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Friday, December 21, 2007

Lessons from the front line of Charlie Wilson's War

Charlie Wilson's war is a must-see for Americans who don't remember the early 80's. It is a remarkable story about how one person (or two) can really make a difference when they want to.

It starts with the Soviet Union invading Afghanistan, and no one was doing anything about it - not even the U.S. government. Yep, the same place NATO troops are today, because when the Soviets left we did too, leaving the vacuum that Osama bin Laden filled. It is ironic that he was trained with some of Charlie's CIA money. It shows the danger of leaving a failed state in a vacuum.

At the time the real Charlie Wilson was going from hot tubs and naked women to providing the mujaheddin with $70,000 stinger missiles to shoot down million dollar Soviet gunships, I was being sent into that neck of the woods (to places like Pakistan, Dubai, etc.) to negotiate contracts for Fortune 500 companies as a young attorney. I have been to Islamabad, Karachi, Damascus, Cairo, etc. and watched the whole episode unfold.

That experience was an eye-opener of what is going on elsewhere in the world that will influence our future, for better or worse. The moral to me was that we better pay attention. The first wake-up call was the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. The second was 9/11.

9/11 came because we lost sight of the ball. After helping the Afghans regain their country when the Soviets left after Charlie's (and Joanne Herring's) war succeeded, we lost interest. The country was left broke and open for people like Osama to buy his way in to a safe haven while he plotted attacks against us. From there, the attacks against the USS Cole and the bombings of US Embassies in Africa were planned.

The moral of that story is that America cannot afford not to pay attention to these failed states. It is in our best interest to do what we can to help them succeed, with international community assistance, to foster their development and stability, so that their exports are things like coffee or machines instead of opium and terrorists. The Iraq war has diverted resources away from Afghanistan. The Taliban sanctuary in the Pakistan mountains remains secure to launch new waves of extremists into Afghanistan. Ignoring the source of trouble will not solve the problem.

Charlie's war was a success. But Afghanistan also shows that success can turn to tragedy if we do not engage on a worldwide basis. Much of the bitterness of Russia's Mr. Putin stems from the fact that when the Soviet Union collapsed, he felt we did too little to help and showed them no respect. Now they are rich and determined to kick some sand in our face. They have the nuclear power to do it.

It will take an American President with a global strategy to address these issues in 2008 and beyond. It won't take a Charlie's War from here on out, but a Charlie's peace...

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