|Charlie Wilson's war was really America's war
By Michael Johns
web posted February 11, 2008
If there exists one visional depiction of the Cold War's end, it is still a Eurocentric one, November 9, 1989, the day East Berliners joined with those of the city's West in celebration of the Berlin Wall's demise. Three weeks earlier, on October 19, 1989, Stalinist East German dictator Erich Honecker, facing mass internal opposition, was forced from power when the Kremlin, overwhelmed with comparable resistance on many fronts, for the first time refused to provide the East German dictatorship with the political or military cover it had come to expect in its Cold War defense of the regime's totalitarian reign over the East German people. Many East Germans began fleeing the nation without resistance into Czechoslovakia, which itself soon underwent its own liberating, anti-communist and now famous "Velvet Revolution."
At some point during the day of November 9, 1989, a public affairs aide to Honecker's successor, holding the almost hysterically superannuated title of "Minister of Propaganda," was predictably asked when East Germans could begin leaving the country in other ways, including to West Germany through the Wall's crossing points. "As far as I know, effective immediately, right now," came the Minister's response. With that reply ended the predominant physical symbol representing the separation of, and conflict between, freedom and totalitarianism--the very essence of the Cold War. Hammers were taken to that Wall over a series of days and nights, celebrations convened, and, importantly, not one East German stood to defend that beacon of isolation, brutality, and autocracy. East met West, freedom prevailed, the Cold War was won.
It's a tidy, inspiring, important, and truthful series of events. But it does not even closely tell the full, vastly more complex story of the West's Cold War victory, which was a truly global conflict, not just a European one. During the Wall's 28-year existence, some 125 brave East Germans were killed trying to leap or otherwise cross the Wall to freedom in the West. Yet, the Cold War took many more than 125 lives; in the name of its perverse, unnatural ideology of governmental control and manipulation of man, communism itself took the lives of some 100 million people during the 20th century, and most of those lives were not lost in Europe. And while two anti-communist U.S. Presidents wisely chose the Wall to highlight the stakes in the epic Cold War conflict, and the military strength of NATO almost certainly held the Soviets from a potentially apocalyptic, expansionist conflict with Western Europe, it is a probable thesis that the most important initiatives to end the Cold War were actually fought and won outside of Europe, and--let there be no mistake--they were American-led.
Somewhat disturbingly, this has not been a story widely told or broadly understood since the West's victory in the Cold War. Nor, when it has been told, has it been told particularly well.
Encouragingly, such an effort partially emerges in Universal Pictures' recently-released film, Charlie Wilson's War, based on real events and a book of the same name by former CBS foreign correspondent George Crile. In its effort to tell a hugely serious story, it predictably includes enough comedic relief for mass appeal. But it is the thesis of this film--that there exists an undeniable correlation between the ultimate victory of the United States-supported resistance in Afghanistan, known as the mujahideen, in their war against the Soviet Union's invasion and occupation of Afghanistan--that makes this film a hugely important leap in greater understanding of the truth behind the late 20th century American-led effort, under Ronald Reagan's Presidency, to win the Cold War, liberate millions, and usher in the great hope of peace and freedom that exists in our current post-Cold War world.
It may now be fading from the memory of many Americans, but looking at the world in January 1981, when the Reagan Presidency began, it would be a laughable premise to suggest that the West was actually winning the Cold War. In fact, during Carter's Presidency, over a dozen nations fell into the Soviet orbit, sometimes--as was the case in Iran and Nicaragua--at Carter's unwitting behest as he withdrew critical U.S. support from strong American allies under the auspices of these governments' human rights violations, only to see worse violations emerge, as was the case in the emergence of the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, both of whom also fell quickly into the Soviet orbit.
