Charlie Wilson and the Death of Idealism

by Joshua Foust on 2/11/2010 · 21 comments

Thanks to that cheeky, Aaron Sorkin-kissed Tom Hanks movie, and not, weirdly, the thoughtful and revelatory book, everyone is imputing Congressman Charlie Wilson’s passing (RIP, seriously) with all this meaning about how he helped, or saved, or rescued Afghanistan.

Indeed, Wilson’s words, at the end of both the movie and the book, “we fucked up the end game,” resonate with viewers precisely because of that sentiment: we had the right idea going in, we were doing the right thing, but we walked away.

What if that’s not the case? What if the real screw up was getting involved in the first place?

In order for such a case to be even marginally readable, we’re going to have to skip some things, and simplify others. I’ll try to link to what I can, but if I go off the deep end on something, please just bring it up in the comments and let’s talk it out. So… what can we learn by choosing not to lionize Charlie Wilson’s intervention in the Soviet-Afghan War?

The Dangers of Idealism
While we tend to focus on the anti-Soviet aspect of Operation Cyclone (and that is, indeed, how it was ultimately sold to the public), accompanying the U.S. funding to the resistance was romance: that, by nature of their being disorganized and religious and somewhat simple and low-tech, we could swoop in and liberate the poor beleaguered brown people from their white oppressors. It was the Pocahontas story (or, umm, Avatar) on a terrifying scale.

The Inhumanity of the Mujahidin
We never like to admit that the very men the U.S. funded during the 1980s—even sainted figures like Ahmed Shah Massoud—were, in fact, monsters. While it’s a common trope to discuss the communist brutality toward heretics and intellectuals, in Afghanistan the mujahidin groups, whether America-backed in Peshawar or Iranian-backed in Meshed, murdered, tortured, and exiled-to-be-tortured more dissidents and secular intellectuals than the Soviet-backed Khalqis ever did. This is besides their extremist views of Islam: Rabbani, Massoud’s boss, Haqqani, and of course Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the largest single recipient of U.S. money, would be considered monsters today for their views on women, human rights, governance, and religion (it’s notable that two of our biggest enemies today in Afghanistan are largely our creation, through Charlie Wilson’s War).

The Relative Good of Soviet Rule
There is no doubt the Soviets did what they usually do when they blunder into a place: kill, imprison, and/or torture anyone they find convenient. Since the mujahidin did the same, I don’t think we can meaningfully distinguish between the two sides on that topic (aside from who happened to fighting for or against us). The Soviets, however, put girls into school. They mandated universal education, and established land reforms to break the old khan system of feudal land tenure (which, while traditional and in many ways stable, was also the equivalent of European serfdom). Afghanistan’s most radical communist leaders did not come from the Soviet Union, but the United States. And, the Soviets even innovated a variant of effective, modern-day population-centric counterinsurgency. That’s not to say that they were “good” in any real sense… but they were not uniquely, or even the most, evil force at work in that country.

The Endgame
Charlie Wilson is almost as famous for saying we screwed up Afghanistan by leaving as he is for starting America’s involvement in it in the first place. But why didn’t we screw things up by getting involved in the first place? True, we had points to score after Vietnam, and true we had a grander ex post facto justification that hastening the end of the USSR was a net global good (though how much the Afghan War really influenced that is open to debate).

But… what would have happened? Would the mujahidin have continued in a pitiful and bedraggled state from Pakistan and parts of Iran, launching occasional raids that killed some Russians but really didn’t fundamentally alter the outcome of the invasion? Would Afghanistan, ultimately, have only been a half-failed post-Soviet state, rather than the unspeakably horrifying place it is today? Would we have a Taliban, and al Qaeda, TTP, HiG, or any of the myriad terrorist groups that have grown up in Afghanistan’s unstable shadow?

Obviously these questions are unanswerable. But it does make me wonder: does Charlie Wilson actually deserve our respect? Or does he deserve our wariness?

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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RJS February 11, 2010 at 3:52 am

One could certainly argue that it was Wilson’s support for the Mujahidin that made Afghanistan the brutal place it is today . . . I’m no fan of Soviet Communism, but I’m not convinced joining up with a bunch of barbaric tribesman to defeat them was the right thing to do, though I wasn’t around at the time and haven’t studied the issue enough to tell whether it was a net benefit for the world by ushering along the collapse of the USSR.

