Afghanistan: 15 February 1989 - 15 February 2009
Having missed it when it was released in Europe last year, it was time to watch Charlie Wilson's War. Today, exactly twenty years after the last Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan after Wilson's mujahideen blasted them out of the sky with U.S.-provided shoulder-fired missiles, Russians and other former Soviets are marking the day in cemeteries from Archangel to Almaty. BBC correspondent Lyse Doucet recalls the final days here. The Soviets are gone, but the Stingers still get aimed at foreign helicopters.
The advantage of watching Mike Nichol's film on DVD are the bonus tracks: a bio of former Democratic Congressman Wilson and a "making of" with plenty of good interviews. These extras actually made me appreciate the film more than the film itself, which at times I felt glided over many of the moral and geopolitical ambiguities in exchange for a glib line of dialogue. Plus the Moroccan extras posing as Afghan refugees in Peshawar were way too Hollywood to be credible.
Anyway, this is not a film review. If you want a good one, read Stephanie Zacharek in Salon.
Milt Bearden, the ex-CIA operations guy who advised Nichols during the shooting of the film, worries about what Vanity Fair entitled "Obama's War" in an interview with Michael Hogan. Additional troops might sound fine on the campaign trail, says Bearden, but
once you’re president you’re going to say, “Are the numbers important, or is the mission—the redefinition of the mission—more important?” My sense is that if you send more gunfighters, you get into more gunfights.
Bearden sees hope in the appointment of Richard Holbrooke as Af/Pak envoy - "he’s not going to be overly burdened with conventional wisdom." Holbrooke, he of the Bosnia settlement, brings relevant negotiation clout to this job. But partitioned Bosnia - like the U.K.-partitioned India/Pakistan, Israel/Palestine, Northern Ireland/Irish Republic, all having experienced various stages of non-war, non-peace - still has unhealed stitches and requires the presence of foreign troops.
Iran: February 1979 - February 2009
I've already written about Iran's 30th anniversary, but what I'd like to point out here are a couple of interesting BBC reports that show an Iran beyond the ubiquitous photos of the scowling Ayatollah and blindfolded US Embassy hostages. Not to hide that reality, but to show that there is more to this country of 65 million people.
This morning on BBC World Service Radio, John Simpson put Iran in perspective in "From Our Own Correspondent." He also put Iran's President Ahmadinejad in his place, describing the "political traffic jam" of layers of authority that transcend the presidential remit.
Last night on BBC World TV, Iranian affairs analyst Sadeq Saba (presumably a refugee from the Revolution, now visiting his native land(?)) started the first of a four-part series, "A Taste of Iran: A journey of discovery of a land and its culture through its cuisine."
If I were an Iranian cultural attache eager to project a more nuanced image to the West, nothing could be better than this in-depth look at a society that comes across as rather more complex than George W. Bush's "axis of evil" one-liner. It's not heavy on political analysis; in fact there is none - Saba does plenty of that in his day job - but viewers can reach their own conclusions.
This February double whammy of significant anniversaries comes at a time when the Obama Administration is looking to explore new ways of dealing with both Iran and Afghanistan. The latter - "graveyard of empires" - and the former - "Policeman of the Persian Gulf" under the Shah, according to Time Magazine in 1973 - have a way of entrapping big powers into their maw.
As the USSR learned 20 years ago today in Kabul, and as the US learned 30 years ago this month in Tehran.