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Embassy Row

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 18, 2008

JOANNE HERRING'S WAR

What can top having Julia Roberts play you in a movie about your life? For Joanne Herring, perhaps it is the enduring love of the Afghan people.

If that sounds like an exaggeration, the Afghan ambassador would strongly disagree.

"The Afghan people owe her their freedom," Ambassador Said Tayeb Jawad told guests at a dinner at his residence Monday night.

"She contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. She is a friend of Afghanistan refugees and freedom fighters."

Mrs. Herring, a legendary Texas socialite with an analytical mind, was the woman behind a bold operation in the 1980s that eventually funneled billions of dollars to the Afghan resistance that drove the Soviet army out of the Central Asian nation, inflicting a humiliating defeat on the Kremlin and hastening the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A blockbuster movie that debuted in December recounted her exploits, but the film is called, "Charlie Wilson's War," after the former Texas congressman she persuaded to redirect money to the resistance. Charlie Wilson is played by Tom Hanks.

For Mrs. Herring, the road to Afghanistan began in the 1970s when her husband, oilman Robert Herring, took her on trips to the Middle East. There she learned about the intrigue of the oil business and of international politics.

Back in Texas, she served as honorary consul for Morocco and Pakistan and helped poor Pakistani villagers market their handicrafts in the United States.

On one visit to Islamabad, Pakistani President Mohammad Zia ul-Haq told her about the Afghan conflict with poorly armed resistance fighters facing Soviet tanks and helicopter gunships. She later sneaked into Afghanistan with her son, Robin, a combat photographer, who filmed Soviet attacks against Afghan fighters and villagers. Pakistan also was struggling with millions of Afghan refugees.

Returning to Texas, she contacted Mr. Wilson, who eventually directed nearly $400 million to the resistance.

Today, still stunning at 78, Mrs. Herring is still promoting Afghanistan, our correspondent Ann Geracimos reports. The dinner at the ambassador's residence was a benefit for the American University of Afghanistan.

Mrs. Herring emphasized the need to educate Afghans, many of whom are illiterate.

"Being cheated by shopkeepers because you can't read or write is a tragedy," she said. "These are our friends."

Mrs. Herring noted that Afghans are natural businessmen.

"These people are entrepreneurial and will show the world what Afghanistan can achieve," she said.

Following the Soviet retreat, Afghanistan fell into more chaos, giving rise to the brutal rule of the Taliban movement, which sheltered Osama bin Laden. Nearly seven years after the United States retaliated for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by driving out the Taliban and bin Laden, Afghanistan is still struggling to rebuild and still fighting a rearguard Taliban insurgency.

Mr. Jawad, noting the current Smithsonian exhibition of the "Hidden Treasures of Afghanistan," said, "Like many treasures of Afghanistan that need to be dusted off from the ashes of war and neglect, there remains much work to be done to restore the true glory of our people. We can do this through education.

"The American University of Afghanistan is emerging as a vital player in helping shape Afghanistan's future."

The dinner included two students from the university, Belqis Dawood and Nassria Phashton, who traveled to Washington from Kabul.

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297, fax 202/832-7278 or e-mail James Morrison.