Importantly, however, as Reagan astutely recognized, in nearly all of these Soviet-supported totalitarian states that comprised the Soviet Union's global sphere of influence, spanning through Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, there was almost nowhere that these totalitarian regimes were not also facing internal opposition from the people they were suppressing. Charlie Wilson's War tells the story of one of the most important of these struggles, Afghanistan, where, as part of overall Soviet aggression and on Carter's watch, the Soviet Union sent over 100,000 troops to invade and occupy Afghanistan in 1979. Quite understandably, it was not a national development well taken by the Afghan people. While fractionalized, thousands of Afghans, known as the mujahideen, rose to oppose the Soviet occupation, and this opposition to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan quickly and properly drew U.S. support.
Who led this brave effort to aid a resistance force which, de facto, was fighting the Cold War for us? One of those people was U.S. Congressman Charlie Wilson (played in the film by Tom Hanks), a southern Texas Democrat who, before his intervention in support of the mujahideen, was perhaps best known as a fun-loving bachelor who was not going to let his stuffy Congressional position interfere with his having a good time. Urged on by one of his romantic interests, Houston socialite Joanne Herring (played by Julia Roberts), who urges Wilson to intervene on the mujahideen's behalf, Wilson quickly discovers that the Carter administration's efforts in support of the mujahideen had been disturbingly restricted to a handful of low-level Central Intelligence Agency operatives, led by one very committed CIA officer named Gust Avrakotos, a Pennsylvania-born operative who, upon his 2005 death, The Washington Post called a "blue collar James Bond" who ultimately "ran the largest covert operation in the agency's history." In Charlie Wilson's War, Wilson asks Avrakotos who in Carter's CIA was running the vast and important effort to aid the mujahideen. "Me and three other guys," Avrakotos replies.
Wilson also learns another disturbing fact: that the official Carter policy, described to Wilson during a visit to the U.S. embassy in Pakistan, was to ensure that the U.S. was not seen as intervening in the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in any way that would be perceived as inflaming macro-level U.S.-Soviet relations.
As the film correctly depicts, Wilson experienced surprising success in his somewhat rogue effort to substantially increase covert CIA-channeled U.S. aid to the mujahideen, and the results were ultimately nothing short of remarkable, with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan turning into Moscow's Vietnam. The mujahideen proved hugely heroic fighters. With the aid of U.S.-supplied Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, Soviet MIG and other fighter jets were routinely shot from the sky. Charlie Wilson's War tells this story and, in so doing, provides a fairly new and important context on what was undeniably one of the single greatest contributing factors to the ultimate collapse of global communism. Afghanistan, quite simply, proved for the first time that, with determination and support, the Soviet Union's conquests were reversible. The global significance of this message surely ranks among the most important of the 20th century.
Of course, Afghanistan, important as it proved, was just one of many global Cold War conflicts of the late 20th century. And Charlie Wilson, who does deserve credit for his determination in support of the mujahideen, was just one man. To place this film in some larger context in an understanding of the Soviet empire's ultimate collapse, however, other critical facts cannot be overlooked:
First, the world owes a great debt to many historical global leaders who helped contain Soviet advances and who articulated the threat to freedom imposed by Soviet aggression in the post-World War II era. It must start with Winston Churchill, who, in his famed "Iron Curtain" speech in 1946, awakened the world to this new struggle, saying: "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe, Warsaw, Berlin, Praque, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere." Successive U.S. Presidents from Harry Truman at least through Richard Nixon, and the Congresses during those administrations, admirably understood that the Cold War was a battle for the future of the world and that holding Soviet advances at bay--what was known as "containment"--was essential to the West's freedom and security.
Second, when the Reagan administration arrived in Washington in 1981, hugely important and still underrated historical figures in this administration, including then-CIA Director William J. Casey, United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger (sadly, all now deceased) quickly recognized the fact that the Soviet Union's advances since World War II and especially under the Carter administration represented, as Churchill described early Nazi Germany, "a gathering storm." But these great leaders also understood something else. These global advances of totalitarianism were reversible. Reagan saw it too; he spoke with great persuasion (and, at least at first, with limited political support) to the promise of aiding these resistance movements and the possibility of a new dawn in the world. He was smart and brave enough to ask, as no leader before him really did, "what if?" What if the U.S. moved beyond the mere containment of Soviet advances to a rollback of these advances? What if such a U.S. policy could lead to these regimes falling to the hands of people in these nations? What if the cost of the Soviet Union's global aggression ultimately became so taxing that it impacted the very fabric that allowed this entire unnatural empire to exist at all?
