Stephen Harper's War

A hollywood movie about U.S. congressman tells us a lot about why we are in Afghanistan

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The Gazette, Friday, December 28, 2007

If you want to know how we got to Afghanistan, part of the answer is in Charlie Wilson's War, which might be the best film ever from director Mike Nichols, with a crackling screenplay by Aaron Sorkin and a dazzling performance by Tom Hanks in the title role.

It's the true story, adapted from the book of the same title by George Crile, of a high-living Texas congressman with one serious purpose - to win the Cold War on the eastern front, Soviet-occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s.

On the western front, Ronald Reagan confronted the Soviets with missiles and confounded them with his determination to build a space-based defensive missile system known as Star Wars. Reagan's view of the Cold War was simple. As he famously put it: "We win, they lose."

In essence, Reagan bankrupted the Soviets, and their system eventually collapsed under the weight of its own corruptions and contradictions.

But the retreat of the Soviets from Afghanistan was by no means evident in the 1980s, so long as their helicopter gunships and tanks bombed the country back into the Stone Age, where it had actually been all along.

It was the U.S.-financed covert operations, in effect Charlie Wilson's War, that levelled the playing field in Afghanistan, putting missiles and AK-47s in the hands of the local insurgents known as the Mujahedin. As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, Wilson leveraged financing of covert ops from $5 million a year at the beginning of the decade to nearly $1 billion by the time the Soviets retreated in 1989, a humiliating defeat for the evil empire.

Along the way, there was matching funding from the Saudis, an unlikely alliance of the Israelis and Egyptians as arms suppliers, with the Pakistanis providing a road to the rebels over the mountains (does this part sound familiar?).

The result was one of the great and decisive victories of the Cold War. Evidently no one paid much attention until now because Charlie Wilson was dismissed as a party hound and booze head, which apparently served as an effective cover for running covert ops. (He's not a composite but a real person who retired from Congress in 1996, to start a Washington PR firm, and he took a star turn at the Hollywood movie's premiere in the company of Hanks.)

But the point is that once the Soviets left town, the Americans and their friends failed to step up with aid and institution building. Which eventually allowed the Taliban to take over and rule the ruins of the country for five years until 2001.

The Taliban gratefully hosted Al-Qa'ida, whose leader Osama bin Laden had been an ally of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar during the insurgency against the Soviets. Thus, the destructive seeds of 9/11 were sown in the terrorist camps of the Afghan mountains.

Which is why the Americans went into Afghanistan after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and why dozens of NATO countries, including Canada, are still there today.

One of the footnotes to the film is a voice-over and video clip by Canadian journalist Arthur Kent describing the invasion of the Soviets. Kent covered the entire period of the Soviet occupation and knows more about Afghanistan than almost any other foreign journalist. This was during his days as a freelance television reporter, long before he became celebrated as the Scud Stud, doing stand-ups for NBC during the First Gulf War in 1991. Kent has met both George Crile and Charlie Wilson along the way, and those would be two more fascinating stories he could tell.

Aside from being splendid entertainment, Charlie Wilson's War is an indictment of a major policy failure - the failure to followup, with consequences being felt to this day. At least today's NATO-led, UN-approved mission has moved beyond unintended consequences and is attempting to build the foundations of a civil society in a fledgling democracy, all the while fending off the resurgent Taliban.

That's the why of it. As for how Canada got to Kandahar province, there are a lot of answers in The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar, by Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang.

The authors have unquestioned credentials - she is director of the Munk Centre at the University of Toronto, he is a former chief of staff to a Liberal defence minister, and they had unrivaled access to government sources, including former prime minister Paul Martin and former defence minister Bill Graham, as well as Rick Hillier, the chief of the defence staff.

It's quite an instructive journey, from Jean Chrétien's initial major deployment to Kabul in 2003, to Martin's redeployment to Kandahar in 2005, to Stephen Harper's extension of the mission to 2009.

Though he didn't start this, Harper now owns it. Harper's War, as the authors call it.

Actually, Kandahar is just one front in a wider Afghan war, that began in the 1980s with Charlie Wilson's War. Hollywood isn't going to be making a movie about our parts of it, but it's an important story for Canada, which raises serious questions about the way ahead, and the road home.

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