Charlie Wilson’s War Plan

The legendary congressman talks about Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the future of the Middle East.

The players in covert operations don’t typically receive any great deal of public acclaim, though that changes when Tom Hanks portrays you in a movie about the events and the film title bears your name. After Charlie Wilson’s War , everybody knows about the longtime Democratic congressman from Lufkin and how he spent the eighties using channels both formal and not to steer hundreds of millions of dollars in arms and aid to Afghan rebels fighting the Soviets. And how the Afghan defeat of the Russians led directly to the break up of the USSR and, ultimately, to the end of the Cold War. That Charlie Wilson was known through that period primarily—and rightly—as a hard-drinking tomcat just made the story that much better. For once, Hollywood didn’t have to sex it up.

Wilson retired from Congress in 1996 and then spent the next eight years lobbying on Capitol Hill, primarily for Pakistan. He retired in earnest in 2005 and moved back to Lufkin with his wife, former ballerina Barbara Alberstadt, whom he’d married in 1999. He’s now 75, fully recovered from a recent heart transplant, and keeping an elder statesman’s watchful eye on Democratic politics and the Middle East. After President Barack Obama announced his evaluation of the war in Afghanistan, I called Wilson for his thoughts.

What has to happen for us to be successful in Afghanistan?

The first thing is that Pakistan needs to get into this with both feet, with total control of the army, and especially the intelligence service, the ISI. There are still a lot of people in the ISI and the army—and when I say “a lot” I don’t mean a majority, but I do mean enough—who are such fundamentalists and emotionally on the side of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. [Former president Pervez] Musharraf couldn’t get them to do what he wanted them to do, and he was head of the army when he took over. So it’s hard to see what President [Asif Ali] Zardari can do. Even if he’s a political genius, he’s still starting from a hole because Pakistan is so divided and it’s such a poor country. And when he gives an order, I suspect it’s discussed a good bit before it’s followed within the military.

So how important is the civilian aid to Pakistan included in Obama’s new plan, the $1.5 billion a year for five years?

If we could persuade the leadership in the Northwest Frontier to side with us, or for whatever reason to oppose the Taliban, that would help us with the Pakistani military. I equate it with the action that General [David] Petraeus took in Iraq to get cooperation from the Sunnis, our former enemies. In many ways this looks the same to me, like what we will try to do, for lack of a better word, is to bribe them. But I don’t think the Sunnis are quite as strident as the Taliban and Al Qaeda. They’re less willing to die.

What do you think of Afghan President Hamid Karzai?

Everything you read says that he is only the mayor of Kabul and has no influence elsewhere. If we were successful in building and training an Afghan army of 100,000 for the Karzai government, perhaps he’d do better. The press also says that corruption is out of control. I don’t think we can root it all out, but it needs to be tempered down so it’s not quite so obvious. And they need some really good, functioning bureaucrats.

It’s hard to build a functioning government with whole generations lost to the wars and with so few people even able to read.

That’s right.

And can you build a national army out of a population that has so many factions?

There has never been a strong national army, and there has never been a strong national government. That’s one reason I’m pessimistic.

And then there’s the history of the place. Your friend [former CIA field officer in Afghanistan] Milt Bearden famously called it “the graveyard for empires.”

We’re up against some smart, tough, recklessly brave people. They’re not afraid to die, and it’s hard to intimidate somebody who’s flatly not afraid to die. That’s their culture. They’ve got this history of never having been defeated. Nobody’s ever gone in there and been able to stay. I mean, the Red Army gave it one hell of a try. And it would have been really tough for the Afghans to have defeated them without those Stinger missiles we gave them, but you know, there’s between 20 and 25 million Afghanis, and the Russians would have had to kill all of them.

Is it realistic to expect Afghanistan and Pakistan to get along?

There is no hope for staying there if they can’t. But the Afghans blame the Pakistanis for most of their troubles. I’m not sure that’s true, but it’s what they think. And on the other hand, Pakistan is perfectly willing to let the Taliban and Al Qaeda use the tribal areas.

So maybe the two countries don’t have to get in bed together so long as Pakistan gets a handle on those tribal areas.

Well, if we sent ground forces in there, all of Pakistan would view it as an invasion of sacred Islamic territory by the Westerners. So it would be very helpful to us if the Pakistani military would do something about it.

But you have to remember that the Pashtuns in that area act as though they are their own country. I remember many visits to the tribal areas, and the Pakistani army would always make a big show of taking me to the borderlands and turning me over to the tribal chieftains as if it was another country. I know that is inconsistent with what I just said, but nothing is consistent over there.

So it’s hard for us to invade because it’s Pakistan, but it’s hard also for Pakistan to police it because it’s kind of not Pakistan.

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