I had written an angry satirical article about the new film “Charlie Wilson’s War,” which I have not seen yet, except for extensive excerpts on a History Channel documentary. It purported to be the “real” story of the late Rep. Charlie Wilson, and had him chortling, “I love it” as the right-wing Muslim guerrillas whom he and the Reagan administration massively funded through Pakistan and hailed as “freedom fighters” were about to triumph over the “evil Soviet empire.”
I was advised to keep my review on tap until I had seen the film, which is reasonable advice.
Yet, Benazir Bhutto was murdered in Pakistan yesterday and the murder, as I see it, has a direct relationship to the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the subject of “Charlie Wilson’s War.”
Afghanistan’s history from the late 1970s to the present is very complicated. The country itself was one of the poorest in the world, divided along ethnic “tribal lines” and long a battleground among great powers, for example, in the 19th century between the British and czarist Russian empires.
Afghanistan bordered the Soviet Union, and ethnic groups who also were part of the Soviet Union were minority populations in Afghanistan. The Soviets had helped to educate a significant number of Afghanis and an influential Communist Party existed in the city of Kabul. Feudal and prefeudal nomadic elites were predominant in much of the country and the Muslim religion was the primary unifying force.
Afghani Communists took power in Kabul in 1978, faced with threats from the newly established brutal military dictatorship in Pakistan, and also hoping to advance a social revolution, bringing mass education, land reform and other vital social reforms to the people.
The Pakistani military dictator General Zia had publicly executed Muhammad Ali Bhutto, the civilian prime minister whom he overthrew (father of Benazir Bhutto). Zia wasn’t the first Pakistani military dictator but he was the worst. His regime turned more and more to rightist clerical elements as a base of support and also worked with Saudis to establish right-wing religious primary schools in a country where large sections of the population, including a large majority of the female population, were totally illiterate.
Afghani Communists, tragically, were unable to achieve the unity that is a prerequisite for all communist parties everywhere to keep a coalition together and make pro-people gains. They were divided into rival factions which fought each other fiercely over policy. Despite all the gains made, there were disastrous errors in seeking to advance the revolution into the countryside, great ineptitude in the land reform policy among cadre with a limited understanding of agriculture, and an aggressive self-defeating anti-clericalism in response to the clerical opposition to the revolution.
With the Pakistani military dictatorship under Zia aiding right-wing Muslim guerrillas, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski defeated Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and gained Carter’s support to use the CIA to provide aid to the guerrillas. Brzezinski saw this aid as creating an “Afghan trap” for the Soviets, manipulating them into a military intervention which, he hoped, would be their “Vietnam.”
The Soviets did intervene at the end of 1979 to both save the Kabul government, an ally, and advance a social revolution against fiercely reactionary clerically based forces. For the Soviets, the intervention was both a protection of their own borders and also a reassertion of “proletarian internationalist” aid for people seeking to make a social revolution against the forces of internal reaction and foreign imperialism.
CIA aid to the Afghan “freedom fighters” was picking up under the Reagan administration, which used the advertising term “Evil Empire,” before the real Charlie Wilson got into the act, although Wilson did play the role of a political fixer, using his position on the House Intelligence Committee to get more and more money and military aid to the “freedom fighters” while he ran around Afghanistan for many colorful photo ops.
Large numbers of refugees were created by the Afghan war and great atrocities, as there are in all modern wars. In the U.S. and capitalist media, the Soviets were blamed for these atrocities and large sections of the Euro-American left pretty much went along with the view that this was a battle between David and Goliath in which the social issues were unimportant compared to the Soviet “bad guys” and the Afghani “anti-imperialist” good guys.
However, Indian media particularly, along with other non-Soviet sources, emphasized the fanaticism and crimes committed by the guerillas, including the atrocities that they committed against Soviet military personnel, their families, and those Afghani people whom they saw as collaborators — women seeking to go to schools that the Communist government had established, people seeking to free themselves from the domination of CIA-supported gunmen who might beat them brutally if their beards weren't long enough.
While the real Charlie Wilson was running around with U.S. congressmen, General Zia and Afghan “mujahedeen,” the CIA was recruiting tens of thousands of foreign fighters from Muslim countries and training them in the Afghan-Pakistan border areas to attack Afghanistan. Money for this war was not only raised from the U.S. appropriations but from heroin traffic that led Pakistan in the 1990s to have the highest per capita number of heroin addicts in the world.
