by Petrișor Peiu*
Charles Nesbitt Wilson (1933-1970) was a Democratic congressman, elected for 12 consecutive terms in the second circumscription of the state of Texas. He has been one of the most exposed to criticisms in the United States House of Representatives. A notorious alcoholic, at least suspected of drug consumption, obsessed with flamboyant parties – with many young, beautiful women – that was the portrait of Charlie, in 1978, in a famous Washington Post article, signed by Kathleen McLean. In the mentioned article, named “Good Time Charlie,” Wilson was described as a cynical drunk, a junkie, and an excessively corrupt person, who had maintained a luxurious and extravagant lifestyle. The dandy politician has become famous because he has never denied the accusations of being a drunk and arrogant playboy, telling his voters that they did not wish a “constipated monk,” but precisely the contrary of one.
During his mandate, started in 1980, Wilson was nominated by the Democratic Party to be part of the “House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense,” a subcommittee of Congress responsible for financing CIA operations. He began a persistent campaign to raising the needed funds — which required justification — for the CIA, obtaining, in 1983, approximately 40 million dollars, of which 17 million was due for the acquisition of antiaircraft weapons necessary for taking down Mi-24 Hind Soviet helicopters, the stars of the anti-guerrilla operations in the war in Afghanistan. In 1984, CIA Officer Gust Avrakotos decided to break the rule “of not lobbying in Senate and the House of Representatives for financing the agency,” thus directly approaching Wilson, with whom he set a plan for financing the Afghan resistance operations and for arming this resistance with sophisticated military technology. The plan, designed together with Avrakotos, consisted in “redirecting” a sum of 300 million dollars from the defense budget, of the Pentagon, for purchasing weapons by the CIA for arming the mujahideen (Islamic fighters from Afghanistan). These sums of money, available in the same year, of 1984, were used by the CIA — through Michael Pillsbury, Head of the Defense Department — for funneling several thousands of STINGER antiaircraft missiles to the mujahideen.
Additionally, Wilson had been involved in distributing Israeli military equipment — purchased with Saudi money! — to the anti-Soviet guerrillas, in Afghanistan. For special merits in forcing the 1989 Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the dandy politician was the first civilian to receive the “Honored Colleague” distinction from the CIA. Likewise, he was honored even after death, being buried with military honors in the Arlington national cemetery, in February 2010. The book “Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History,” written by George Crile III, published in 2003, has familiarized the large public with the legendary figure of Congressman Wilson. Moreover, the release, in 2007, of the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War” — with Tom Hanks starting as Wilson and the charming Julia Robert as the leading female role — has brought international recognition to the man who had had a decisive contribution in the Cyclone Operation’s success, the most extensive undercover operation ever to be carried out by the CIA. (Delivering weaponry of 20-30 million dollars per year, starting with the early 80s, and reaching the highest pick of 670 million dollars in 1987 to the mujahid Afghan groups — these were just some aspects of this grand operation).
The Scene of the Operation
Afghanistan was an average stake in the late 1970s. On April 27, 1978, the Afghan army executed a coup in favor of a Marxist party, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). The military arrested, and then killed, Mohammad Daoud Khan — along with his family — the man who, in 1973, took state power (through a coup, also) from his cousin, the last Afghan king, Mahommed Zahir Șah. The ruler of the state, thus, became Nur Muhammad Taraki, general secretary of the PDPA. The new ruling party, closely tied ideologically to the Soviet Union, triggered a process of changing the Afghan nation, introducing reforms inspired by the Soviets. However, after only 17 months, Hafizullah Amin, vice prime minister, managed another state coup, arresting and killing Taraki, as well as establishing his clan power.
Here is the time to mention that the leading power broker in Afghanistan was the USSR, against which all rival factions, mentioned in this complicated history, were benevolent. In principle, all those who fought for power in Afghanistan were seeking the Kremlin’s blessing, and the Afghan army was full of Soviet “counselors.” When President Taraki called for extensive Soviet support for the Afghan military and administration, the whole Soviet leadership — Leonid Brejnev, general secretary of the CPSU; Alexei Kosâghin, prime minister; and Andrei Gromâko, Minister of Foreign Affairs — refused to extended requirement and advised Taraki to give up on his reformist plans and seek reconciliation with the whole society.
