Thursday, February 11, 2010

Charlie Wilson's Legacy

"These things happened, they were glorious and they changed the world... and then we fucked up the endgame."
So ends one of the most fascinating, enjoyable films I have seen in the past few years, although as an Aaron Sorkin fan I was always going to admire Charlie Wilson's War - or Josh Lyman meets the Mujahideen as it could have been called.

The death last night of Charlie Wilson, the Texas Democrat congressman who drove the US to fund freedom-fighters in Afghanistan against the Soviets, will inevitably lead to angry analysis of his legacy.

Some people will ignore whether it was right to force Russia out of their toe-hold in Asia and will instead focus on whether funding the Mujahideen - with an increase from $5 million of Federal money to $500 million - led inevitably to the rise of the Taleban and thence to September 11, Operation Enduring Freedom, Iraq and so on.

Of course, the problem was not the funding or the arming but the failure to ensure a future for Afghanistan - or the endgame. Wilson said that he regretted not pushing harder for the US to invest in the reconstruction of Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew.

"The part that I'll take to my grave with guilt is that I didn't stay the course and stay there and push and drive the other members of Congress nuts pushing for a mini-Marshall Plan," he said. If a fraction of the money that had been spent on the conflict had gone on building roads and schools and erasing political corruption, would the Taleban have gained sway?

But Wilson never regretted arming the Mujahideen, even if some of those weapons ended up in the hands of the Taleban who moved in almost as soon as the Americans left. ("The crazies are rolling into Kandahar", as one of the CIA agents says near the end of the film.) "How are you going to defeat the Red Army without a gun?" Wilson once asked.

"We were fighting the evil empire. It would have been like not supplying the Soviets against Hitler in World War II," Wilson told Time magazine in 2007. "Anyway, who the hell had ever heard of the Taliban then?"

This morning, appropriately, the United States were playing cricket against Afghanistan in Dubai in a qualifying match for this year's World Twenty20. Many of the Afghan team had been born in the refugee camps that were created on the border with Pakistan after the Soviets withdrew. These are players whose very existence and upbringing was shaped by Charlie Wilson and those he funded.

Afghanistan beat the US and now stand a very good chance of qualifying for the global cricket tournament, an astonishing ascent given that the team were playing in the fifth tier of world cricket only two years ago.

The result will not cause a ripple in Washington, but it may well send a signal of hope back to the refugee camps. Charlie Wilson's children are on the rise.

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