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Faculty resist raising funds for endowed chair named after “good-time Charlie” Wilson
Monday, 08 September 2008 09:22

by Robert Jensen

When University of Texas faculty members opened the local Austin newspaper in mid-August, many were surprised to read that that their institution was raising funds for an endowed chair to honor Charlie Wilson, described charitably by the paper as “the fun-loving, hard-living former East Texas congressman portrayed by Tom Hanks in last year’s ‘Charlie Wilson's War.’”

A more honest evaluation would highlight Wilson’s contribution to the disastrous U.S. policy in Afghanistan in the late 1970s and 1980s. The people of that country had a right to resist the Soviet invasion and occupation (the same right that the people of Iraq had after the U.S. invasion there). But the cynical U.S. policy of supporting the reactionary and brutal elements of the resistance, while shoring up a military dictatorship in Pakistan, had “devastating consequences for the peoples of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States,” which UT faculty members involved in South Asia studies describe below in their open letter.

These professors have asked UT administrators to put academic integrity above money and end this embarrassing attempt to name an endowed chair after a politician with Wilson’s record. Administrators would no doubt appreciate hearing from those who could provide a progressive perspective on the issue.

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For additional background on Wilson’s role in U.S. policy, see:

“The Largest Covert Operation in CIA History,” by Chalmers Johnson

“Imperialist Propaganda: Second Thoughts on Charlie Wilson’s War,” by Chalmers Johnson

Dr. Randy Diehl
Dean of Liberal Arts
GEB 3.216
University of Texas Austin, TX  78712

Dr. Itty Abraham
Director, South Asia Institute
WCH 4.132B
University of Texas
Austin, TX 78712

Dear Dean Diehl and Dr. Abraham,

We the undersigned South Asia faculty at the University of Texas, Austin, write to express our strong objection to the university’s decision to establish a “Charlie Wilson Chair in Pakistan Studies.”

While Hollywood may profit from valorizing Mr. Wilson’s role in the Soviet-Afghan war, the concerns of a flagship, state-funded academic institution should be to maintain high scholarly standards and to avoid participating in historical caricature. The cold war in South Asia, which saw the United States shore up decades of military dictatorship in Pakistan against the democratic aspirations of its people, cannot be construed as a triumph of “good” democracy over “evil” communism. Mr. Wilson’s record as the key Congressman who sent monies and munitions to the anti-Soviet mujahideen groups underscores the worrisome role the U.S. played in escalating the Soviet-Afghan conflict, with devastating consequences for the peoples of  Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States.  

“Charlie Wilson’s War,” or the “largest covert action program since World War II,” channeled more than $2 billion to  the mujahideen  in the 1980s; by 1987 the CIA was supplying 65,000 tons of armaments to the mujahideen. During the 1980s, Osama bin Laden, from his base in Peshawar, Pakistan, used his family’s wealth to build a series of camps where the mujahideen were trained by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). These CIA-funded, ISI-supervised mujahideen operations targeted airports, railroads, fuel depots, electricity pylons, bridges, and roads, destroying vital civilian infrastructure in Afghanistan. The mujahideen, while advocating a narrow and extreme version of Islam, were also brutal killers who preyed upon the Afghan people and trafficked heroin to finance their activities.  Between 1979 and 1992, thousands of Afghans died, and 6 million more became refugees -- the largest refugee population in the world -- many of them living  in mujahideen-run refugee camps in Pakistan. Out of the rubble of a decimated Afghan society and the misery of these camps emerged the second generation of mujahideen: the Taliban. Space does not allow us to detail the myriad forms of cold war “blowback” that have continued to affect India and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, and resulted in the events of September 11, 2001. These facts are, however, well-known. Mr. Wilson’s central involvement in the cold war in South Asia does not warrant the honor of establishing a University chair in his name.

A named chair sends a public message that not only the holder of the Chair, but its donor, represent standards to which the university and larger community should aspire. To endow a chair in Mr. Wilson’s name implicitly endorses an ideological and romanticized vision of his legacy, ­and thereby of South Asian history as well. Mr. Wilson is not a role model for what we should teach students about the struggle for democracy in South Asia. It is also hard to imagine that any credible scholar of Pakistan could be recruited to fill a chair named after Mr. Wilson. 

