Charlie Wilson's Retreat

Representative Charlie Wilson has been garlanded as the inspiration behind the creation of the Mujahedin in Afghanistan in the nineteen eighties. It suits all sides to think that a civil war that began in a notoriously lawless area after the deposition of Mohammed Daud Khan had something to do with a congressman several years after the event.

It particularly suits Jimmy Carter, for instance, who began funding the Mujahedin before the Soviet invasion, but after the rise of a USSR-sympathising government in Kabul. Aims get lost in time, but one can glean a lot from the record, which shows President Carter's national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, suggesting to the President repeatedly that the United States 'hand the Soviets their Vietnam'.

Richard Nixon, operating out of his lair in the Executive Office Building, had early in his rule hoped to work with the 'other west wing'--Pakistan, then tied to its east wing of Bangladesh. When the fall of Yahya Khan and Mrs Gandhi's strategem of encouraging the break-up of those countries bore fruit, confusion as to what to do reigned.

It is possible that he more than toyed with using the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence people (ruthless by any measure) to deploy their creatures in the Islamist groups against the Soviets and Communists, even to the point of potential raids into Soviet territory.

This would also have the effect of strengthening the hand of the only group other than the nationalist Pakistan Army and the Judges who could maintain the state Jinnah left behind. However, the possibility is conjecture on my part. A pleasant saturday morning spent wading through the telegrams and intelligence which passed around, via F.S.Aijazuddin's compilation, which I own, hasn't proved it anything more than that. I like my lazy Saturdays. Intelligence, in a sense, is pattern recognition as much as tool-using, and perhaps one can read far too much into things both as a player like Nixon and as an historian. Perhaps Nixon just didn't know or remember or think about the ISI at all.

In the warm light of a San Clemente morning, it would no doubt have seemed as though holding Pakistan together and in debt to the USA would be a big prize for the small price of encouraging Islamists. Hadn't the British done exactly the same thing to hold off a caliphate and divide the Muslims under the Ottomans?

Khan was one of the most intelligent American President of the twentieth century's willing pawns. His country stood to gain from trilateral diplomacy, and Nixon used him in the link to China. Ultimately, he and Kissinger, I suppose, wanted to throw him the bone of the Islamists.

For a smaller and more obscure record, I have never seen the outcome of the Afghanistan war as anything other than likely to end in tears. One of the posts here that gets the most hits, even now, is one that I did a long time ago. It listed all those who had invaded Afghanistan in the past, and then all those Empires and potentates who had been able to keep hold of it without moral, political, or economic collapse--and the set, as the mathematicians would say, approached the limit of certainty at the outcome of 0.

This week, Charlie Wilson identified what would be his aim in Afghanistan; withdrawal. Mr Wilson believes that the United States under George H.W.Bush, and Bill Clinton, abandoned nation-building and the spending of a little money -- '$20 to $30 million a year, rather than an hour' as he put it. This, he thinks, led to a disaster that could not be resolved.

Yet I wonder if the west is not trapped. The original aim, which one might strongly suspect is a lie, of 'getting' Osama Bin Laden and his crew seems to have been lost at Tora-Bora (built by Langley), if it were ever approached at all. We clearly are not going to buy the heroin for Europe and America's health services, which would have been a 'twofer' deal, to use the colloquialism, since it might have won the farmers over too. The taliban are now the best native employer in Afghanistan; and our governments have, time after time, failed to properly equip or to direct the troops, or to ask for any special national effort to pay for them.

General McCrystal--code name 'pope'--believes that America and the West can 'win' in Afghanistan. I have to say, I'd like to be convinced. I want tyranny and barbarianism to fall as much as the next man, but I don't want our young men and women and our economies minced for a predictable failure. It is also, I should point out, an evil thing to murder, which is what war is, and even if it is very human it should only be undertaken in the face of a more evil cost of inaction.

Memorial services and maudlin public statements are all very well; but properly armoured vehicles and personal armour and pay would do much more. That doesn't necessarily mean spending more money but spending it wisely.

If the west does retreat, as many on all sides of the political spectrum now require, a base and a legend will have been created around which the discontented and unemployed young men of the quarter of the earth that is now muslim might gather. It is not impossible to imagine the Taliban or their successors appealing to the smaller percentage likely to listen in the spirit of a sort of frontier fundamentalism which has, in most times and places, been attractive to the young. They could link with Kashmiri or east African groups, with the Wigou or their co-religionists in Pakistan; and before you know it, you'd have a terror-based nuclear power sitting between central asia and the caucasus.

Don't underestimate that nightmare, or the consequences. Iran may well, in such circumstances, fall to type and hold to whatever west and Russia remain, and North Africa, Turkey and Jordan may well cleave to us too. The Afghan war, in such circumstances, would become analogous to one of those Balkan wars that warped and woofed the path to the Great War, with people knowing how vaguely important they were but unable to say why.

The stuff of nightmares is, in the end, not their unbelievability but their capacity to function on some level as dreams of something in the future which an individual or group cannot allow itself to rationally process. An Islamic civil war, already in motion but spreading, to reach around the Indian Ocean is a real possibility if Afghanistan descends.

If, however, the west stays, it bleeds, very badly even though the loss of life is miniscule compared to previous wars, whether one looks at D-Day or, for that matter, Hitler's losses in Poland. There are other things that we have become used to have in our veins, not least easy money and oil.

Charlie Wilson, it seems, has chosen his side again. I wonder if western governments now have the luxury of doing so.


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