Charlie Wilson's flaw
You don't expect good history from Hollywood, but this cold war comedy is shamefully cavalier with the truth about US backing for the mujahideen
Charlie Wilson's War never happened. The conflict portrayed by director Mike Nichols, in a film as mendacious as it is amusing, bears virtually no resemblance to the real war which convulsed Afghanistan in the eighties. His version sets up Washington's foreign policy as a slapstick affair in which a lightweight congressman almost singlehandedly saves the Afghans from Russian occupation. The complex tragedy that enveloped Afghanistan, unravelled the Soviet Union and strengthened extremists throughout the Muslim world is almost entirely off-screen.
Indeed, it is worse than that. If popular art of this kind reflects what a nation has come to understand about its behaviour in the recent past, this film shows an America that has learned nothing from events, except that the principle that "My enemy's enemy is my friend" is not always a sound basis for decision-making. True, the film derives its energy and interest from America's current dilemmas in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it has, in the end, little to say, directly or obliquely, about them.
Looking back at the 1980s, what is striking is that both America and Russia thought they were struggling with each other, while what was really happening was that both states were trying and failing to cope with powerful new forces in the non-western world. Those forces were taking on the more marked ethnic and religious guises which are very familiar to us today.
When the Soviet Union was drawn into Afghanistan, Russian leaders believed they could transform the country's incompetent, brutal and faction-ridden communist government into a more moderate and effective administration, bringing in non-communists and seeking change in society through consultation rather than coercion. Their motives were not, in fact, that different from those claimed by the United States and its Nato allies for their Afghan intervention in 2001.
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The Russian failure arose from their own mistakes, the deep inadequacies of the Afghan communists, and the capture of the Afghan opposition in the countryside by Islamists who, initially, had very little backing there. People like Charlie Wilson - along with Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Elliot Abrams and many others - thought they were inflicting a defeat on communism, while what they were really doing was helping to bring down a project of secular modernisation of which, in essence, the west ought to have approved.
What might be understandable in the fevered anti-communist atmosphere of the time cannot be excused now. The project was probably doomed anyway, but the glee with which its demise was greeted ought today to have been replaced by regret and by a more realistic grasp of how much damage both superpowers caused in their manoeuvring.
You would not think, seeing this movie, that the first Stingers brought down Russian helicopters shortly after Mikhail Gorbachev had become the leader of the Soviet Union, and after he had already decided that the only sane policy was to aim for an early withdrawal. You would not think that the Russians had constantly urged their Afghan allies to look for non-military solutions to their unpopularity in the countryside. You would not know, from the benign impression it gives of President Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan, what a devious, ruthless and bigoted man he was.
You would not know that the Americans could have channelled their aid to relatively moderate rebel groups and chose instead to pass it through Zia, who gave it to the most extreme. Or that those extremists used some of their new weaponry resources to murder the leaders of those more moderate groups. Or that the Russians appealed to the Americans to stop the torture and ill-treatment of Russian POWs and were ignored. Or that the Russians left Afghanistan in 1988 on the basis of an international agreement that, among other things, was supposed to end all outside funding and and aid for any of the contending groups in the country, but the United States only went along on the impossible condition that the Afghan government be wholly abandoned, and Pakistan instantly and comprehensively violated the agreement.
And, as the audiences thrills to the film's rat-a-tat editing of exploding Russian helicopters and armoured vehicles, you would not know that this was a Russian tragedy, too. "Why did we lose all those boys?" Gorbachev asked in 1987.
The film touches on these issues only in a few asides, and contents itself with making the simplistic point that it was a mistake to have vanquished one enemy only to empower another.