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Published: Saturday, 2/13/2010

Enemy on the rise

THE death this week of former Rep. Charles Wilson of Texas - celebrated in the book and film Charlie Wilson's War, about the U.S. role in defeating the Soviet Union and its allies in Afghanistan - revives some intriguing questions about U.S. involvement in today's war.

Conventional wisdom says Mr. Wilson did a great thing for the United States. Through his influential position in Congress, the Democrat mobilized considerable American money and arms in the 1980s for the mujahedeen movement in Afghanistan that was fighting the Soviet presence there and the Afghan government it supported.

It can be argued that the eventual Soviet defeat in Afghanistan and its withdrawal in 1989 were important elements in sounding the death knell of the Soviet Union, America's chief opponent in the world after World War II.

Afterward, the United States did not choose to lead the reconstruction of Afghanistan, in spite of Mr. Wilson's urging. That was predictable. Washington was active in Afghanistan only to block the Soviet invaders, not because of any intrinsic interest the country might hold.

The anti-Soviet mujahedeen morphed into the Taliban, who came to power in Afghanistan in 1996. That, also, was fairly easy to foresee. The mujahedeen had always been Islamist, was larded with foreign jihadists such as Osama bin Laden, and was on a roll after driving out the Soviets.

The foreigners, with the ruling Taliban, became al-Qaeda. On Sept. 11, 2001, they attacked the United States. That wasn't inevitable, but was made more likely by U.S. disinterest in Afghanistan after the Soviets were driven out and by the Taliban's and al-Qaeda's anti-U.S. animus fueled by American support of Israel.

Was Mr. Wilson's support of the mujahedeen, in the end, a mistake? It is hard to say. There are many factors to weigh in making such a judgment.

What is clear is that there is a direct line of unintended consequences from Washington supporting the anti-Soviet rebels in Afghanistan to the costly, escalating war the United States is waging against the Taliban now.

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