On the other hand, Pakistan was in cold terms, even hostile one might say, with the official Afghan leadership, due to the indigenous Pashtun people leading Kabul, who hailed the foundation of the “Pashtūnistān” state, including large portions of Pakistan. The Pakistani state had decided to “build” its own political movement in Afghanistan, and, in 1974, the prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, authorized an operation by which the leaders of the anti-Daud movement — Burhanuddin Rabbani and Gulbadin Hekmatyar — are kidnaped from Afghanistan and taken to Pakistan. The state of Pakistan decided then to play the card of the Islamist Rebel Group of Jamyat, helping the Islamists with logistics and determining them to start an anti-governmental action in Panjshir Valley, action rejected by the Afghan army.
In October 1978, a new revolt, backed by neighboring Pakistan, erupted in Kunar Valley, among the Nuristan tribes. It extended rapidly in 24 of the 28 Afghan provinces, determining a massive revolt in Herat, in March 1979 where the families of 100 Soviet citizens were massacred.
At the beginning of 1979, a new coup brought the United States onto the scene. The American ambassador back then, Adolph “Spike” Dubs, was kidnapped by a Marxist group, Settam-e-Melli, being brought into the 117 room of the Kabul hotel. The United States pressured the Afghan government to negotiate the release of the ambassador, but the Soviets insisted on organizing an operation, by force, to eliminate the terrorists. Lacking experience, the Soviet counselors, and the elite Afghan troops managed to kill the terrorists but, in a fire exchange, also killed the American ambassador, which determined a violent protest reaction in Washington.
Relationships between Pakistan and the USA have profoundly deteriorated once the state coup, organized by General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, and mostly after the assassination of Ali Bhutto in April 1979. But President Carter was hoping to “repair” his relationship with General Haq, in virtue of obtaining support against an Iran that was being raveled by an Islamic revolution. On this bilateral basis, the Pakistani intelligence services (ISI) began to lobby over U.S. officials to support insurgent groups in neighboring Afghanistan. The CIA decided to submit to the Special Coordination Committee (SCC), of the United States National Security Council, several options for undercover operations in Afghanistan to determine the massive intervention of the USSR, thus capturing the later in a trap similar to the one in Vietnam. The Carter administration had only approved only a reduced support of $500,000 for “unmilitary aid.”
Security counselor Zbigniew Brzezinski considered that “We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.”
On December 25, 1979, airborne and terrestrial Soviet troops – some contingencies were already there – were starting to arrive in Afghanistan for a military operation that the Afghan dictator, Amin, believed it would be helpful against the Islamist rebels. On the other hand, the USSR leadership considered it to be a surgical intervention to remove Amin.
Directions for Soviet troop penetration were either through the air (at Kabul’s airport) or through the only circulated road in the country – named „betonka” by the Soviet army.
The war started with an involuntary parade, typical to the dark Soviet humor. On December 27, 1979, Amin’s Soviet chef managed to poison the Afghan leader at lunch, but medics, also Soviet, uncoordinated by the political and military leaders, who wanted the dictator removed, manage to save him. With the failing of the chef’s complot, elite Soviet troops (in Afghan uniforms), on the same night, occupy the Tajbeg Palace – the power headquarters – and kill Amin, putting Babrak Karmal in his place. Until February 1980, urban Afghanistan — the strip along the “betonka” road and the agglomeration around the Kabul capital — was occupied and never be ceded. Contrary to general opinion, the Soviets have never lost a battle in the ten years of war and never gave up any city, having a death toll of only 15,000. All the guerilla fights that filled legends were either ambushes or clashes in low-populated villages or arid valleys.
Military operations, both routine and guerrilla ones, did not matter anymore from now one. All that was going to matter was … the information war, politically seasoned and with large portions of “intelligence.”