Benazir Bhutto became prime minister briefly after General Zia’s death and the restoration of civilian rule. She returned as prime minister in the mid 1990s. The people of Pakistan, less directly than the people of Afghanistan but more so than any other people, suffered from the counter-revolutionary guerrilla war that Reagan and Zia carried forward against Afghanistan.
As Mikhail Gorbachev began a policy of Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in the late 1980s, Al Qaeda, or “the Base,” was founded in 1988 under the leadership of Osama bin Laden, leader of the Saudi Arabian contingent of anti-Communist fighters in Afghanistan, scion of one of the wealthiest capitalist families in the region, and both fundraiser and major logistical man for the guerrillas, much admired at the time by the CIA with whom he had worked for many years.
The Communist-led government in Kabul was eventually destroyed. In Afghanistan, a warlord terror regime was followed by the ultra-right clerical Taliban regime, whose attempts to terrorize its own people into accepting universal female illiteracy, the primacy of a literalist interpretation of religious law and misery and poverty in this life as a necessity for the next shocked the people throughout the world.
With the dismemberment of the Soviet Union, Osama bin Laden, who, regardless of his CIA friends, had long seen the U.S. and the “West” as both a sink of sin and a legion of Christian Crusaders and Jewish Zionists seeking to conquer Islam, substituted the U.S. for the Soviet Union as his main enemy, and, setting himself up in Afghanistan with the wholehearted support of the Taliban government that he and the CIA had largely created, began to launch the attacks that led eventually to the destruction of the World Trade Center.
By then, the CIA was much more interested in covering up its long-term relationship with bin Laden than really doing much about him. Its Pakistani intelligence “allies” were heavily compromised and infiltrated with Al Qaeda and Taliban supporters, and bin Laden family money was around. So U.S. authorities weren’t that keen on investigating the activities of the bin Laden black sheep Osama.
Today, Al Qaeda and Taliban forces attack the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan from the base areas that the CIA and the Pakistani ISI used to attack the Soviet-supported Communist government over 20 years ago.
Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister, has been murdered under the regime of the present military dictator, who imprisoned and held her husband in jail for years without formal charges, along with many other opponents of the dictatorship, just as her father was in effect murdered by the previous military dictator.
And of course, Pakistan does have “weapons of mass destruction,” nuclear weapons, which it has developed as part of its ongoing conflict with India.
I said at the beginning that I wasn't going to write a review of “Charlie Wilson’s War” until I see the film, but I think this final comment on its advertising is merited. In the commercials for the film, a narrator says with a straight face that without Charlie Wilson “history would have been sadly different.” Different perhaps, but — unless one is a sadist, a masochist, or a reactionary who loves war and destruction for the hell of it, whether it is the destruction of the World Trade Center or the invasion of Iraq — happily, not sadly, different.
Norman Markowitz is a professor of history at Rutgers University.
Regarding the murder of Benazir Bhutto, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) issued the following statement:
The Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) expresses its deep shock and outrage at the dastardly assassination of Ms. Benazir Bhutto.
The CPI(M) strongly condemns this attack. Clearly there are forces who are seeking to destabilize Pakistan and not allow the transition to democracy to succeed. These efforts must be thwarted.
The PB of CPI(M) conveys its heartfelt condolences to Ms. Benazir Bhutto’s family, People’s Party of Pakistan and to the people of Pakistan.
Also, on Brutal Assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the Central Secretariat of the Communist Party of India has issued the following statement to the press:
The Central Secretariat of the Communist Party of India is deeply shocked and perturbed over the dastardly assassination of former Prime Minister of Pakistan Ms. Benazir Bhutto. It is a serious set back to the ongoing process of revival of democracy in Pakistan.
The tragic event has taken place at Rawalpindi that is like a fortress and also houses the Army headquarters. It shows that how far the terrorist outfits have penetrated in Pakistan. It poses a serious threat for the entire region.
The CPI sends heart felt condolences to the bereaved family, workers and supporters of democracy in general and the PPP in particular and hopes that the people of Pakistan will overcome this crisis and continue their struggle for restoration of democracy.