Good post. I appreciate your overwatching and critiques of the mainstream narratives on issues related Afghanistan.

Baildog February 11, 2010 at 6:15 am

In the long run, I think Charlie Wilson is more correct that “we fucked up” by walking away than he was incorrect to get the U.S. as involved as he did in the first place.

Had the U.S. never gotten involved, the Pakistanis and Saudis would still have been at least as involved as they were, they (primarily the ISI) would have just had less cash to throw around.

The Soviet Union would still have fallen, more or less when it did. U.S. investment in Afghanistan just helped nudge them over a precipice into which they were already staring.

Given the nature of Afghanistan, I am inclined to believe that the mujahedin would have survived without our help. The precise warlords and powerbrokers – or at least their relative strengths – may have been different, as, minus the influx of U.S. cash, Saudi support for UBL and the “foreign fighters” would have been in relative terms greater than ISI support for locals such as Hekmatyar (and remember that Massoud received a relatively modest share of U.S. support anyway).

But, at some point after the Soviets withdrew (and they would have), Najibullah (or whichever Afghan communist ended up in power last) would still have fallen, as the mujahedin were not giving up that easily, and the country would still have plunged into civil war.

UBL would still have been able to paint the Soviet withdrawal as a jihad victory for the mujahedin, launching his career. The preconditions that allowed for the creation and rise of the Taleban would still have existed; and, given that Massoud and Rabbani proved incapable of holding the country when they held Kabul, there is a decent chance that the Taleban in some form may still have come to power. If not them, then some succession of warlords. Either way, Afghanistan is still a disaster. Albeit probably one we don’t care as much about, depending on whether UBL and al Qaeda ever ended up running ops from here in this alternate universe.

About the only way I see the whole thing working out completely differently is if by some stroke of luck lack of U.S involvement somehow inadvertently leads to UBL being killed in combat. Then Azzam would have taken things in a different direction, and we would be dealing with an entirely different terrorist network today.

Or at least that’s my story.

Nice game of “What If?” though.

Joshua Foust February 11, 2010 at 5:52 pm

I think the enormous role the U.S. played in funding Pakistan, and convincing Saudi Arabia, to become involved and turn the war from a national resistance to an Islamic struggle, played a huge role we’re not accounting for here (I know I didn’t). It’s almost impossible to imagine what it would have been like had America not deliberately altered the socio-religious context of the war.

AJK February 11, 2010 at 10:36 am

As attractive as it is in hindsight, it’s pretty obvious that any US Policy-maker in the 80’s couldn’t have stood up in Congress and demanded that the US support the Communists in Afghanistan. Short-term bloodletting sort of let the way back then. This is kind of implied in your bit, I just wanted to be explicit about it.

Otherwise, it seems that the USSR’s gameplan was to make Afghanistan a republic (or whatever the technical term with the USSR was) like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, etc. And as you mentioned in your “The Review” piece, this involved the breaking up of traditional modes of local governance to fit the USSR’s model.

But Tajikistan had an awfully nasty civil war after it became independent. I can’t imagine why Afghanistan wouldn’t have a similar one. I don’t think Charlie Wilson would’ve made that big a difference to Afghanistan in the long-run. He probably just made a bigger difference in American views towards it.

oh, and re: baildog: It’s not just that the ISI, etc. would’ve had less money. They also would’ve had less access to US Technology. Stingers and other SAM stuff redefined the USSR’s air strategy, and without them, the Mujihadin would’ve likely had a much, much, tougher time operating

Joshua Foust February 11, 2010 at 5:52 pm

AJK, not supporting the mujahidin is not the same as supporting the communists. Also, if Afghanistan only had to deal with a civil war on Tajikistan’s scale, it would be a significantly better place than it is today.

AJK February 11, 2010 at 9:23 pm


While you’re right on both counts, I just don’t think they’re historically accurate. After Iran’s Revolution, and the Mecca Uprising (and the subsequent burning of the American Embassy in Islamabad), I doubt that the US would’ve sat idly by. Every problem in the 80s was binary.

And Afghanistan is obviously much larger and much more resource-rich than Tajikistan. A whole lot more to fight over. So it’d still be pretty ugly.

OK, sorry to ruin your thought experiment. It’s pretty neat to think about…I wonder how a stronger Afghanistan would make the India Pakistan ish?