1980 – The end of the military war, the beginning of the information one
The UN general assembly has condemned the Soviet military intervention, through a resolution voted with 104 votes for and 18 against. Ministers of foreign affairs from 34 majority-Muslim countries have condemned the Soviet aggression harshly. Thus, suddenly, the whole Western world rediscovered the great stake of the 19th century: the British fear that the Russians will reach the Indian Ocean, additionally threating the security of the Western hemisphere.
General Zia-ul-Haq’s Pakistan has launched an operation of “Islamizing” the conflict, invoking the creation of a great Muslim front – which would carefully exclude the large Shiite neighbor, Iran – that will fight against the occupation of the Soviet “infidels.” It was also launched the idea of voluntary Arabs that will fight against the invading troops, the so-called “Afghan Arabs” (amongst them was the young Osama bin-Laden), a small and insignificant group of 2,000 people – who were undisciplined and poorly trained – which caused Afghan government troops the first and last resounding victory in the Battle of Jalalabad, in March of 1989. The great stake, of the Pakistani intelligence services, was to obtain adequate American support (not only political), and, as an alternative, Chinese logistical support.
The Americans saw in the internationalization of the Soviet-aggression problem the possibility of a “USSR’s Vietnam,” and they exploited politically this chance in an intelligent manner, swiping away even the last appearance of the Soviet Union as a superpower, as well as a global actor, of the Soviets through a successful campaign of demonizing Moscow’s regime. Cleverly, the Russians were put in defense from the beginning by boycotting the Moscow Olympic Games and through huddling the “free world” against them, a coalition led by the new China-USA global partnership.
All major and influential TV broadcasters were presenting the Afghan resistance of the mujahideen in laudatory terms. CBS even released a special documentary, resumed several times, and the famous magazine Reader’s Digest had popularized the martyrdom of the Afghan soldiers for independence. The respectable Robert D. Kaplan was actively involved in refuting the theory of the mujahideen’s primitivism and pointing out the cruelty of the massacres committed by the Soviets.
Who were the insurgents?
There have been 4,000 identified military bases of the mujahideen fighters, but they never had a unit of their own. These were, actually, autonomous groups, formed on ethnic basis.
The most feared and respected mujahid leader has been, as it is shown in the Soviet archives, Ahmad Șah Massoud, “the lion from Panjshir,” an ethnic Tajik, Sunni, graduate of the Technical Institute of Kabul. He used to be in charge of 10,000 combatants, extending his supremacy at the end of the war through all the North-East Tajik territory of the country, uniting all the insurgent formations from the area under the name of Shura-e Nazar — The Surveillance Council, with 130 local commanders from 12 Afghan provinces.
In the areas dominated by ethnic Pashtuns (South and West), there was no kind of political figure to coagulate a large number of combatants, here being only groups smaller than 300 people, generally gathered on tribal considerations.
From the beginning, Pakistan has sustained the Hizb-i Islami group, led by Gulbudin Hekmatyar, an old friend of the neighboring country, kidnaped in 1974 by ISI under the eyes of Daud, the leader of Afghanistan back then.
Iran has supported and financed the Hazara Hizb-e Wahdat group, led by Abdul Ali Mazari, and Saudi Arabia supported the Wahhabist Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, the leader of the Ittihad-i Islami faction.
Pakistan reaches for the money
Actually, within the Reagan administration, a fight was held between the partisans for supporting Afghan guerrillas through Pakistan, and those who wanted to help those who fought efficiently and who had results, i.e., Ahmad Șah Massoud. Practically, they wanted to coordinate the entire support by Peshwar’s political system, led by another old Pakistani agent, Burhanuddin Rabbani. Rabbani was stationed in the Pakistani province with ethnic Pashtuns, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in its capital, Peshwar.
Those who rooted for Massoud’s cause were the representatives of the State Department on the field, Edmund McWilliams and Peter Tomsen, as well as analysts like Heritage Foundation, Michael Johns, and James A. Phillips.
