Watching the movie, Charlie Wilson’s War that was based on George Crile’s non- fiction bestseller Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History brought me back in time when as a 9- year old boy growing up in a rustic town in Albay, the Philippines, I first learned of the news of the Soviet Union’s Invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Day in 1979 from the pages of The Bulletin Today and Daily Express that my Gran’ Pa used to read, an event that caught the world by surprise that was soon followed by the US-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics in protest of the invasion.
And while people in Manila can watch the news on several TV channels, we only got two channels working at the time on our side of the planet depending on where your typical aerial TV antenna was positioned/pointed at-- we have RPN from Iriga City on our west side and GMA from Legaspi City up north.
I tell you, it was a funny exercise one had to do just to get a fair TV reception during those days not to mention the struggle one has to endure while you were up there on the hot tin roof trying your best to position those aluminum antennas to perfection so that you can watch some shows on your black & white console TV starting at 6 o’clock in the evening if you were lucky enough to catch the unpredictable and unreliable schedule of the networks.
No news from the Radios for me either, since the Philippines was still under Martial Law at that time and most local commentators probably think that World News was not worth the airtime vis-à-vis the New Society’s mumbo-jumbos that they were asked to praise to high heavens on air by the lapdogs of the Dictator Marcos.
But I had an abundance of Time, Newsweek and Asiaweek magazines courtesy of a doctor who rented my aunt’s house next door as his residence cum clinic. Those magazines plus the usual newspaper fare were my ticket to the world, current- events wise.
Anyway, back to the movie, Charlie Wilson played by Tom Hanks is a Democratic Texas Congressman who loves booze, drugs, women and all the perks that his position can get to satisfy his insatiable appetite for hedonism.
He was your typical politically incorrect Congressman who can dish out lines like “You can teach a woman how to type but you can’t teach them to grow tits” when asked why he prefers beautiful and voluptuous women in his office and get away with it. He was your typical leech on Capitol Hill that suck the blood out of the nation’s coffers. He was a loud, foul- mouthed, indifferent, and arrogant man until he saw CBS’ Dan Rather on TV interviewing the Mujahideens that were fighting the Evil Empire while on a field assignment in war- torn Afghanistan.
His curiosity piqued, he began to inquire about the US role in the on-going conflict that led him to a disgruntled CIA Case Officer Gus Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as well as to the bed and politics of the known anti- communist and Houston Socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) who arranged for him to meet Pakistani strongman Gen. Muhammad Zia-Ul- Haq as well as visit the Afghan refugee camps in Peshawar where he had an epiphany after seeing and hearing from the very mouths of the refugees the atrocities being committed by the Soviets to the Afghan people.
Thus, the beginning of the Soviet’s downfall in Afghanistan was sealed. And the Unholy Alliance among the players in the Reagan Administration’s not-so-secret proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan was born. And the Central Intelligence Agency’s dirty role in the war effort from across the border in Pakistan to return the favor to the Russians what they did to America by way of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Vietnam began.
Director Mike Nichols showed us the wheeling and dealing that is the hallmark of the America’s brand of Democracy as well as the policies that go with it whether foreign or domestic.-- from the “favorable exchange” in Congress to an inside look at political fund-raising gatherings to sleeping with the enemy. You name ‘em and the film showed ‘em albeit in passing but just enough for the viewers to get a glimpse and understanding of the real deal, of how the system work behind those facades that the customary players (the US Government, the Media Conglomerates, Congress, etc) want the people to believe.
He showed us how Charlie Wilson as a member of the House Defense Appropriations Sub- Committee raised the ante by doubling the initial measly $5 million budget for the US support to the Mujahideens that eventually reached almost $1 billion with a lot of help from Arab Countries like Saudi Arabia and the rich Gulf States.
He showed us how the CIA procured arms to supply the Afghans with weapons that can level the playing field against the Russians. This is realpolitik in its truest sense of the word, when strange bedfellows like the Isrealis, Egyptians, Saudis and Pakistanis can set aside their religious differences with the aid of the Almighty Dollars from Uncle Sam worked together to fight a “God-less” enemy in Afghanistan.
True enough, with the help of the new sophisticated weapons in their hands, the Mujahideens turned the tides of war in their favor and the USSR rather than get stuck in the quagmire did the unthinkable and withdrew after years of trying to tame Afghanistan, their pride and reputation as a superpower be damned.
Of course, this was aided by the winds of change blowing wherein Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika gaining grounds in the Russian home front and other Warsaw Pact Nations that eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet Empire.
The Film tried its best to convey as much as it can History- wise to the viewing public but found wanting. They resorted to footages as well as dialogues where names of prominent personalities were floated to make the film more authentic but did not impress--
What with an F-16 being shot down by a Stinger surface to air missile instead of the obvious Russian fighter jets like the Migs and Sukhois? Although they got the menacing Mi- 24 Hind Helicopter on some scenes, still they could have done away with that shot of the US F-16 being blown up in the sky.
Also they made it appear that the “Lion of Panjshir” Ahmad Shah Massoud as the recipient of the bulk of the CIA’s arms delivery but anybody who knows his Afghan War History knew that this is not the case since the arms were delivered by the Pakistanis to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a Pashtun rebel leader with deep ties with Pakistan rather than to the forces of Gen. Massoud.
Although Massoud was a known ally of the West and a brilliant war tactician but being a Tajik did not endear him to the Pakistanis who serve as the conduit of arms getting into Afghanistan and so was denied the much needed arms supply.
Was this a ploy on the part of the right- wingers to mislead the American public that the CIA did support Gen. Massoud's forces rather than the ones that the Pakistanis nurtured until it metamorphosed into the dreaded Talibans and in the long run Al Qaeda?
The Pashtuns and Tajiks deep- rooted hatred for each other can be summed in the lines uttered in the movie that became a source of a little controversy, “When a Tajik man wants to make love to a woman, his first choice is a Pashtun man.”
By the way, Massoud was the same leader of the Northern Alliance who warned about Al- Qaeda’s plan to attack the West and was assassinated during a supposed media interview by the henchmen of Osama Bin Laden posing as reporters just two days before the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center.
Charlie Wilson on advice from Gus Avrakotos who knows better that the war is not over even after the withdrawal of the Russians asked his friends in Congress to allocate funds for the construction of schools in Afghanistan and was rebuked instead by one of his colleagues by telling him that, “nobody gives a shit about a school in Pakistan”, that only show you how some members of the US Congress were illiterate not only on matters of foreign policy but also on geography..
The emergence of Al Qaeda, Taliban, Jemaah Islamiya, Abu Sayaff and all the other terrorist groups that were responsible for the worst terrorists attacks that the world has seen began when the “Victors” became oblivious of the fact that while driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan is sweet victory in a sense, they did not see the consequences of their subsequent actions when they left the war-weary Afghans with their country in shambles to fend for themselves.
These lapses and miscalculations of the Powers That Be resulted in us, reaping the rotten fruits of their indifference. And it can be said that the seeds of the modern form of terrorism were sown in the blood- splattered soil of Afghanistan.
The lessons of the Afghan War can be summed up in these lines that appeared at the end of the movie,
“These things happened . They were glorious and they changed the world…
…and then we fucked up the end game.”
Note: This is Part One of what I call The Afghanistan Trilogy- The Kite Runner, Lions for Lambs and Charlie Wilson's War.