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.
For additional background on Wilson’s role in U.S. policy, see: Chalmers Johnson, “The Largest Covert Operation in CIA History”; and Chalmers Johnson, “Imperialist Propaganda: Second Thoughts on Charlie Wilson’s War.”
August 26, 2008
Dr. Randy Diehl
Dean of Liberal Arts
University of Texas
Austin, TX 78712
Dr. Itty Abraham
Director, South Asia Institute
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
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center (thirdcoastactivist.org). His latest book is Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007). Jensen is also the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilegeand Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (both from City Lights Books); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang). He can be reached at email@example.com and his articles can be found online at uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/index.html.