The policy that emerged from all of this, articulated by Reagan and known as the Reagan Doctrine, for the first time in the history of American foreign policy stated that wherever people being suppressed by Soviet-supported communist governments were willing to rise against these governments, the U.S. stood ready to assist them and to work for their victory. How brave was this? Consider, for instance, that Reagan articulated this policy openly and persuasively at a time when Soviet nuclear weapons were pointed at American cities and a Soviet military force of some 13 million men were trained and available to defend the Soviet advances that Reagan was convinced could be reversed.
The result of it all now comprises the greatest still largely untold story of modern history: When movements arose in Angola (UNITA), Nicaragua (the contras), and other nations, these movements, like the mujahideen in Afghanistan, enjoyed the benefit of Reagan's full support, even as a hugely politically-charged Democrat-controlled Congress at that time sought to reign in and end Reagan's efforts. But that did not stop Reagan. Addressing CPAC in 1988, a few days after Democrats had shot down the administration's proposed support for the Nicaraguan contras, Reagan said: "Let me make this pledge to you tonight: we're not giving up on those who are fighting for their freedom, and they aren't giving up either...get ready, the curtain hasn't fallen." Reagan's vision and resilience kept these freedom fighters alive when a Democrat-run Congress was consistently looking for ways to undermine and halt the effort. The result was that when that curtain ultimately did fall, a few years later, it fell on the totality of the 74-year standing Soviet empire.
The Reagan Doctrine was not merely opposed politically by the vast majority of Democrats. Their opposition could not have been more indignant or rooted in a perceived moral imperative. As Reagan sought Congressional approval for U.S. aid to the contras, for instance, then Speaker of the House of Representatives Jim Wright, the Texas Democrat, didn't just lead fellow Democrats in attempts to defeat the measure legislatively. He also led fellow Democrats on a mission to Nicaragua, where they posed, smiling, for pictures with Nicaragua's then Soviet and Cuban-supported dictator Daniel Ortega. On foreign soil, they denounced Reagan's efforts to aid the contras as reckless, and later represented that Reagan's policy represented an oversimplification of the Soviet Union's global intentions. Not a few American liberals went even further to argue that the Reagan Doctrine was an open invitation to nuclear war.
Under this background, every vote on aid to UNITA, the contras, and other resistance movements was a huge political ordeal, with the vast majority of Congressional Democrats seeking to defeat the measures. Sometimes they won. But more often, because of extraordinary efforts made by Reagan to verbalize the importance of the policy, and the leadership of many Congressional Republicans who had the vision to fight for it, they lost.
While Wilson was one, many other Congressional names, most Republicans, deserve a rightful place as part of the Reagan army who fought for this critical support, including some who did so despite a lack of solid political support for it in their own districts: Congressmen Dan Burton (R-IN), Jim Courter (R-NJ), Newt Gingrich (R-GA), Duncan Hunter (R-CA), Jack Kemp (R-NY), Don Ritter (R-PA), E. Clay Shaw (R-FL), Chris Smith (R-NJ), Bob Walker (R-PA), Senators Steve Symms (R-ID), Don Nickles (R-OK), Malcolm Wallop (R-WY), and dozens of others. Sadly, history has not yet properly recorded the role of these brave elected U.S. leaders, many of whom sacrificed political popularity to fight these battles and who articulated the case for this important doctrine that ultimately ended the Soviet empire.
