The assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan last month has a direct relationship to the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the subject of “Charlie Wilson’s War,” the Hollywood “comedy” in which a corrupt congressman and a wily CIA man win “the Cold War” against the “evil Soviet empire” in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan bordered the Soviet Union, and ethnic groups who also were part of the Soviet Union were minority populations in Afghanistan. The Soviets had helped to educate a significant number of Afghanis and an influential Communist Party existed in the city of Kabul. Feudal and pre-feudal nomadic elites were predominant in much of the country and the Muslim religion was the primary unifying force.

Communists took power in Kabul in 1978, faced with threats from Pakistan’s military dictatorship and also hoping to advance a social revolution, bringing mass education, land reform and other vital social reforms to the people. The Pakistani dictator Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq had publicly executed Muhammad Ali Bhutto, the civilian prime minister whom he overthrew (father of Benazir Bhutto). Zia’s regime turned increasingly to rightist clerical elements as a base of support and also worked with Saudis to establish right-wing religious primary schools in a country where large sections of the population, including most women, were illiterate.

Afghani Communists tragically were unable to achieve the unity that is a prerequisite for Communist parties everywhere — they were divided into rival factions that fought each other fiercely over policy. Along with important gains, there were disastrous errors in seeking to advance the revolution into the countryside, great ineptitude in the land reform policy among cadre with a limited understanding of agriculture, and an aggressive self-defeating anti-clericalism in response to the clerical opposition to the revolution.

With Zia aiding right-wing Muslim guerrillas, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski gained Carter’s support to use the CIA to aid to the guerrillas. Brzezinski saw this aid as creating an “Afghan trap” for the Soviets, manipulating them into a military intervention which, he hoped, would be their “Vietnam.”

The Soviets intervened in 1979 to both save the Kabul government and advance a social revolution against fiercely reactionary and imperialist forces. For the Soviets, the intervention was also a protection of their own borders.

CIA aid to Afghan “freedom fighters” grew under the Reagan administration before the real Charlie Wilson got into the act. Reagan, George H. W. Bush and the CIA deserve the lion’s share of the “credit” for the “victory” in Afghanistan that led to Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the present “war on terrorism.”

The CIA recruited thousands of fighters from Muslim countries and trained them in Afghan-Pakistani border areas to attack Afghanistan. Money was raised not only from U.S. appropriations but also from heroin traffic that led Pakistan in the 1990s to have the highest per capita number of heroin addicts in the world. Today, Al Qaeda and Taliban forces attack the U.S.-backed Afghan government, serving as Frankenstein’s monsters whom their creators can’t destroy.

Benazir Bhutto became Pakistan’s prime minister after Zia’s death in a mysterious plane crash in 1988. After she failed to seriously address the economic and social problems of the people, she was defeated in elections and then returned to power in 1993 after her Muslim League opponents failed in their policies. Gen. Pervez Musharraf established a military dictatorship in 1999 and remains, in effect, military dictator, as U.S. media and politicians talk about scheduled elections in Pakistan. (Pakistani elections over the years have been stolen, canceled, or simply declared null and void when the dominant factions of the Muslim League and military didn’t approve of the results.)

Now Benazir Bhutto has been murdered under Musharraf. Bhutto was undoubtedly a lesser of two evils compared with Musharraf, and her death is a tragedy. But while she was prime minister, she did not seek any real resolution of Pakistan’s long and inflammatory conflict with neighboring India, and in her second government many feel she gave de facto support to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan as part of her anti-India policies. The Bush administration apparently wanted to see a Bhutto-Musharraf coalition take shape, since Bhutto had not been an opponent of U.S. imperialism in the region.

Continued U.S. support for Musharraf and the reactionary ruling groups in Pakistan strengthens Al Qaeda and Taliban forces in the region and intensifies the misery of the Pakistani people. Moreover, one hallmark of U.S. imperialist policy has been denial that Pakistan and India were part of the same national community and that there must be a larger policy of reconciliation and development for all of South Asia, including the three states that represent what was once India. A progressive U.S. policy for the region, one that works for and builds peace, must begin by withdrawing military support for Pakistan, including its adventures against India, and making regional cooperation and disarmament, including nuclear disarmament, the centerpiece.


Norman Markowitz
Norman Markowitz

Norman Markowitz is a Professor of History. He writes and teaches from a Marxist perspective, and has written many articles on a variety of topics, including biographical entries on Jimmy Hoffa, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the civil rights movement, 1930-1953, and poor peoples movements in U.S. history.