February 11, 2010

Patriotic Punk: Charlie Wilson’s Legacy

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A few years ago, I read a book called Charlie Wilson’s War. This book (along with the entire Harry Potter Series) remains one of my all-time favorite reads. George Crile amassed an incredible amount of research and produced a thrilling narrative. IT. IS. GENIUS. More significantly, IT. IS. ALL. TRUE. But beyond the geniusness, Charlie Wilson’s War is a wonderfully detailed portrait of a uniquely American figure. On Wednesday, that figure, Charlie Wilson, passed away due to a heart attack.

Former Congressman Wilson was not everyone’s favorite character. He was a womanizer, a drinker, a party-hard type and a midnight toker. He’s not the sort of guy you would read about and think: what a cool bro! Actually, you might totally think that. What I enjoyed about this man’s history was it’s sheer improbability. It made me think Douglass Adams had popped by in the Heart of Gold with an improbability drive: out shot a whale, a bowl of petunias, and—by George, wouldn’t you know it, Charlie Wilson! “You’ll never guess gang!” says the computer, this rando congressman from Texas is going to fly all the way to Pakistan, bring together an heiress, a Greek CIA dude and a dictator and they’re going to change the future! Only in America? Only in the seventies? Hitchhiker’s Guide anyone? Come on!

Charlie Wilson and his CIA ally Gust Avrakatos, benefited from a particular characteristic of the American intelligence establishment. As Crile describes, information was shared on a “need to know basis.” Regional networks were not interconnected. CIA person X in country Y had no idea what agent Z was doing in country W. For example, Report N about planes being used as bombs could get lost in file drawer D. In 2001, we all became acquainted with this characteristic, except, by then, we were calling it an “intelligence failure.”

Failure indeed. In repulsively simple terms in the interest of space, it was this fragmentation of leadership, combined with the incredible charisma of a particular Texan, that lead to a proxy war between American-funded Afghan militants and the Russians. Through Pakistan, Wilson and friends had weapons smuggled in to Mujahedeen. Those men became the Taliban, while American forgot all about their proxy war. The rest, none of us can ever forget: the Taliban supported a group called al Qaeda, which attacked New York on 9/11. Charlie Wilson’s war has resulted in the War against Terror in Afghanistan.

Out of this grim set of equations, is that our politicians really didn’t know a lot about Pakistan, about its General Zia, about Afghanistan, Islamic sectarian violence, Jihad … They knew slightly more by 2001, but Iraq proves that they need to keep learning.

What do they know now?

On October 10, Newsweek’s Holly Bailey and Evan Thomas declared our VP Biden to be the “inconvenient truth-teller,” the figure who pushes Obama to think more broadly about policy. Biden’s questions regarding the increasing scale of operations in Afghanistan was cited as a prime example of his constructive input. He’s quoted as asking the Situation Room about the incredible disparity between expenditure in Afghanistan and Pakistan: “Does that make strategic sense?”

Does it Joe? PLEASE TELL US. Use your incredible wisdom about the Subcontinent to explain this great mystery to us! I must know, Joe, how did you come by this fabulous conclusion that we should be focusing greater attentions on Pakistan?

Hmm, maybe he got it from the CIA. Maybe he got it from Petraeus over a year ago. Maybe he got it from McCrystal. Hell, maybe he picked it up from a paper I wrote for Government 181. It’s fact, history, blatantly obvious shit, whatever you want to call it. The idea that this is an innovative thought is absurd. The idea that Biden is some sort of second-hand maverick in raising the issue of Pakistan in the Situation Room is incredibly distressing. Unfortunately, it’s also not that surprising. Let’s face it. Pakistan just doesn’t have same cachet in American politics and rhetoric as Afghanistan or Iraq. After all, a lack of understanding of local cultural politics has characterized most American operations abroad, from Vietnam to Iraq. To continue this trend, the U.S. has always been one step behind in the War on Terror.

Granted … this is Newsweek, a publication that seems to have decided to crawl up into Biden’s ass and live there. What’s it like in there, I wonder? Also, granted, I’m generalizing. But isn’t it a bit frightening that after all this time, there seems to be confusion about Pakistani and Afghan regional politics? The confusion is partly emanating from our politicians/diplomats: anyone remember how special envoy Holbrook was marching over to Pakistan to demand that they sort out Kashmir before dealing with the Pakistani Taliban? Not so clever. That’s a mistake that was caught quickly, but the lack of consensus that created it seems to remain.

Today, the scholarly work done on the region is as comprehensive as any completed about any topic. There are plenty of geniuses that know all about it and a lot of collegiate fools like me who know about it too. Charlie Wilson also knew about it. He admitted his miscalculation concerning the impact of arming the Mujahedeen, late in his life. He was a patron of academic work on Pakistan and Afghanistan. None of this, of course, mitigates the fact that he was, in part, responsible for the creation of one of the world’s most terrible regimes. None of this erases his friendship with Zia al Haq, one of Pakistan’s worse tyrants, a man who was primarily responsible for enforcing an increased religiosity in a nation intended to be the home of Jinnah’s modern Islam.

I’m sure many readers are familiar with this history. For those of you who are not, take a South Asia class: it will be super interesting and relevant to the War on Terror. Crile’s investigation into this region and its history with the United States inspired me to be a government major and to learn all that I could about Pakistan. Pakistan is not the next but one of the current battlegrounds of the War on Terror.

I thought, to mark the passing of one of America’s most wacky, intriguing, super baller and misguided figures, it would be appropriate to discuss a region on which he had a great impact. General knowledge of this area has come far, but still has a long way to go. Also, I want everyone to go read Charlie Wilson’s War. Seriously, it will blow your mind. Don’t see the movie. The movie is TERRIBLE and it will waste your time and brain cells.

We’ve reinforced our intelligence networks and created greater inter-connectivity between agencies. This year, the Pakistani army has taken greater steps than ever before to curtail the terrorist threat growing in the Northern territories. On the same day as Charlie Wilson died, Pakistani General Kayani offered Pakistan’s services as an arbitrator in Afghanistan. Perhaps, both Pakistanis and Americans are in the process of learning the lessons of Congressman Wilson’s dreams. Or, it’s a fluke. But I’m going to be an optimist for once, put my faith in improbability, and go with the first one.

Rabia Muqaddam is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be contacted at rmuqaddam@cornellsun.com. The Argument Clinic appears alternative Fridays this semester.

Original Author: Rabia Muqaddam