The doctrine also succeeded because others had the vision to lay the intellectual foundation for it, including the Heritage Foundation, which made the case for the doctrine on both a macro and micro level and correctly identified the Reagan era as perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to end the Cold War in freedom's favor. Other advocates included Jack Wheeler, a Ph.D. adventure traveler who was one of the first to notice the opportunity associated with the Reagan Doctrine, relentless Reagan Doctrine advocates Frank Gaffney and Howard Phillips (both former federal government officials), who also saw the promise, and the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal and Washington Times, which were nearly alone among print media in supporting it. Along with Wilson, former Reagan speechwriter Dana Rohrabacher, now a California Republican Congressman, was among the first to speak of the strategic and moral imperative for U.S. aid to the mujahideen. Each of these people and organizations overlooked liberal ridicule because they saw--and stood by--the promise for a new world where a totalitarian superpower did not represent an ongoing threat to the freedom and very lives of man.
Regrettably, you will hear none of these names or organizations cited in Charlie Wilson's War. But let there be no mistake: the efforts of these great Americans and organizations ultimately made the West's Cold War victory possible.
The decision to resist Soviet aggression in these regions was hugely contentious, with the vast majority of Democrats (aside from Charlie Wilson and a handful of others) on the other side of this debate. Had these votes gone the other way, with these resistance movements being denied the assistance they needed to resist Soviet aggression, there is no doubt that their plight would have been vastly different. Like the Hungarian revolt of 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968, they would have been crushed by the same totalitarian Soviet aggression that successfully suppressed such resistance at home and abroad hundreds of times throughout the 20th century. The Soviets certainly tried their best in Afghanistan. Soviet forces indiscriminately bombed civilians. They blew the hands off children with explosives designed to look like toys. They torched entire caves of scared civilians. What was the human cost of the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan? Some two million civilians were killed, and five million more fled the Soviet occupation. If there exists any modern example of "scorched earth" military tactics and institutionalized evil in practice, it can be found in what Soviet troops did in Afghanistan from 1979 until 1989.
This is what the Reagan effort resisted, and it worked. With U.S. support being the single most important determinant, former Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev ultimately labeled his nation's occupation of Afghanistan and decade-long effort to exterminate the mujahideen a "bleeding wound." Yes, it was a bleeding wound. It was a bleeding wound because the Reagan army bravely stood against that Soviet occupation and consciously made it one, not just in Afghanistan but in almost every non-European nation where the Soviets sought to impose their will on people. It is late 20th century resistance that won the Cold War, and it is Reagan and the Reagan army that made that resistance against a ruthless global superpower possible.
Third, as most Americans will recall, the ultimate retreat of the Soviet army from Afghanistan should have opened a promising future for the newly-freed nation, but it was not exactly followed by the emergence of liberal democracy. Unable to maintain a consensus for some continued nation-building following the Soviets' nine-year occupation, as advocated by most of the Reagan army of mujahideen supporters, the Taliban ultimately arose to fill the power vacuum left by the Soviets, making Afghanistan the breeding ground for al-Qaeda training and leading to what has become this nation's current conflict against global terrorism. Does there not exist a contemporary lesson in this? It seems impossible, if we are a nation given to learning even history's most recent lessons, not to see that U.S. post-Saddam engagement in Iraq, costly as it has been, is rooted in not making a similar mistake to the one made in Afghanistan. Had the U.S. committed just several years to help Afghanistan and its people rebuild following its 1989 liberation, what might be the state of this world today? But U.S. neglect of post-occupation Afghanistan, especially under the Clinton administration, invited a worst possible outcome, which ultimately arrived on September 11, 2001.
A final, important point: Just as the importance and ultimate success of the Reagan Doctrine (and its associated, modern-day lesson of the importance of resiliency in our current global conflict against Islamofascism) have escaped many Americans and their leaders, there may be no more outrageously inaccurate thesis held than the one that suggests that U.S. support for the mujahideen during the Reagan years somehow benefited today's al-Qaeda. It did not, and this thesis ranks right there in its absurdity with the one that charges U.S. complicity in the September 11 attacks. Such convictions are not merely historical misinterpretations; they represent an apparent unwillingness to recognize that, in this world, there will almost always exist dangerous nations and movements that resent and seek to challenge and undermine American democracy and American interests.
