you don’t know” – until a secret web of government arms suppliers eventually allowed the Americans to get “out of the world’s black-market whorehouses and into contractual relationships with governments that could provide the Agency with sound, reliable killing devices at a fixed price.”

Which countries are supplying the Taliban now?

Reading some of the lines in the book about how the aim was to sow fear into the hearts of the occupying Soviets, makes you wonder, especially so soon after the Marriott bombing, whether the author might have described them differently had he been writing with the perspective of recent history.

Marriott Hotel on fire in Islamabad/Mian KursheedHe writes for example about how the mujahideen in Pakistani camps were trained to wage a war of urban terror, with instructions in car bombings, bicycle bombings, camel bombings and assassination. According to Charlie Wilson, this was the one morally unambiguous crusade of our time. “This is the one chance to send the Soviet young men home in body bags,” he is quoted as saying, “like they sent our boys back in body bags.  Let’s make this a Vietnam for the Soviets.”

Pakistan of course denied all involvement in supporting the mujahideen, afraid that the Soviet Union might become so angered by the difficulties of taming Afghanistan that it would invade Pakistan as well. According to Crile, when then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev threatened to destroy Pakistan if it did not halt support for the mujahideen, President Zia “looked Gorbachev straight in the eye and insisted his country was not involved”. 

What’s interesting is how little the U.S. media and politicians questioned the CIA campaign in Afghanistan, distracted as they were by covert CIA operations to prevent the spread of communism in Latin America.

“It remains one of the great mysteries of this entire history,” writes Crile, “that virtually no one in the press – or Congress for that matter – seemed to care that the CIA was running the biggest operation in its history: that it was supporting efforts to kill thousands of Soviets, that it was fighting a very dirty war, that it was arming tens of thousands of fanatical Muslim fundamentalists.”

If we missed that story - one with such enormous consequences for the 21st century - what are we failing to notice now?

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