“These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world… and then we fucked up the endgame” Charlie Wilson, Texas Congressman, 1980s.
History has it that Charlie Wilson, who was on the Defense Subcommittee on Appropriations, almost single-handedly armed the mujahideen during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, in cahoots with Israelis and Egyptians who recirculated confiscated old Soviet weapons. Charlie took a trip to Pakistan to see the Afghani refugee camps and was touched by the injured children and by the resolve of the men to go back to their country and fight the soviets.
The Americans and the Soviets never really faced up directly in a war. It was always vicariously, like in the Israeli-Arab wars and Vietnam. The Americans never totally digested Vietnam and blamed the Soviets in large part for the quagmire it became. Afghanistan seemed like a great opportunity to retaliate, even though no American interests were at stake. so Charlie Wilson single-handedly started the largest covert operation ever. The budget allotted to this was only 5 million dollars when he took his committee position. By the time it was over the allocated budget was 1 billion! At the 40 to 80 million range he insisted that the Subcommittee Chairman Doc Long goes to Afghanistan and sees for himself. The movie Charlie’s War (2007) shows Doc Long, an American Southern Baptist, exhorting the throngs to fight back and shouting “Allah O Akbar” with them. Those are probably the same guys who have been killing Americans during the last 10+ years. In the proper circles this is called “unintended consequences”. I wonder what Doc Long is thinking now!
Charlie was right: “These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world…” The Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, with 150,000 russians and 4 million Afghanis killed over 4 years, is believed to have been the beginning of the end for the USSR with the Glasnost ushered in and the Berlin Wall dismantled a few years later under Ghorbachev.
But Charlie also said something that has been quite descriptive of American foreign policy in the region: “…and then we fucked up the endgame” . The soviets left behind a huge void à la Attila the Hun and the Americans did not do anything to fill it. They simply padded themselves on the back for the Soviet retreat and severed all ties. According to the movie, Charlie Wilson asked his Subcommittee for only 1 million dollars for schools and could not get, whereas they gladly approved huge sums when the goal was to beat the soviets. The mujahideen were more dangerous than ever: war-torn country, a lot of deaths and griefs, a lot of young men armed to the hilt with no purpose and nowhere to go. It was the ideal petri dish for the likes of Osama Bin Laden, and a perfect breeding ground for terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda. Peter Kropotkin, the Russian anarchist, wrote: “It is hope, not despair, which makes successful revolutions”.
The huge covert operation may have eventually lead to the crumbling of the Berlin Wall; but also indirectly to the crumbling of the World Trade Center. In Eastern Muslim countries you pay dearly for abandoning your friends. Like their beloved camels, they do not forget or forgive. Tribal alliances are all the stronger are they are the only tenet of survival: You and your brother against your cousin; and you and your cousin against a stranger (Arabic aphorism).
Since then, we f…ed up several other end games in the region: Iraq, Lybia, Syria, as if History did not repeat itself or that politicians failed to attend those classes in high school, or History was banned as a topic from core curricula like evolution. Only this time around Vladimir and Russia are filling the void not the other way around.
History does repeat itself, but the pendulum does sway from side to side, in a perpetual motion game of musical chairs, with this truth as a backdrop: Power as Nature abhores vacuum and fills it on the spot willy-nilly.