The Pakistanis, though, had an ace up their sleeve: Joanne King Herring, a TV anchor from Huston, Texas. She had become famous due to her appearance in Life Magazine with some impressionable images of her 30-year anniversary (1959) when her husband, Richard King, organized a “decadent” party with the “Roman orgy” theme, including a slave auction. Herring was the leading lobbyist for the Pakistani intelligence services; she knew general Zia-ul-Haq since 1970 when she was supporting his career and conducting the lobbying activity from Washington, city capital that worshiped Ali Bhutto, the general’s rival.
Also being from Texas, Joanne Herring knew the scandalous dandy, Charlie Wilson, very well, too. The former paid a visit in Islamabad to Mr. Wilsom, where he was greeted by the president, Zia-ul-Haq, and then being accompanied in a visit to an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan.
Charlie Wilson used all that he had accumulated in matters of political relations to redirect the sizeable American budget for helping the Afghan insurgents within Pakistan. Thus, ISI (the Pakistani Intelligence Services) had distributed armament, money, and supplies of three billion dollars, until 1992, only from the American side, plus another 1 billion from the other supporters of the Afghan cause, i.e., Saudi Arabia, other Arab monarchies, and China. Where did all this aid go? To the group led from Peshwar, a group politically obedient to Rabbani and the guerrilla led by Gulbudin Hekmatyar. Those who were fighting the mostly, and the most efficient, Șah Massoud’s men, did not receive much, having to finance their operations from sales of emeralds and lapis-lazuli minerals from the North-East part of Afghanistan.
Burhanuddin Rabbani — professor of Theology at the University of Kabul — was the leader of the Jamiat-e-Islami party, a party whose members where mostly ethnic Tajik from the North and the West of the county. From this party broke away the Hezb e-Islami group, led by Hekmatyar, who was the man controlled by ISI, having at the same time the support from the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia. Hekmatyar had been chosen by the Pakistani services to receive the largest part of the resources available for the anti-Soviet insurgents, despite the fact that they had never won a fight against Soviet troops, and, actually, they had never fought much against them. Backed by the MI-6 also, Hekmatyar has had a meeting with the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, in Downing Street 10.
Pakistani plans for building their own political parties in Afghanistan became too noticeable in 1997, when one of Hekmatyar’s men killed the British cameraman Andy Skrzypkowiak, guilty of “spreading in the West the military successes of Șah Massoud.” The assassin had been hailed and rewarded as a hero by his boss. In the same year, the pro-Pakistani group Hezb-i Islami organized an ambush led by Sayed Jamal, in Farkhar, Takhar province, where 30 commanders of Șah Massoud have been killed. Also in the fadic year of 1987, Médecins Sans Frontières accused Hekmatyar of diversion and robbery of a convoy of 96 trucks, carrying medicine, money, and food supplies destined for the villages in Northern Afghanistan.
Alfred McCoy, author of the book “The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia,” has accused Hekmatyar of organizing an extensive network of opium traffic in Afghanistan with money funneled from the CIA.
Why had Pakistan needed American money and weaponry?
Even before the retreat of the Soviet troops, especially after February, of 1989, groups financed by Pakistan and led by Rabbani and Hekmatyar had triggered a bloody civil war against Șah Massoud and other independent military leaders, murdering around one million Afghans in a bloody massacre that went one until 1996. The criminal politics of Hekmatyar, as well as his radical anti-Western attitude, had determined the departure from Rabbani (who will become an ally with Șah Massoud) and led to a new coalition between Hekmatyar and the pro-Iranian Shiite group Hizb-e-Wahdat. With all the massive support offered by Pakistan, and although he had a better-equipped army from the Afghan civil war, Hekmatyar (along with his new Shia allies) was defeated, in 1994, at the gates of Kabul by the genius commander Șah Massoud. This last defeat has convinced Islamabad to renounce protecting Hekmatyar, triggering the denunciation of the whole financial support, as well as the military equipment and logistics to the Taliban, who were better controlled by ISI. They prove to be more efficient, and, in 1996, took control of Kabul and the whole country. It is worth noticing that the Taliban statehood form, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, had been recognized only by three other states: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.
How did the information war turn out in Afghanistan?