The fact is that we did not first discover al-Qaeda on September 11, 2001. Yes, elements of what ultimately became al-Qaeda were there in Afghanistan during this critical Cold War conflict, and, yes, they too, for their own reasons, opposed the Soviet occupation of the nation. Having the benefit of fairly extensive involvement in some of the efforts to secure U.S. assistance for the Reagan Doctrine efforts, however, I well remember the passionate discussions in the Reagan administration and among all Congressional and U.S. supporters of the mujahideen over ensuring that U.S. support was restricted to our primary allies in the Afghan effort. And that goal was achieved. Chief among these was another great and largely unsung hero in the Reagan Doctrine's ultimate success, Ahmad Shah Massoud, who earned the warranted nickname "the Lion of Panjshir," and who was assassinated by al-Qaeda agents in what perhaps should have been a foretelling sign, on September 9, 2001, two days prior to the September 11 attacks.
There also existed at this time a very clear recognition among those of us close to, and supportive of, the Afghan resistance that a movement was emerging, then known as Maktab al-Khidamat (often simply referred to by the acronym "MAK"), that was comprised of non-Afghan Arabs. They began arriving in Afghanistan roughly five years following the Soviet invasion from other Arab nations to join in resistance of the Soviet occupation. It was not a large force, but it was a highly dangerous one, including Saudi-born Osama bin Laden (who initially supported MAK financially and later helped establish an Afghan base camp for it), Ayman al-Zawahiri, and other figures now comprising current al-Qaeda leadership.
Supporters of the mujahideen at that time were well aware of MAK's existence and the danger it represented. And while there was concern around Pakistan's intelligence agency, known as the ISI, which was heavily engaged in the distribution of U.S. support to the mujahideen, and there was sometimes frustration with the ISI's bureaucracy and inefficiency, the U.S. never aided MAK and, in fact, almost certainly took important steps to neutralize it. In fact, one of bin Laden's closest MAK associates at that time, Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, who was then viewed as a threat as great as any MAK member, was assassinated in a November 1989 land mine attack in Peshawar, Pakistan. The forces behind that land mine were never formally identified and no party took responsibility, but it is widely perceived that this was one of numerous Reagan-era attempts to minimize the nucleus of the toxic forces that ultimately became al-Qaeda. If not, suffice to say there were no expressions of remorse from any official U.S. governmental bodies.
So let this fact be settled now: The rise of al-Qaeda, while largely attributable to the Clinton administration's eight-year neglect of Afghanistan, during which the Taliban and al-Qaeda, with free reign, established an Afghanistan training presence, U.S. engagement in the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan did nothing to strengthen bin Laden or any other al-Qaeda force. Rather, the defeat of the Red Army in that conflict stands as one of the great successes of U.S. engagement in the world, sending a hugely important global signal to the Soviets and the world that the future did not belong to Moscow's totalitarian aspirations. The future belonged to those who resisted it. This change of current is at the heart of the West's Cold War victory.
All Americans should take 100 minutes from their schedule to catch this grand story, as told in Charlie Wilson's War. The intricate details of the Cold War's end will not be fully gleaned from the film, but maybe that's okay. It is still a constructive contribution because it is one of the first mass-appeal efforts to reflect the most important lesson of America's Cold War victory: that the Reagan-led effort to support freedom fighters resisting Soviet oppression led successfully to the first major military defeat of the Soviet Union and, with deference to East Germany's former Minister of Propaganda, whose spontaneous words blew open the Berlin Wall, sending the Red Army packing from Afghanistan proved one of the single most important contributing factors in one of history's most profoundly positive and important developments.
Michael Johns is a Deptford, New Jersey-based health care executive, public policy analyst, and conservative writer. He has served previously as a White House speechwriter to President George H.W. Bush, a senior aide to a U.S. Senator and Governor, and a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation. His blog can be found at http://michaeljohnsonfreedomandprosperity.blogspot.com/
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