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Jane Ahlin, Published February 14 2010

Ahlin: Wilson’s war in the context of Greg Mortenson’s work

Based on a book of the same name by “60 Minutes” producer George Crile, the 2007 movie “Charlie Wilson’s War” tells the story of a Texas politician who became a champion of Afghan freedom fighters during the 1980s after the Soviets invaded and tried to dominate Afghanistan.

Juxtaposed with the story of another American named Greg Mortenson, a man who by accident began building schools in mountainous Pakistan (a story that became the book “Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time,” and a more recent book, “Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace With Books Not Bombs in Afghanistan and Pakistan”), the tale of Wilson teaches a powerful lesson. With Wilson’s death this past week, it seems appropriate to revisit his passion for Afghan freedom that in the years since even gave him pause.

To tell Wilson’s story, start with the man himself, a flamboyant, hard-drinking, “scandal prone” congressman from Texas; add the unusually politically aggressive “born-again” Houston socialite he was romantically involved with for a while named Joanne Herring, and then complete the cast with an “out-of-favor CIA operative” named Gust Avrakotos (also called “Dr. Dirty”) who knew “how to stretch the Agency’s rules to the breaking point.”

The result was a covert and very expensive CIA war that helped the Afghan rebels defeat the Soviets. In the decade-long process, Wilson managed to increase American spending for the rebels (mujahideen) from

$6 million to $630 million per year. Amazingly, the American public never knew about it.

Today we know all too well what happened. Initially seen as a great success that hastened the breakup of the Soviet Union, Charlie Wilson’s war did nothing to change the desolation the Soviets left behind in Afghanistan. As author George Crile put it, there were “no roads, no schools, just a destroyed country – and the United States was washing its hands of any responsibility.” Wilson could not talk his congressional colleagues so willing to finance arms for the mujahideen into a penny for the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

Of course it was easy for the U.S. to walk away because our involvement was invisible to the world. Unfortunately, that invisibility extended to the Afghans who did not credit the U.S. for helping defeat the Soviets. With no money to help moderate Islamists rebuild Afghanistan, chaos and tribal feuding held sway. Out of the void of lawlessness, the Taliban, with their unbending rules and punishments and their ability to keep order emerged stronger than ever.

In the film, Wilson’s character (played by Tom Hanks) says of the secret war, “These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world … and then we (messed) up the endgame.”

In recent years the real Wilson put that “endgame” thought this way: “The part I’ll take to my grave with guilt is that … I didn’t stay the course and … drive the other members of Congress nuts pushing for a mini-Marshall Plan.”

Greg Mortenson (note: a former Concordia College student) had little direction in his life when he set out to climb the mountain K2 in memory of his sister who had died of epilepsy. Oddly, his failure to reach the summit set him on his life path.

Lost on the mountain, he was nursed back to health by poor mountain people, and since he was educated to be a nurse himself, he returned to the village with antibiotics and medical supplies. When he saw that the only school was held outside on bare ground, he made the promise to build a school. Through much adversity, that is exactly what he did. And then he went on, building more and more schools, not only in Pakistan, but also in Afghanistan. Even after being held prisoner by the Taliban for a week, he persisted. The value of his work is underscored by the fact that Adm. Mike Mullen, Gen. David Petraeus, and Gen. Stanley McChrystal all have looked to Mortenson for insight and help in approaching village elders.

Charlie Wilson was passionate in his devotion to freedom fighters; however, by the end of his life, he realized what Mortenson figured out as a young man: The ongoing fight for freedom is the fight against ignorance.


Ahlin is a regular contributor to The Forum’s commentary pages.