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Charlie Wilson’s War

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Flamboyant playboy Texan Congressman, Charlie Wilson, who died earlier today was perhaps the last of gentlemen-adventurers. Like to many an adventurer before him, the challenge came in the form of a beautiful woman: thrice-married socialite and philanthropist Joanne Herring who, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, smuggled herself into that country to film the invasion.

Charlie Wilson, who she was dating at the time, was an influential member of the defence appropriations committee. The duo, along with some CIA help, launched a scheme to back the anti-Soviet militia, the mujahideen. Using Israeli and Swiss arms, and US and Saudi money, they managed to arm the mujahideen; with Wilson’s help, the United States’ funding of the Afghan resistance increased from the $30 million in 1984 to $630 million in 1987, with each fund matched by the Saudis. In 1986, Wilson prevailed over the Pentagon, CIA, and State Department resistance to send 1000 shoulder-fired surface-to-air Stinger missiles and 250 launchers to Afghanistan. Wilson quipped, “Whenever a plane goes down, I always fear it is one of our missiles. Most of all I wanted to bloody the Red Army. I think the bloodying thereof had a great deal to do with the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

The last Russian soldier left Afghanistan in February 1989. Wilson had won. The U.S. quickly lost its interest from Afghanistan. Funding of Afghan resistance leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his Hezbi Islami party was cut off immediately. Disenchanted and armed, they would first support Saddam Hussein’s Kuwait invasion and would became the original Taliban. Wilson himself retired from the Congress displeased at how the United States treated his former allies. Seeing his weapons ending up in the hands of the Taliban regime, which took power in Afghanistan and harbored Osama bin Laden, Wilson reflected, “I feel guilty about it. I really do. Those things happen. How are you going to defeat the Red Army without a gun? You can’t blame the Marines for teaching Lee Harvey Oswald how to shoot.”

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

February 10, 2010 at 9:42 pm

Mullah Omar

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Two weeks ago, I was in the Middle East as the Nation of Yemen slowly devolved itself into Afghanistan 2.0. I learnt a funny fact that the Iman Yahia, the King of North Yemen (who ruled from 1918-1948) is the only head of a member state of the United Nations who has never been photographed. He did forbade taking of his picture under pain of drastic punishment.

The above is the picture of the Taliban leader Mohammed Omar (middle, standing), from a video shot by a BBC crew in Afghanistan in 1996. It is totally-unrelated to Iman Yahia’s story except in that the picture was the only known photograph of the Taliban leader (although this in fact too was disputed). The Taliban, like Iman Yahia before them, held ultraorthodox views of Islam, and outlawed photographs of people, saying making any image of a human being was forbidden by the Koran. Omar, self-styled, was ousted by US for sheltering Osama bin-Laden and al-Qaeda after the September 11 attacks, and is currently believed to be in Pakistan, directing the insurgency movement against US troops.

Very little is known about Omar. The picture below, used by many media, has since been established to be another Taliban official. Aside from the fact that he is missing one eye, accounts of his physical appearance are contradictory: some said he was a tall man, while others describe him as small and frail. Omar was so reclusive that he rarely left his house in Kandahar and only once visited the Afghan capital Kabul during his six-year reign as the Commander of the Faithful of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Most Afghans do not have a clue what he looks like. The State Department has two ‘pictures’ of Omar on their Wanted lists, but both were not Omar’s.

In the above picture, Omar wore the sacred cloak of the Prophet Mohammad, which he retrieved from a Kandahar shrine where it had lain in darkness for 60 years.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

January 10, 2010 at 5:06 am

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