Thursday, October 27, 2016

Charlie Wilson's War, by George Crile

So we're taking another look at CIA operations in Islamic nations, but in this case we're looking at the war between the Soviet Union and Afghan fighters from the Soviet invasion of 1979 to 1989. The title comes from a Texas congressman, Charlie Wilson, who had positions on key Congressional committees, such as the Defense Appropriations Committee, which allowed him to channel what would eventually become hundreds of millions of dollars in arming, equipping, and training mujahideen fighters to bleed the Soviet Union white and later give the Red Army a humiliating defeat. The author, and several other people, claim that the Afghan war was critical in helping to topple the Soviet Union and it certainly didn't help matters.

The book spends quite a lot of time talking about Charlie Wilson, as well as other key figures such as Gust Avrakatos and Michael Vickers, who were deeply involved in making the Afghan operation the biggest and, arguably, the most successful operation to date in CIA history. Basically Afghan mujahideen, trained by Pakistani advisors and operating out of Pakistan, were armed and supplied by the United States, who provided half of the money, but half was also provided by Saudi Arabia. A significant number of the weapons and ammunition, which the CIA desired to be Soviet equipment to mask U.S. involvement, was purchased from Egypt or, somewhat surprisingly, Israel. This was a very multinational effort at keeping the Soviet Union from expanding its influence and thanks to the millions of dollars of arms and ammunition sent to the Afghans, the Soviets eventually were forced to retreat from Afghanistan.

Of course this would come back to haunt us about ten years later when it turned out Saudis operating out of Afghanistan were responsible for the 9/11 attacks, which sparked interest in America's involvement in Afghanistan previously. The interesting thing is that Afghanistan wasn't very well covered by the media at the time, despite the fact that it made up roughly 50%, and later 70% of the CIA's entire operational budget. At the time people were far more interested in the Iran-Contra affair and the absolute scandal that turned out to be. Crile and others state that Iran-Contra actually provided a cover for Afghanistan, providing something for Congress to focus on while Afghanistan could continue to operate without being noticed. So many people are still taken by surprise by the fact that we armed and equipped some of the very people we ended up fighting a little over a decade later.

I have several problems with this book, and it's largely how very much pro-intervention this book takes. Obviously I have a slightly different opinion of the decision to intervene because my life experience has been largely the consequences of those decisions to intervene, rather than the apparent political necessity at the time. There seems to be an underlying assumption that it was inherently right for the United States to spend huge sums of money to kill Soviets in Afghanistan and try to topple the ''evil empire.'' I'm not saying the Soviet occupation was good. It was definitely far from that with reports of numerous atrocities. But the decision to arm religious extremists seems to be less than optimal in hindsight.

And it doesn't stop there. People openly admit in interviews that they were breaking the law and doing things extremely illegal, but they treat it like as an inconvenience. This was especially true of the CIA agents who saw laws and congressional oversight as little more than annoyances that got in the way of them doing their work. And the book seems, somewhat implicitly, to take their side in the argument. I found this very distressing, again because of my own lifetime experience which suggests there needs to be far more regulation and oversight of intelligence agencies and bad things happen when they're given a free hand.

Plus Charlie Wilson was a highly irresponsible individual, involved in sex, drugs, and alcohol and tripping from one scandal to another. He developed a reputation as ''Good Time Charlie'' and seemed to delight in scandalizing everyone at most opportunities. Now, perhaps I'm being somewhat puritanical, but it seems extremely unfortunate that a congressman would spend far more time partying and having a good time than actually governing and, once again, the book seems to take it as a little foible. Like he's little more than a rapscallion that we can just shake our heads at. This ignores, of course, his rampant alcoholism which almost killed him through heart failure in the 1980's. Charlie Wilson seems less a hero and more an irresponsible playboy who wants to be involved in a grand adventure.

And finally, which was most disappointing, was only a very brief comment on the failure of the United States to help Afghanistan after the war. After spending millions of dollars to send tons of weapons into Afghanistan to drive out the Soviets, the United States declined to spend significant amounts of money to repair the devastated infrastructure. Obviously the decision to abandon Afghanistan has had far-reaching consequences which are with us to this day.

I think this book, which is supposed to be on some level a cautionary tale, fails to be that. It seems to be more about how the United States managed to defeat the evil Soviets rather than the consequences of that decision. I personally would have preferred more information about the failures in Afghanistan after the war was over. Instead the book gets wrapped up in the romantic narrative of the United States pulling off a covert operation against the Soviets and winning, rather than the dangers inherent in the program. It's certainly informative to know how involved the U.S. was in the 1980's, and should be considered in future American foreign policy decisions, but this book hardly deals with those aspects.

- Kalpar

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