In December 1979, Pakistan was governed by General Zia-ul Ha1, who was being boycotted by the Carter administration due to his despotic and bloody practices within the country. Afghanistan was the scene of Soviet-type social experiments underwent by a corrupt Marxist regime that was divided by internal power struggles. All the rival factions within the PDPA — the Marxist party of Taraky and Amin — as well as the non-Marxist opposition, were waiting for Moscow’s influent power to intervene and to end the internal struggles, as well as the unwanted reforms. The Kremlin was avoiding a military intervention in Afghanistan, and it was pressuring the leaders from Kabul to withdraw their secular reforms.
In that moment, the Pakistani services, ISI, created an opposition that did not report to the USSR, i.e., Rabbani and Hekmatyar. The Carter administration was financing it symbolically , but the Soviets, with limited and unsophisticated intelligence resources, were frightened and took a quick military action to establish a more relaxed regime in Kabul. The mediocre leaders of Kremlin made the wrong move, ignoring the advice of thousands of Soviet “counselors” in Afghanistan, falling into a trap from which they will not escape: instead of assassinating the dictator, Amin, and orchestrating a Palace coup, they sent 100,000 soldiers to enforce order! It was exactly what the Pakistanis and the Americans wanted — separately, out of different reasons. The Pakistani services, ISI, activate Joanne Herring. She lures on her side congressman Wilson, a CIA group close to the Pakistani services, and together with the Americans launch the massive operation that went by the name of Cyclone — the biggest in U.S. history — through which 3 billion dollars were sent to Pakistan.
Regarding the hybrid war, the Russians have lost everything from the very beginning. Firstly, the Pakistanis issued a quick conviction (in only 10 days!) from the Muslim countries on the Soviet invasion. Also, the USA, with the Reagan administration from the very beginning sensed the time for revenge after the Vietnam War and quickly internationalized the condemnation of the USSR. Last but not least, Great Britain had genuinely believed in the Pakistani theory that the Russian were forcing their way toward the Indian Ocean, as they had before, thus demonizing the socialist empire.
The media has had its own contribution in crafting and then spreading the legend of the patriotic mujahideen, who were fighting for the freedom of their own people and who were opposing the oppressive Soviet forces responsible for organizing the massacres against the Afghans. Moreover, sending STINGER missiles to the Afghan guerrillas — and a few Soviet helicopters and airplanes being taken down with them (skillfully filmed) — has created an image of “shock and horror” all over the world, determining a massive opposition against the war even among Soviet citizens. The images of the STINGER missiles hitting the Russian helicopters have had a decisive impact on forming a new form of tacit protest inside the USSR – “the moms’ movement.” On the battlefield, however, the Soviets have immediately found the remedy against these missiles: night flights or at a high altitude, where the STINGER could not reach.
Although they have not lost a single battle, and with a death toll of only 15,000, the Soviets thought that the Red Army had been decimated and humiliated by the tribes of primitive Afghan sheepherders. Now, the Soviets believed that the whole world was convinced that the war in Afghanistan had contributed decisively to the fall of the USSR. In reality, the Red Army has never had more than 108,000 men on the field, and financial loses, caused strictly by the military effort, had not reached 2.5 billion dollars. The Soviets have lost way more because of the commercial embargoes imposed by the West and because of the manipulation of the international coalitions of oil of the Saudis and Americans.
All the other important political actors (not only the Soviets) have lost something. India witnessed passively at the show, so did Iran, both not understanding what was happening. The Americans have funneled immense sums for arming groups of which they had known nothing about and which could not be controlled, sums that ended up contributing at arming and radicalizing the biggest threat to the Western world — a threat that will instantiate hurtfully for the Americans on September 11, 2001.
As well as they played their card until 1989 as badly they managed the Pakistani situation after 1989, relying on an everlasting loser like Hekmatyar or the auto-destructive Taliban. History took its revenge on the Pakistani people, offering them the greatest thread at their border…
Curiously, but the only hero remains the innocent Charlie Wilson, a dandy who liked to party and who believed that he was participating in the writing of history.
* Petrişor Peiu is a member of the LARICS Expert Council.