If Mr. Wilson and the Temple Foundation want to support research on South Asia, they can be encouraged to make an unmarked and unrestricted donation to the South Asia Institute at the University of Texas. We support the idea of establishing a Chair in Pakistan or South Asian Studies named after a person of integrity and principle that would allow UT’s South Asia program to recruit from among outstanding scholars in the field. We are happy to be consulted and to provide suggestions for a named chair that will enhance and not compromise the reputation of South Asian Studies at the University of Texas.


Kathryn Hansen, Professor of South Asian Studies, Director, Center for Asian Studies (2000-4)
Akbar Hyder, Associate Professor of South Asian Studies
Judith Kroll, Associate Professor of English
Shanti Kumar, Associate Professor of Radio-Television-Film
Janice Leoshko, Associate Professor of Art History and South Asian Studies
Gail Minault, Professor of History
Carla Petievich, Visiting Professor of South Asian Studies
Stephen Phillips, Professor of Philosophy
Sharmila Rudrappa, Associate Professor of Sociology
Martha Selby, Associate Professor of South Asian Studies
Stephen Slawek, Professor of Ethnomusicology
Kamala Visweswaran, Associate Professor of Anthropology
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Comments (1)add comment

apka-nam said:

americans msut be kicked out of afganistan much more burtally than it happend to the Russian-because american were not invited.
Posted by: Ydotheyhateus on Jul 16, 2008 8:28 AM

There was a point in Afghanistan's tortured history when the future looked bright, when a determined effort to lift the country and its people out of backward agrarian feudalism almost succeeded.

It began with the formation of the communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) back in the sixties, which opposed the autocratic rule of King Zahir Shar. The growth in popularity of the PDPA eventually led to them taking control of the country in 1978, after a coup removed the former Kings' cousin, Mohammed Daud, from power.

The coup enjoyed popular support in the towns and cities, evidenced in reports carried in US newspapers. The Wall Street Journal, no friend of revolutionary movements, reported at the time that '150,000 persons marched to honour the new flagthe participants appeared genuinely enthusiastic.' The Washington Post reported that 'Afghan loyalty to the government can scarcely be questioned.

Upon taking power, the new government introduced a program of reforms designed to abolish feudal power in the countryside, guarantee freedom of religion, along with equal rights for women and ethnic minorities. Thousands of prisoners under the old regime were set free and police files burned in a gesture designed to emphasise an end to repression. In the poorest parts of Afghanistan, where life expectancy was 35 years, where infant mortality was one in three, free medical care was provided. In addition, a mass literacy campaign was undertaken, desperately needed in a society in which ninety percent of the population could neither read nor write.

The resulting rate of progress was staggering. By the late 1980s half of all university students in Afghanistan were women, and women made up 40 percent of the country's doctors, 70 percent of its teachers, and 30 percent of its civil servants. In John Pilger's 'New Rulers Of The World' (Verso, 2002), he relates the memory of the period through the eyes of an Afghan woman, Saira Noorani, a female surgeon who escaped the Taliban in 2001. She said: "Every girl could go to high school and university. We could go where we wanted and wear what we liked. We used to go to cafes and the cinema to see the latest Indian movies. It all started to go wrong when the mujaheddin started winning. They used to kill teachers and burn schools. It was sad to think that these were the people the West had supported."

Under the pretext that the Afghan government was a Soviet puppet, which was false, the then Carter Administration authorised the covert funding of opposition tribal groups, whose traditional feudal existence had come under attack with these reforms. An initial $500 million was allocated, money used to arm and train the rebels in the art in secret camps set up specifically for the task across the border in Pakistan. This opposition came to be known as the mujaheddin, and so began a campaign of murder and terror which, six months later, resulted in the Afghan government in Kabul requesting the help of the Soviet Union, resulting in an ill-fated military intervention which ended ten years later in an ignominious retreat of Soviet military forces and the descent of Afghanistan into the abyss of religious intolerance, abject poverty, warlordism and violence that has plagued the country ever since.

Brzezinski confirms: "Yes. According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahadeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention."
September 10, 2008
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