The disturbing legacy of the CIA’s covert military aid to Afghanistan during the Cold War strode into a Muslim community hall in London this past week, in the person of Ghairat Baheer – the brother of one of America’s most violent enemies, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
Hekmatyar received much of the CIA’s Afghan arms and money in the 1980’s. He now proclaims his allegiance to al Qaeda. In 2003, the U.S. government listed Hekmatyar as a "specially designated global terrorist."
Brother Baheer is on a tour of European capitals advocating Gulbuddin’s return to power, and an immediate exit from Afghanistan by American-led NATO forces.
Baheer spent six years in U.S. military detention in Afghanistan prior to his release in 2008. His notorious brother remains at large, thanks largely to continuing support from Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, the ISI.
Hekmatyar poses a dual threat to the U.S.-led aid mission to Afghanistan. First, his Hizbe Islami is reconstituting itself with armed insurgents and political offices, all to wage a Holy War against the West. This week, the Arab network al-Arabiya broadcast a message from Hekmatyar stating: "Afghans must attack American troops present in Afghanistan in support of the Palestinians in Gaza."
Second, Hekmatyar’s mere presence on the Afghan stage is a reminder of three decades of American blunders. He is the personification of blowback, a ruthless warlord who parlayed the prominence he bought with U.S. tax dollars twenty years ago into a capability to project his homicidal ambitions across each subsequent phase of the Afghan war.
Hekmatyar has not only survived the Bush administration, but sees in the Obama era on the upswing – thanks both to his Pakistani patrons, and the continuing denial practiced by his American foes. Even some leading liberal sages of the U.S. entertainment industry are willing to cover up the Hekmatyar phenomenon, all in the interests of selling a politically correct - and profitable - version of history to their audiences.
Case in point, the motion picture Charlie Wilson’s War, now gracing American cable television screens a year after its theatrical release. The film was based on the book of the same name by the late, and highly respected, George Crile, who chronicled Afghanistan in the 1980’s for CBS’s Sixty Minutes.
George’s book makes clear that two Afghan guerrilla leaders above all others benefited from the CIA’s covert aid, kick-started by Charlie Wilson and his associate, the Texas socialite Joanne Herring. Their names: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani.
On pages 212 and 213, Crile states that in the early 1980’s Joanne Herring found Hekmatyar to be “marvellous beyond words,” but that in the aftermath of 9/11 the CIA “launched a satellite-guided missile in an attempt to assassinate” the old warlord.
Page 222 of Crile’s book tells readers: “Gulbuddin was the darling of Zia and the Pakistan intelligence service... (He) was very much a part of the emerging global wave of Islamic radicalism, opposed to any attempts at altering fundamental tenants (sic) of the faith. By all accounts, he was responsible for the practice of throwing acid in the faces of Afghan women who failed to cover themselves properly.”
And on the next page:
“Gulbuddin was the “freedom fighter” whom Charlie Fawcett and then Joanne Herring had come to know and love… And Charlie Wilson was fascinated with him because he had heard that Gulbuddin could kill Soviets like no other…”
Cut to the movie version of George’s book, produced by and starring Tom Hanks as Wilson, and directed by Mike Nichols from a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin.
There is not a single mention of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Nor does the audience hear the name “Haqqani”. Which is odd, given all the ink George devotes to this second warlord in his book:
“The man Charlie described as ‘goodness personified,’ Jalaluddin Haqqani, had long been a gateway for Saudi volunteers, and for years the CIA had no problem with such associations. Osama bin Laden was one of those volunteers who could frequently be found in the same area where Charlie had been Haqqani’s honoured guest.
“As the CIA’s favorite commander, Haqqani had received bags of money each month from the station in Islamabad. In the aftermath of 9/11, he would emerge as the number three target of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan. (Charlie Wilson’s War, page 521.)
Cut to a copy of Aaron Sorkin’s draft screenplay, dated May 23, 2005, two years prior to principal photography. On page 107, Sorkin includes a throwaway mention of Hekmatyar, minimizing him as “also a man to watch.”
But this part of the scene has been removed from the movie. Only the first page of dialogue makes the final cut, featuring Tom Hanks as Charlie Wilson with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Gust Avrakotos in a CIA briefing room.
In this scene, Ahmed Shah Massoud is named as the CIA's favored Afghan guerrilla leader, a silly perversion of the historical record, and to Afghans a deeply demeaning one (see skyreporter’s March 26, 2008 posting, on page 5 of Recent Stories: Charlie Wilson's Whoppers).
George Crile’s book makes clear early on (page 198) that Pakistan’s ISI “shortchanged” Massoud. The ISI’s distortion of the CIA operation, favoring Hekmatyar over Massoud, was clear to any of us covering the war at the time:
“Strangely, while his party’s battlefield achievements pale in comparison with those of Massoud, Hekmatyar’s strong connections with Pakistani authorities have won him the largest share of US and Saudi Arabian arms and cash flowing to the Mujahideen… (Arthur Kent, THE OBSERVER, 31 January 1988.)
So, the question: why did a motion picture crafted by three of Hollywood’s leading Obama-boosters hit the screen as a vapid propaganda piece, fully in line with the Bush epoch’s neo-conservative white-washing of the factors leading up to 9/11?
A further look through Aaron Sorkin’s May, 2005 draft screenplay confirms our worst fears. Hollywood's heroes blinked: any and all references to potential blowback or the 9/11 attacks were later removed.
Gone is a five-page scene on Charlie Wilson’s terrace, where Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Gust berates Tom Hanks’ Wilson on the spectre of their aid to Afghan extremists backfiring, including this sarcastic line:
“I know if Islamic fanaticism ever gets outa hand, Joanne Herring and her friends will rise up to meet it with Christian fanaticism and then we’ve got ourselves a ball game.”
The whole scene is missing from the movie. As well, a gripping epilogue was envisaged, dissolving forward in time to a certain day in September, 2001.
Hanks’ Charlie Wilson steps on to his terrace and looks towards the Pentagon. “BHOOOM!—We HEAR a teeth-jarring explosion…”
No we don’t. The scene didn’t make it into the film.
Which begs the larger question here. Unless and until America’s governing, military and media elites are prepared to come clean about their nation’s history in Afghanistan, how can they hope to chart a successful path into the region’s future?
Gulbuddin thinks he’s got the answer to that one: just keep running and gunning, because the Americans are incapable of seeing things as they really are, and can’t resist the comforts of sentimentalism.
Think he’s wrong?
Better consider this scene - the one playing out right now in the theater of current affairs: Hekmatyar and his brother and their Islamic Party gunmen are steadfastly gaining ground in their quest to gain power over the Afghan people, and thereby enable al Qaeda to export terror abroad.Send that one to rewrite, Tinseltown. Please...