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America – and Afghanistan – Needs Another Charlie Wilson

February 10, 2010 Leave a comment

Former Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, 76, has passed away. While his life was caricatured in the admittedly fantastic Hollywood biopic Charlie Wilson’s War, Congressman Wilson was in fact a great public servant, a fantastic American and an international statesman and game-changer.

During the congressional perk heyday, Charlie Wilson was best known as the hard-drinking, hard-partying Texas congressman with a penchant for beautiful women. His wild lifestyle earned him the nickname “Good Time Charlie”.

“Charlie may have been the only believer in the United States that the Afghan people could actually expel the Soviets. He had his own personal jihad,” said Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.

Historians can argue over the reality of the movie lionization of Charlie Wilson. But what no one can argue is that he single-handedly raised the attention of both congressional leaders and the United States public to the situation in Afghanistan.

We can expect any Hollywoodization of a real person and their story to filled with Hollywood-style gratuities – such as portraying Joanne King Herring as a caring and concerned citizen rather than the paid lobbyist of the Pakistani government that she was. But the movie did portray at least one element of Charlie Wilson’s story dead-on accurately: he cared about what the Soviets were doing in Afghanistan and raised holy hell in Congress to stand up to it.

Some of Charlie Wilson’s compatriots in the Afghanistan struggle, like the incomparable and mythical Kathryn Cameron Porter, continue to be voices in the wilderness on Afghanistan policy.

With Charlie Wilson now accounting for his deeds, America needs another Charlie to take the bulls by the horns and stand up for Afghanistan. With ever-lowering approval ratings on the war in Afghanistan and the majority of Americans forgetting that we actually have troops over there, someone has to speak out and stand up for American policy there.

President Obama has increased the troops levels and military spending while not increasing the USAID or aid budget to Afghanistan. We send our troops to die for and in a country that, from this viewers’ perspective, isn’t interested in having us there. On the one hand, we say the Taliban and Al-Queda are the enemy we are rooting out, while on the other hand we posit that perhaps we should be negotiating with the Taliban to turn them away from Al-Queda.

The United States has no over-arching, strategic policy for Afghanistan. We have plenty of tactical policies, but no over-arching aim of what we want to achieve in AfPak. Continued drone attacks are not enough to end the insurgency or win hearts and minds.

Charlie Wilson knew what needed to be done in Afghanistan. He wasn’t a geopolitical grand strategist, or an intelligence analyst. He was a guy who did a thing because it was the right thing to do.

“People like me didn’t fulfill our responsibilities once the war was over,” Wilson said in a September 2001 interview with The Associated Press. “We allowed this vacuum to occur in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which enraged a lot of people. That was as much my fault as it was a lot of others.”

America desperately needs another Charlie Wilson now to help us figure out an Afghanistan policy that will be mutually beneficial to Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States the way Charlie did.

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