Sunday, October 19, 2008

Watching "Charlie Wilson's War"

I've been meaning to see "Charlie Wilson's War", released in 2007, for some time. I'd say the movie is very enjoyable, even for someone with no interest in politics... if you're interested in politics like me, so much the better.
The plot revolves around the story of how Charlie Wilson, a Democratic congressman from Texas, was involved in supplying the Mujahideen in Afghanistan with weaponry to fight against the Soviet Union. In the movies account, these weapons provided, especially the "Stinger" missiles used to shoot down Soviet helicopter, were key to the Muj's success. A connection is drawn between the defeat in Afghanistan and the subsequent collapse of the USSR. The account is based on a non-fiction book by the same name.
Charlie Wilson (played by Tom Hanks) was rather a colorful character... his staff is made up completely of attractive young women... one of the first times we see him in a hot-tub in Vegas with two strippers and a Playboy bunny. Later we see he is indicted on suspicion of having used cocaine in relation to this episode (he is indicted, by the way, by Rudy Giuliani). Yes, the movie makes it clear that Charlie Wilson liked to have a good time, and was pretty corrupt.
My favorite character, though, was Gust Avakrotos, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Gust is the CIA officer Charlie teams up with to make the war happen.
So charming are our heros that we can't help root with them against the stuffed-shirts worried about silly things like whether these operations might cause World War III, or that we are arming religious extremist warlords.
The movie presents a bit of a fairy-tale account of events. It is very strongly suggested that the weaponry provided by the United States was responsible for the Afghan's Muj's victory over the Soviet Union, especially the choice to give them "Stinger" missiles used to shoot down Russian helicopters. This is not accurate, the decision to leave Afghanistan had already been made by the Russian leadership before the US decided to supply these weapons.
The movie also seem to suggest that had we only followed through in Afghanistan, things might have turned out alright in the country. Near the end of the movie, we see Wilson trying to secure a mere $1 million for Afghanistan schools and being rebuffed by his committee (in contract, $500 billion was spent on the war against the Soviets- fund matched by Saudi Arabia). I don't think any sensible person would defend the policy of cutting off Afghanistan without a dime, but given who we were supplying with weapons, should one really be surprised by what happened? In the movie, we see Pakistani president Zia telling Wilson that the weapons must flow through him. What we don't see is Zia's policy of Islamizing Pakistan, out of which arguably many of Pakistan's current problems came out off(Zia's brutality is hinted at). Zia was a powerful force bolstering Islamism, and had been giving an extra share of it to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Hekmatyar in his younger days threw acid on the uncovered faces of Afghan women, and is currently killing US marines... and we gave over $200 million worth of aid to this guy.
I suspect the movie also exaggerates the role of Charlie Wilson in all this. I don not recall a single mention of the Reagan administration, but I suspect when the documents are declassified, it will be clear that the Reaganites were even more central than Charlie Wilson to this drama.

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