Interview with ASW – www.asmallworld.net
Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) is a film based on the novel of the same name, written by George Criles in 2003. Based on a true story, the film follows the story of a determined Democratic Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson (played by Tom Hanks), who, with significant effort and the help of co-conspirators, manages to funnel significant US funds into helping the Afghan Mujahideen defeat the Soviets during the Soviet-Afghan War. While the film received significant hype from critics with five Golden Globe nominations and one Academy Award nomination, others have not been so impressed.
Maybe Charlie Wilson’s War Wasn’t His War At All, Says Omar Ul Haq
Here ASW speaks with Omar Ul-Haq, grandson of General Zia Ul-Haq, the former Pakistani president who was represented in the film by actor Om Puri. Omar shares his view on what he feels was a grossly inaccurate portrayal of Pakistan’s role in the war.
Laura: Omar, how do you feel about the film Charlie Wilson’s War?
Omar: As a stranger to the subject, I’m sure I would have been entertained and would have enjoyed the movie with a bag of popcorn. However, considering the fact that I am well-informed about the subject matter, I feel that Pakistan’s role in the war was completely underplayed and shown in an inaccurate manner. Considering the fact that the film had a fantastic production, direction, cast, and crew behind the project, I am disappointed with the overall outcome.
Laura: What do you think of the way Pakistan’s involvement in the Soviet-Afghan War was portrayed in the film?
Omar: In actual fact, Pakistan’s General Zia Ul Haq and General Akthar Abdur Rahman, Director of Inter-Services Intelligence, who was the mastermind behind the Afghani Mujahideen against the Soviet Union, had the most crucial roles in the entire war. Initially, they were the ones who had seen the Soviets as a threat and had started the Guerilla War against them in Afghanistan. Charlie Wilson became aware of this matter at a much later stage and since Pakistan’s strategy of helping the Afghans was conveniently benefiting the United States, he decided to get involved as well. It was disappointing, to say the least, to see General Zia and his fellow Generals being portrayed as ineffective middle-men between the Americans and Afghans in the movie.
Laura: What do you think were the motives behind Pakistan’s involvement?
Omar: Afghanistan was strategically the first step of the Soviet Union towards capturing the Arabian Sea, which they had been after for many decades, which included the Sub-Continent and Pakistan would have eventually been the next target. Therefore, Pakistan had stepped into the war trying to defend and protect themselves from the Soviet take-over.
Laura: What do you think the filmmaker was purporting Pakistan’s motives to be?
Omar: The movie did not really portray Pakistan’s motives, intentions, or any of the reasons why they were involved in the war. It focused more on Charlie Wilson and the United States who apparently came and miraculously saved the war.
Laura: Many critics have said that Om Puri, the man who played Ul-Haq, made him out to be more charming than he was and did not accurately reflect his brutishness. What would you say to this? How did you feel about the way your grandfather was portrayed?
Omar: I don’t understand how anyone could say that Om Puri portrayed my grandfather as more charming than he was. In my opinion, Om Puri’s portrayal of General Zia was anything but charming. My grandfather was shown to be a conniving egomaniac who had no authority and was often disrespected by his own Generals. However, in reality, anyone who met my grandfather (even those who didn’t get along with him) can attest to the fact that he was incredibly charismatic, charming, professional, and very respectful of everyone. He had a strong command over his Generals and no General would ever raise his voice to him, let along challenge him in an official meeting.
I am a huge fan of Om Puri and respect him as an actor. However, it is very unfortunate to see that even after doing so much research on General Zia and his personality, he did not manage to even get even a few of his distinctive mannerisms correct.
Laura: Was your family consulted in any way on the portrayal of your grandfather in the film?
Omar: No, our family was not consulted.
Laura: There is a scene in the film where Charlie Wilson is reproached for asking his Muslim host, Ul-Haq, for whiskey in an Islamabad strategy session. Wilson reflects, “I’ve just been told I had character flaws by a man who hung his predecessor in a military coup.” This was, of course, in reference to the death of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, father of Benazir Bhutto and former Pakistani president and prime minister. How do you feel about your grandfather’s actions in relation to Bhutto’s death and this statement in the film, which seems to be suggesting Bhutto was murdered by Ul-Haq’s regime? Do you believe it to be truthful?
Omar: The Supreme Court issued its verdict and found Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Guilty of murder, a decision reached by a 4-to-3 majority and he was sentenced to death. This was done by a court of law and people obviously tend to interpret this as they like but the fact is that yes, General Zia was in power at the time but it was not for him or the military to decide.
Laura: Many of Benazir Bhutto’s supporters argue that her death was an assassination in which Musharraf, Pakistan’s miliary leader, himself played a role. What are your thoughts on her murder and do you see any similarities in her death and her father’s death?
Omar: There were many death threats and warnings that were not taken seriously by Benazir Bhutto or the PPP (Pakistan People Party). The militants had made an attempt when she arrived in the country and would have probably continued trying until they succeeded. Other high profile politicians were also on the hit list including President Musharaff (who has had many attempts on his life in the past few years), Sherpao (Federal Interior Minister, whose son was injured in an assassination attempt), and even Ijaz Ul Haq (my father, whose house in his constituency was attacked by suicide bombers in December, 2007). Benazir Bhutto had a choice, should have kept a low profile, and it’s very unfortunate that she had to die this way. My grandfather was assascinated as well and I can relate to what her family must be going through. Nobody deserves to go this way.
No, I do not see any similarities between Benazir and her father’s death other than the fact that they both died during their political careers.
Laura: How do you feel about the ‘Americanization’ of films and do you think Charlie Wilson’s War was heavily Americanized?
Omar: To be honest, when I went to the premier in London, I was expecting to see a serious movie and was initially shocked but continued to watch the movie with an open mind. To answer the question, yes, Charlie Wilson’s War was heavily Americanized. The war was won by the Afghans and with the help from Pakistan. The United States decided to get involved when there was some hope of pushing the Soviet Union away and that too, at a much later stage. Just to clarify, the United States did play a part in the war but were not the reason this war was won. If it were that easy, then why would they be struggling in Afghanistan and Iraq today?
Laura: What kind of influence do you think Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N will have on Pakistan’s attempts to restore something resembling democracy?
Omar: Let’s just hope that history does not repeat itself. PML N and Sharif do not have a good track record but only time will tell what the fate of our country will be.
Laura: Given your family’s connection to Sharif (your grandfather was Sharif’s political mentor) how do you feel about his reemergence as a dominant political force?
Omar: I guess we can hope that he has learnt from his past mistakes as he has been the Prime Minister of Pakistan twice already. However, he must try to come up with a strategic plan and work with Benazir Bhutto’s party, the PPP, which will definitely be a challenge for both parties. They have held hands and have befriended each other for now, but the true test is still to come for them.
Laura: With Sharif and his party poised to exert a great deal of power in the next few weeks and Musharraf’s political future looking precarious, what kind of reaction do you expect from the West?
Omar: I think we appreciate and respect all the advice that we receive from the West. However, there comes a time where we must figure out how to live our lives and govern our country on our own. If we are left to our own devices, we will emerge as a better nation.