Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Movie Review: Charlie Wilson’s War

Readers may wonder why Afghanistan, seven years after the US and its allies bumped out the Taliban, remains a quasi failed state, where violence, opium and starvation continue to dance with and feed upon one another, or why, after billions of dollars in investment and major contributions by NATO and the UN, it doesn’t seem any closer to falling back on its feet. Of course, the roots of the problem lie in the country’s geography, its limited natural resources and the geopolitical neighborhood it is in, with Pakistan and Iran having long influenced its internal politics.

But a shortcut to understanding the source of the present troubles exists, however, and lies with the soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the subsequent US-led undercover efforts, with Israel, Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in the coup, to arm the mujahidin with the necessary weapons — mostly surface-to-air missiles and anti-tank weapons — to fight the mighty Soviet army.

The principal character behind this endeavor is Charlie Wilson, a debauched, scotch-breathing congressman from Texas who, simmering in a tub in Las Vegas with buxom strippers, has an epiphany when he sees footage from Afghanistan and wonders what should be done.

What comes next is a descent into the unaccountability of political power, where a single congressman, using his influence on the United States House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, the panel responsible for funding CIA operations, embarks on a mission to double the initial US$5 million US funding to the Afghan resistance. After an eye-opening tour of an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan and a chat, back in Texas, with disgruntled CIA operative named Gust Avrakotos, Wilson plays the levers of power, uses and, in turn, is used by ideological, socialites and wealthy Christian fundamentalist high rollers, to raise funds and increase the amount of money and weapons sent to Afghanistan via Pakistan.

The rest is history — in fact, one of the turning events of modern history. Wilson’s efforts pay dividends and an increasing quantity of soviet helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft are shot down with SA missiles, leading to the Soviet withdrawal — its first defeat at the hands of another people — and ultimate implosion. That year, about US$1 billion in military assistance was flowing into Afghanistan, mostly from the US and Saudi Arabia.

Though Charlie Wilson’s War (based on a 2004 book by George Crile, with Tom Hanks playing the role of the congressman and Philip Seymour-Hoffman that of Gust Avrakotos) causes laugher throughout, the humor conceals terrifying truths about a catastrophe in the making, perfectly encapsulated in the unfailingly undiplomatic Avrakotos’ recounting, toward the end, of a Zen master parable of a boy and horse. We may have won the war and defeated the communists, but is it a good thing? We’ll see. As he says this, he hands Wilson a report about the “crazies,” the very fighters Wilson et al had funded for years, who were seizing power in Afghanistan, replacing a bloodbath with another. The dialogue, crude, sarcastic and violent, is done to perfection and can be interpreted at different levels. In one unconfortable scene, Avrakotos tells Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), a Jesus-loving, communist-hating Houston socialite who played a major role in Wilson's cause, why the CIA should never mix with politics. When it does, he tells her, he loses sight of who it is he is supposed to be shooting at.

The beauty of the movie is that it doesn’t force its agenda on the viewers, nor does it feel compelled to spell out what the consequences of winning the war in Afghanistan, only to abandon its destitute people, would be for the future. The audience knows that, and pictures of passenger aircraft obliterating the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001, would have been unnecessary, if not bad moviemaking.

For those of us who have had a chance (if such a term can be used) to work in intelligence and/or politics (or where the lines intersect), the movie has a special flavor, from Avrakotos’ shouting match in his supervisor’s office (reminiscent of my own altercations) to the mundane operative talk in the CIA cafeteria, from the religious belief in a cause to the myopic view of the consequences and resistance to dissent, all are humorously exposed, and though they draw a laugh, we know too well that the risibility of politics and intelligence also leaves piles of charred bodies by the roadside.

Whatever happens next in Afghanistan, will it be a good thing? We’ll see.


Robert said...

I don't mean to nitpick, but "seven years after the US and its allies bumped out the Taliban" sounds a little misleading. Especially just after I read this:

Judging from your site, I imagine you might have read some of Michael Scheuer's stuff. It seems that in Afghanistan we're seeing exactly what he said we'd see with regards to the Taliban and their supposedly being "bumped" -- the premise being that they would just bounce right back.

I know that's not what your post was about, and I'm sorry for the digression. On the other hand, I really enjoy your articles.

MikeinTaipei said...


Thanks for your comment. I guess (a) my piece should have read "6 1/2 years" and (b) it is true that the Taliban was never "bumped" in the proper sense of the term. Rather, as with any insurgency, one part was squeezed and the balloon expanded somewhere else. I have, indeed, read Scheuer's stuff and I tend to agree with his assessment (he has a new book out, by the way). This is also why, as I argue in a book I am trying to get published (not on Afghanistan per se but on a related topic), without some attempt at reconciliation (as opposed to counterinsurgency to no end) no amout of PRT will ever make Afghanistan a workable country that would no longer serve as a potential base for AQ and its likes. Anyway, thanks for reading and your comments are always welcome!