Baildog February 11, 2010 at 10:49 am

“much, much tougher time” I agree, absolutely. But they still would have held out until the Soviets left, and then, as you note, its civil war.

tequila February 11, 2010 at 2:51 pm

Who killed more Afghans?

The Russians killed upwards of 1 million or so and emptied the countryside into Pakistan.

I don’t think even the mujahidin at their worst had either the capability or desire to do anything like this. Not even the Taliban did that.

As terrible as the Chechen rebels have been, the Russians killed far more innocents in the 1990s than Basayev could have dreamed of.

Joshua Foust February 11, 2010 at 5:54 pm


In other invasion events, the USSR “only” killed a few thousand to a few tens of thousands of people. Notice the scare quotes – it is a VERY trick thing to argue body counts from a utilitarian perspective. But a lot of the atrocities the USSR committed were because of their inability to deal with the mujahidin, and the U.S. has a huge role to play in that.

Like I said, I don’t mean to argue that the USSR was a force for good—overall, by any calculation, they were not. But allowing them uncontested control of Afghanistan might have been a lesser evil than what the last thirty years became.

tequila February 11, 2010 at 7:00 pm


Where are you getting your figures from?

Maley cites Khalidi’s research in the refugee camps as over 870,000 unnatural deaths between 1978-87. He also cites a WHO estimate in 1995 of nearly 1.5 million physically disabled people. Also by the start of the 1990s, there were over 6 million Afghans living in either Pakistan or Iran – this does not count, of course internal displacement.

Do you really believe that these enormous numbers were caused by the Soviets only killing a few thousand people? Or do you really blame the mujahidin for all those deaths?

Also I find it very odd that you excuse the Soviets for the atrocities they committed because they faced resistance that was difficult to deal with. The proper blame would appear to rest with the Soviet military.

Overall, I would note that the Soviets decided to withdraw from Afghanistan by late 1986, before the first Stinger was ever deployed or the largest part of foreign funding came to bear. I would argue that foreign funding greatly assisted the mujahidin, but the insurgency would have existed and been quite difficult to control even without it, to a large extent because of safe havens in Pakistan. The Soviet decision to withdraw was based more on political and economic factors within the Soviet hierarchy than by military factors in Afghanistan.

tequila February 12, 2010 at 10:29 am

Also note that Dorronsoro accepts as reliable the list promulgated by the Afghan Ministry of Security in 1980 of over 27,000 people executed by the Khalqis from 1978-1979. Mass graves discovered north of Herat in 1992 indicate that upwards of 25,000 people may have been killed in the crushing of the initial revolt there (also in Dorronsoro).

Not sure why you seem so ready to excuse the crimes of the Communists. At least they meant well? Really?

Joel Hafvenstein February 15, 2010 at 9:29 pm

Hi Tequila – Josh wasn’t saying that the Soviets killed only thousands in Afghanistan. He was saying that they killed “only” thousands in, say, Hungary or Czechoslovakia, and wondering whether if the US hadn’t escalated the conflict, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan might have looked more like that.

Toryalay Shirzay February 11, 2010 at 2:58 pm

American families who feel crushing pain about the killing of their sons and daughters in the evil land of Afghanistan,you only have Reagan,Charlie Wilson,The Company by the Potomac and their gullible supporters who were duped by Pakistan to blame.
Since the the unjust forced cutting up of the land of India by the Islamic Fascists called Pakistani establishment today with the help of America,Afghanistan and Pakistan have always been at war over the land of Pashtonistan which the Pakis took over.America always loved to defeat the Soviet Union and Pakis being more than willing to do the dirty work for America,played a critical role in starting the wars in Afghanistan so to draw in both the soviet union and America.And Americans were more than eager to get into this war to defeat their archenemy,the USSR.All this meant lots of advanced weapons,military hardware and knowhow,a lot of hard cash,intelligence assets,possible help with having nuclear weapons,takeover of Afghanistan by proxy and etc,etc for Pakistan.The Pakis being the most cunning and scheming creatures in this part of the globe thus drew in the US into the abyss of Afghanistan and this is how the cunning Pakis and the hotheaded gun slingers of Texas with their arrogant buddies brought about pain and tragedy to both the American and Afghan families.

CTuttle February 11, 2010 at 5:26 pm

Joshua, read this old post of mine…! The Afghan Trap

Brzezinski played a major role in the whole sordid affair…!

