In Official Washington, there's one "fact" about the Afghan War that nearly everyone "knows": In February 1989, after the Soviet army left Afghanistan, the United States walked away from the war-torn country, creating a vacuum that led to the rise of the Taliban and its readiness to host al-Qaeda's anti-American terrorists.
It is a point made by senior administration officials, including incoming Ambassador Ryan Crocker and departing Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who once summed up the conventional wisdom by saying: "We will not repeat the mistakes of 1989, when we abandoned the country only to see it descend into civil war and into Taliban hands."
And Gates was there at the time, as President George H.W. Bush's deputy national security adviser. So, he should know.
If there's any remaining doubt about this key historical "lesson" regarding Afghanistan, you simply need to watch the Tom Hanks' movie, "Charlie Wilson's War," in which you see Hanks as Rep. Wilson pleading for additional aid to Afghanistan and getting rebuffed by feckless members of a congressional committee.
The only problem with this "history" is that it isn't true.
There was no immediate cutoff of funds for the Afghan mujahedeen in 1989. Indeed, hundreds of millions of dollars in covert CIA funding continued to flow to the rebels for several years as the U.S. government sought a clear-cut victory over the left-behind communist leader Najibullah, who was holed up in Kabul.
And, if you don't believe me, you can read George Criles' 2003 book, Charlie Wilson's War, upon which the Hanks movie was based.
In it, Crile describes how Wilson kept the funding spigot open for the Afghan rebels after the Soviet departure, despite a growing U.S. awareness that the mujahedeen were brutal, reactionary and corrupt, a reality that Washington had chosen to ignore when these Islamic warlords were being hailed as anti-Soviet "freedom fighters" in the 1980s.
As Crile writes ...
"Throughout the war, Wilson had always told his colleagues that Afghanistan was the one morally unambiguous cause that the United States had supported since World War II -- and never once had any member of Congress stood up to protest or question the vast expenditures.
"But with the departure of the Soviets [in February 1989], the war was anything but morally unambiguous. By 1990, the Afghan freedom fighters had suddenly and frighteningly gone back to form, reemerging as nothing more than feuding warlords obsessed with settling generations-old scores.
"The difference was that they were now armed with hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of weapons and explosives of every conceivable type. The justification for the huge CIA operation had been to halt Soviet aggression, not to take sides in a tribal war -- certainly not to transform the killing capacity of those warriors."
Crile reported that at the end of that first year, Wilson traveled to Moscow and listened to appeals for a settlement of the long-running conflict from Andre Koserov, a future Russian foreign minister. Koserov warned Wilson that Moscow and Washington had a common interest in preventing the emergence of radical Islamic control of Afghanistan.
Upon returning to Washington, however, Wilson's openness to Moscow's overtures brought a stern rebuke from his hard-line friends in the CIA who wanted to see an unambiguous victory of the CIA-backed mujahedeen over the Soviet clients in Kabul.
"It was sad to see how quickly Wilson's effort at statesmanship collapsed," Crile reported. "He found that it wasn't easy to stop what he had started."
Wilson decided to side with his old allies in the CIA and the Saudi royal family, who were matching the CIA's huge contributions dollar for dollar.
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