Charlie Wilson's not-so-good war

Joe Allen uncovers the story Hollywood can't and won't tell about Afghanistan.

FROM 1979 to 1989, the CIA, with the full backing of the U.S. government, engaged in the largest covert operation in its history in Afghanistan. The CIA armed, trained and financed the Afghan mujahadeen, a collection of Islamic guerrilla armies primarily based in Pakistan that fought the brutal Russian occupation of their country.

Much of Afghanistan was destroyed by Russia's failed effort to destroy the mujahadeen and millions were driven into exile in Pakistan and Iran, where many have remained. After losing nearly 30,000 combat troops, Russia withdrew its armed forces in 1989 and soon after its client government in Kabul collapsed.

Review: Movies

Charlie Wilson's War, directed by Mike Nichols, starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

It was Russia's biggest military defeat since the Second World War. The CIA considered it the agency's greatest triumph. Many CIA personnel saw the Russian defeat in Afghanistan as revenge for the U.S. defeat in Vietnam.

How the U.S. engineered this defeat is told in Charlie Wilson's War, directed by Mike Nichols (Catch 22, Silkwood and Angels in America) and starring such well-known Hollywood liberals as Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts. The screenplay was written by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) and is based on a book by former 60 Minutes producer George Crile.

What else to read

For the real history on the U.S. role in Afghanistan during the USSR invasion and after, read Phil Gasper's "Afghanistan, the CIA, bin Laden and the Taliban," in the International Socialist Review.

The Devil's Game: How the U.S. Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam by Robert Dreyfuss, details the history of U.S. support for Islamists, both before and after Afghanistan. For a meticulously documented history of the CIA's crimes, see Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, by William Blum.

Charlie Wilson's War is made by a group of people who know how to make movies with drama, wit and action, which is why it's important to say clearly that this is a thoroughly reactionary film from beginning to end. It pays a fawning homage to America's "clandestine services" and says much about the pathetic state of liberalism.

The film revolves around the activities of full-time alcoholic, sexist pig and sometime Democratic congressman Charlie Wilson of Texas, known to his friends as "Good-Time Charlie." Hanks plays Wilson as a deeply flawed man who is motivated to action by the plight of Afghan people exiled in Pakistan whom he visits on several occasions.

Wilson uses his position on the subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee to increase funding for the CIA's operations in Afghanistan each year during the 1980s with matching funding and resources from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. The U.S. and its allies were by the end of the decade spending $3 billion annually on the war with nearly 300,000 men under arms in the mujahadeen.

Prodding Wilson to do more for the mujahadeen is Dallas socialite Joanne Herring, a wealthy, right-wing evangelical kook, played Julia Roberts. In their first scene, Hanks defends himself as a "liberal" and Roberts replies, "not where it counts." This sets the tone for the rest of the film as the liberal and right-winger join forces to bring down the Russian empire.

They are joined in this crusade by Gust Avrakotos, an alienated, cynical CIA veteran, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who sees an historic opportunity with large numbers of exiled Afghans to build an army that will "kill Russians." Avrakotos also warns Wilson that America shouldn't "fight religious wars," despite the fact that the CIA and its allies were recruiting largely reactionary Islamic forces to the mujahadeen.

This trio forces a reluctant U.S. government and CIA to support the Afghan cause--from increasing funding by stitching together an alliance of conservative Arab governments and Israel, to getting sophisticated weaponry to the mujahadeen.

The eventual defeat of the Russians is hailed not only as a personal triumph for Wilson but for the U.S., which is always on "the side of good," according to Democratic Rep. "Doc" Long, who gives an impassioned speech at a refugee camp.

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THERE ARE many things wrong with this film, but the first question to ask is why Hanks and Nichols choose to make it at this time? For a film whose subject matter covers the decade when Ronald Reagan was president and Bill Casey was his CIA director, their names aren't mentioned once. The focus of the film is on Wilson and his Democratic Party colleagues who ultimately "defeat Communism."

We are left to conclude that a U.S. foreign policy led by Democrats is the preferred option than the current one by Republicans. This is, at best, selective history given the crimes committed against the people of world by Democratic presidents--from Hiroshima to Vietnam to genocidal sanctions against Iraq. Since it's an election year, we have to say the film is one of Hollywood's contribution to the effort elect a Democratic president.

The other major flaw with the film is the deliberate failure to draw a direct connection between the CIA's campaign in Afghanistan and 9/11. Hanks reportedly said, "We just can't deal with this 9/11 thing. Does it have to be so political?" It's more correct say that Hollywood can't.

After all it was the CIA and its allies that recruited tens of thousand of reactionary Islamists and trained them in various forms of warfare. This is the background to the rise of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. When the Russians left Afghanistan, these forces redirected their activities against the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East following the first Gulf War.

With Charlie Wilson's War, Hollywood's liberals portray the Afghanistan war as a great triumph in the struggle for freedom, when it should be seen as another savage war for empire in which the people of Afghanistan continue to be the prime targets.