Joshua Foust February 11, 2010 at 5:55 pm

I know. He had approved action before Wilson got involved. But Wilson is responsible for the publicity and the huge dollars that got inserted. Brzezinsky wanted to keep American involvement small and low key which, in hindsight, might have been the smarter move.

Laurence Jarvik February 11, 2010 at 6:12 pm

Well, Josh, in this case, it seems I’m more reserved and establishmentarian than you…

I’ll accept there was a greater threat at the time to the USA–the USSR–that gave a good reason for the US to support anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan. However, once the USSR collapsed, IMHO, it became incumbent upon the US to shut down the Taliban, their Pakistani supporters, et al. However, the Bush administration simply walked away, leaving them all in place, with all sorts of vague promises for pipeline deals, etc. When no deals were forthcoming, the US was “bit by its own dog.” Incredibly, even after 9/11 the US still hasn’t shut down the Taliban! Now, however, it seems the logic of events may be heading your way, with China’s rise and a revived Russian nationalism…the US will have no choice but to work with Russia and China (which may be why frantic attempts to strike a quick deal with the Taliban instead, IMHO).

Alex February 11, 2010 at 7:25 pm

Granted hindsight is 20/20, but isn’t it fair to argue that had we given more money to Massoud and less to Hekmatyar that Afghanistan would be better off? Or have I been reading too much Steve Coll?

reader February 11, 2010 at 11:10 pm

This bit from Crile’s book stuck with me, and clouded the way I picture Wilson and his contemporaries:

pg. 199-200 (for those who own the book)

and I paraphrase, picture it, some Mujh have just got finished sodomizing a Russian pow, while the Americans do nothing about it (where is the idealism! oh the humanity! particularly considering how homophobic folks can be). But it’s ok, because one of the dudes into man-love saved peoples lives and in doing so redeemed the noble savage myth surrounding the Afghans. In Crile’s words

“Raping an infidel invader was not the atrocity it would be in the West; it was simply revenge. Above all, Awk had come away convinced that these were men of honor. When it came to picking an ally to fight the Soviets, he told Avrakatos, there was no shortage of Tajik courage. They were every bit as good as the Pashtuns.”

OMG, not the Tajiks of Northern Alliance unsullied reputations! At least the Pashtun muj have a certain degree of moral ambiguity in American mythology because of the later rise of the Taliban. But not our Tajiks! Say it ain’t so! Well, I would ask my Awk, or anyone defending his words, where is your American exceptionalism? American exceptionalism, city on a hill and all that, is based on universal moral standards, correct?
And it is true the Soviets were maniacal thugs leaving bright objects out for children to grab. But just imagine the outrage in this country if a kid from Des Moines fell victim to some such embraces?
This is the devil we made a deal with. It wasn’t the Taliban, as Joshua points out, it was the Muj. But we will press on, forget about it, and while that old sinner Wilson gets his funeral, and Gorby gets his pat on the back each time we trot him out, some kid from Novosibirsk or insert any other city, who didn’t want to fight, lies mouldering in Afghanistan. But such is human history.

reader February 11, 2010 at 11:12 pm

I should add, that a friend of mine’s father was a soldier during WW2 stationed in Germany. His job was to make sure that Russian soldiers remained on the trains sending them back to Stalin’s gulag and to prevent them from escaping to the West and “freedom.” You see, deals were made and promises had to be kept- “The Good German” kind of stuff.

Ralph Hitchens February 13, 2010 at 4:20 pm

I think our increasing involvement with the Mujaheddin from 1986 onward, stimulated to a considerable degree by Charlie Wilson, was probably decisive. The STINGER missiles had a dramatic impact — although Soviet aircraft & helicopter losses were wildly exaggerated by the Muj and Western reporters, these advanced weapons did force major changes in the air-to-ground rules of engagement, making Soviet airstrikes much less effective and allowing the Muj much greater operating latitude. One leader told us in 1987 that his group had begun moving large caravans in daylight, something they hadn’t been able to do since the early years of the war. I think the decreased effectiveness of their airstrikes was one of the factors that convinced Gorbachev that no military solution would be forthcoming.

T February 15, 2010 at 1:26 pm

As a pathetic neophyte in this dialogue, nonetheless I have tried to envision a world without Rambo III or “Charlie Wilson’s War,” and have concluded personally that would be a lesser place … after all, are we Westerners merely creatures of our varioius media, with no real existential substance? (obviously tongue-in-cheek) – seriously, a fascinating conjecture from hisself …

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