Monday, May 19, 2008

A Bargain War

Last weekend I watched Charlie Wilson's War -- a political movie based on the true story of the backroom negotiations of playboy Congressman Wilson's efforts to obtain Stinger missiles for Afghanistan to shoot down Soviet helicopters in the 1980s. With sex, drugs, and politics, the movie is anything but dull.

Of course, I don't think I need to declare a "spoiler alert" before reminding everybody how the situation in Afghanistan played out after we left. The first Bush administration failed to calm the warring Afghan factions, and the resulting chaos contributed to the rise of the Taliban. The Taliban offered protection to Osama bin Laden and his extremist al-Qaeda organization.

The Hollywood film made this failure painfully clear. However, the film ignored or obscured other key facts. On, a former CIA analyst comments on the film:

But surely the most glaring omission in the film is the fateful trade-off accepted by President Ronald Reagan when he agreed not to complain about Pakistan’s efforts to acquire a nuclear weapons capability in exchange for Pakistani cooperation in helping the Afghan rebels.

On page 463 of his book, Crile characterizes this deal or understanding as “the dirty little secret of the Afghan war” –- General Zia al-Haq’s ability to extract not only “massive aid” from Washington but also to secure Reagan’s acquiescence in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program via a congressional waiver of U.S. nonproliferation laws in December 1981.

This bargain may have been dirty but it certainly was no secret. Indeed, Washington’s acquiescence via the congressional waiver was the subject of continuing press coverage throughout the 1980s.

As usual, the book reveals more than the movie, but here is the danger facing the world today: Pakistan faces a new wave of political uncertainty. This instability could enable terrorist groups to gain access to Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

And so that is one long-term consequence of our bargain war.

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