A few weeks ago I went to a screening of the film “Charlie Wilson’s War”, which attempts to depict Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson’s efforts to increase U.S. support for the Afghan mujahideen in their war against the Soviets during the 1980s. While I found the film entertaining, I also found it predictably superficial when dealing with U.S. foreign policy. Though the creators of the film imply that U.S. support ultimately backfired, they never explain the how or why of it.
In one scene, Charlie Wilson meets with then Pakistani dictator General Zia, who demands that all U.S. support for the mujahideen — hundreds of billions of dollars — be distributed solely by the Pakistani intelligence services. It’s never mentioned that the people the Pakistanis chose to fund were the religious zealots who became the Taliban. Rather, the filmmakers portray the blowback from U.S. support of the mujahideen as the result not of a policy that was poorly thought out and doomed from the beginning, but because Washington didn’t “follow through” with money for schools and other nice things. It’s telling that the screenplay is written by Aaron Sorkin as the film doesn’t question the idea that the United States has any business funding rebel groups on the other side of the globe, but on the few reactionaries (in the film’s case, congressmen other than Charlie Wilson) who lacked the vision to support aid for Afghan reconstruction (the film ends with a quote from Charlie Wilson: “we f—– up the endgame”). This portrayal follows Sorkin’s “West Wing” which depicted a White House staffed largely by idealists trying to do good, if only to be thwarted by a few shortsighted lawmakers. However the view that things could have worked out in Afghanistan were it not for the lack of U.S. reconstruction dollars strikes me as woefully naive. The Afghan capital of Kabul has been inundated with NGO’s and aid money following the U.S. invasion after 9/11, yet much of the country remains mired in official corruption and extreme poverty, with the looming threat of a resurgent Taliban. U.S. support for the mujahideen was bound to backfire, in my view, regardless of whether the United States funded reconstruction projects or not. You give a bunch of bad people guns and money and bad things are going to happen — a fairly simple truism to me, but something U.S. policy makers have struggled to understand.
Also, as columnist Robert Scheer notes over at Truthdig, the film portrays the Soviets as soulless killers while the mujahideen are portrayed as nothing but a cruelly persecuted band of noble rebels:
The movie does not mention that the mujahedeen went to war against the Soviet-backed government then in power in Kabul after the government committed the unpardonable crime of allowing female students to attend rural schools. The film casually notes that Gen. Zia, the U.S. ally in this effort to bring “freedom” to Afghanistan, was, like so many of the movie’s heroes, a hard case full of contradictions, as exemplified by his having murdered Pakistan’s previous ruler, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
Of course, I admit I could just be nitpicking. After all, not many people going to the movies are looking for a history lecture (unless, of course, it involves a secret treasure map written in invisible ink on the back of the Declaration of Independence — but I digress). And at around 90 minutes, “Charlie Wilson’s War” isn’t nearly long enough to deal with the full history of U.S. aid for the mujahideen during the 1980s, at least not in a manner that could also be entertaining and funny. That said, I think it’s important to note where the movie is wrong, as all too often it seems U.S. policy makers and the public at-large have bought into a Hollywood-inspired, fictionalized view of the U.S. role in the world (think “Saving Private Ryan”) that frequently avoids or dismisses as mere aberrations the darker episodes in U.S. foreign policy history.
*As a side note, I’ve received a number of hits to this site from people searching for “Charlie Davis’s War.” I can only hope that this post will draw in even more unsuspecting moviegoers.