March 6, 2021

“Yeah, thank you, Charlie Wilson” – the law of unintended consequences


In a recently aired episode of the CBS television series Seal Team, there was a quick phrase that probably went unnoticed by most of the viewing audience. Even if they heard it, they probably are not aware of the meaning.


In Season 3, Episode 19, Bravo Team is operating in a village in Afghanistan. Overwatch for the operation is being provided by a Predator drone. As shown in this screen capture, a surface-to-air missile is launched at and hits the drone.

The loss of the drone caused a loss of communications with the operational headquarters, and a loss of situational awareness. As the team realizes what has just happened, one of the SEALs remarks, “Thank you, Charlie Wilson.”

For those viewers who were not aware of the level of U.S. involvement in opposing the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980’s, the remark may not mean anything. To those of us who were involved in the American effort to support the Afghan resistance fighters – the self-proclaimed mujahidin (holy warriors) – it was a reminder of the concept of unintended consequences.


From 1987 until Saddam Husayn invaded Kuwait in 1990 and I was deployed to Saudi Arabia, I was assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency at the Pentagon as the Assistant Defense Intelligence Officer for the Middle East and South Asia.


When I was not in Baghdad working the operation assisting Iraqi forces, my office was peripherally involved in the Defense Department's slice of the CIA program supporting the Afghan mujahidin - "holy warriors" opposing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. That Defense Department support included the delivery of the FIM-92 Stinger shoulder-fired air defense missile.


At some point in America's support - I think it was 1986 - Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson insisted that the "muj" needed an air defense weapon to combat the heavily armed Soviet MI-24 assault helicopter gunship, the Hind. He insisted that they be provided the U.S.-made state-of-the-art Stinger.

Afghan mujahidin with Stinger missile

Charlie Wilson was a charming Southern gentleman. When I visited his office the first time, the launcher that fired the first Stinger in Afghanistan was hanging on the wall – he was extremely proud of that. He liked to talk about the Confederacy, in fact, much of the art in his office portrays battles of the Civil War. When my boss remarked about a depiction of Pickett's July 3, 1863 unsuccessful charge at Gettysburg, he quietly nodded his head and remarked, "If Pickett had been successful, we'd be having this conversation in Richmond...."


Back to the Stinger. There was absolutely no interest at the Pentagon in supplying the world's most lethal shoulder-fired air defense system to a bunch of tribesmen in Afghanistan – for several reasons. First, we believed they could have achieved the same effect with lesser-capability Soviet weapons, such as the readily-available (and not traceable to the United States) SA-7.


Second, and more importantly, no one wanted the Stinger in the hands of potential bad guys. Since we had to provide all of the weapons and equipment via the Pakistani intelligence service – the notoriously unreliable ISID – we were concerned that money talks and the Stinger would find itself where we did not want it to go.


We were proven right in October 1987 when the U.S. Navy seized the Iran Ajr while it was laying mines in the Persian Gulf. Found on the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) vessel was a battery of a Stinger launcher. The serial number of the battery was traceable to the CIA Afghan Task Group – it had been sent to Pakistan destined for the muj.


I am not sure where it was diverted, but I am betting on the ISID. We in the HUMINT (human intelligence) business used to joke that you had to recruit an "x" (the nationality of your choice), but you could buy a Pakistani – in south Asia, money talks. To make matters worse, during the operation, another Iranian boat fired two Stingers at a U.S. Navy A-6. We concluded that weapons we had sent to support anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan were being used against us in the Persian Gulf.


This is euphemistically called "unintended consequences."


When Congressman Wilson was in Pakistan on an official visit in 1987, he wanted to use the U.S. Defense Attaché's C-12 aircraft to fly somewhere. Fine, but Wilson wanted to take his girlfriend along. The Defense Attaché, a USAF colonel, said, "Sir, you mean your assistant." Wilson – looking for a fight – insisted that the colonel was going to take his girlfriend along. The colonel refused; it caused us (well, me) hours of grief trying to save the airplane once Wilson got back to Washington.


All in all, am I a fan of Charlie Wilson's? Let's see – a former Navy intelligence officer, a drunken womanizer, but someone who got things done. His heart was in the right place, but allowing the Stinger to end up in the hands of the IRGC, the Taliban, and who knows who else, is the epitome of unintended consequences.