Friday, March 24, 2017

Friday Book review: AFGHANISTAN -- Charlie Wilson and the old-style Dems and Afghan jihadists who helped win the Cold War

by David Pence

There are many lessons in George Crile’s book, Charlie Wilson’s War. about the role of the Texas Congressman, the CIA, a Texas socialite, our brave allies in Pakistan and the courageous mujahideen of Afghanistan. Muslim jihadists who gave their lives to defeat the atheistic ideology of Communism and the Soviet superstate were essential as well, and we are all in their debt. A captivating writer and a diligent reporter reminds us of how much a journalist can teach us about an era we lived through, but never quite understood. George Crile (1945-2006) was a producer of CBS' "60 Minutes." He had been educated in the Georgetown school of foreign service, so he brought a sense of geography and history to his stories that seems so absent in our own era. Walter Cronkite said that when Barbara Walters began her rise as superstar interviewer, that the old newspaper reporter graduating to TV anchorman was going to change form forever. George Crile has died; and Megan Kelly has moved to a larger viewing market.

Congressman Wilson in 1988

This story reminds us how much the actions of committed personalities can alter large historical events. It reminds us that the martial virtues of courage, initiative, and perseverance are often carried by men like Charlie Wilson and his CIA co-conspirator Gus Avrakotos. What they lacked in purity and piety they compensated for with practical resilience and audacity that got the right thing (and it was a big thing) done when it needed to be done. What needed doing was to beat the Soviet military in the field -- to smash the mystique that was still about the Red Army defeating the Nazis. True men of God from the world of Islam, and true men of liberty from America and Greece, would unite to arm those great souls with the right technology to cost the Russians 20 million dollars every time a shoulder-held Stinger found its target in the fearsome Soviet Hind Helicopter.

The Pakistanis were our true friends in this battle. If we do not agree with their goal for Afghanistan after the Soviet expulsion, we cannot deny we were locked arm-in-arm as they risked much more than we to open a bleeding wound in the Russian Bear’s southern flank. The pivotal year for the Russian General Valentin Varrennikov was 1985 as a Polish pope and President Reagan were revitalizing a Christian western front in the Catholic nation of Poland. His offensives in Afghanistan were supposed to end the conflict there. But he was defeated by the well-prepared forces described so well in this book.

The tiresome narrative of Western conservatives about how "we" won the Cold War always grants an outsized role to Britain's  Lady Thatcher, the conqueror of the Falklands. She looms tall while the mujahideen seem an uncomfortable footnote. Mrs Thatcher certainly played an important role in shaping the interpersonal dynamics of agreement that emerged among Reagan-Gorbachev-Thatcher. Ronald Reagan was a huge force for peace, but more as the man who found enough spiritual kinship with Mikhail Gorbachev to convince him to let the captive nations vote freely to reform socialism. They voted instead  to reassert their national identities, and the Soviet Union was no more. It was Jimmy Carter and Zbigniew Brzezinski who devised the military strategy that deprived Gorbachev of military control over their far-flung empire. We remember the obstructionist peacenik Democrats almost quitting the Cold War in the 70’s and 80’s. But this book reminds us there are Texas Democrats as well. They never stopped the fight and they helped win it where it did the most damage.

This story reminds us we don’t know the Cold War if we think Carter was a wimp, and Reagan scared the Russians into surrender. Let us not forget those "non-principled" practitioners of realpolitik: Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. They closed off the East to the Soviets with their stunning diplomatic move toward China. Kissinger was despised by the conservative right, and Nixon was loathed by the radical left -- but without them, there would have been no collapse of the Soviets.

Mr. Crile helps us see that last very bloody battle we might have missed watching headlines and T.V. news.   In the end, it was the religious fervor of men in arms who put their boots on the ground that won the definitive battle in that great contest. Charlie Wilson became the unlikely hero in this story because he was the kind of Texan who, after meeting an Afghan warrior, was converted to realize that his battle and America’s battle were one. He made the warrior’s bond with Pakistan’s Muhammad Zia because each knew the jihadists were fighting for God and freedom. Zia loved God, and Charlie loved freedom, and they both loved the men who died for those sacred goods. Mikhail Gorbachev played a heroic role closing the Cold War with his dramatic and unprecedented concessions. But when we hear that phrase "winning the Cold War," remember the Afghan warriors! What was coldest for them about the "Cold War"  were their brothers' bodies retrieved each night as they counted their one million dead.

2017 Update from Brookings Institute(scroll down to Afghanistan)    

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