Houston Socialite Champions Afghan Development

10 August 2009

A few years ago, people learned about a little-known chapter in the Soviet Union's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan through a book and, later, a movie called "Charlie Wilson's War." Wilson was a maverick Texas congressman who found ways of funding Afghan insurgents with prodding from his Houston socialite girlfriend, Joanne Herring. 

Joanne Herring
Joanne Herring
Wilson was played by Tom Hanks in the movie and Herring was played by Julia Roberts. Herring is now 80 years old but she remains actively involved in projects to help Afghanistan, where U.S. forces and their Afghan partners are now fighting the Taliban. She is using her widespread influence to promote economic and social development in the war-ravaged country.

In the 2007 Universal Pictures movie "Charlie Wilson's War," Joanne Herring convinces then-Second District Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson to find funding for the Afghan resistance.

Hanks: "What do you want me to do, Joanne?"

Julia Roberts: "This is what I want you to do. I want you to save Afghanistan for the Afghans."

Herring says the main story told in the film is true, although some of the scenes were invented.

"I never went upstairs in the middle of a party and got in a hot tub with anybody. Nor do I drink triple martinis with three olives," she said.

But Herring did risk her life to enter the war zone in 1980 and she did work hard back home to promote the cause of the Afghan resistance.

Herring came to her Afghan cause by way of Pakistan. For more than a decade she served as Pakistan's Consul General in Houston, where her husband, Robert Herring, ran an energy company. It was through the Pakistanis that she learned about Soviet atrocities in Afghanistan and went there with a small crew to make a film, which she later showed to Charlie Wilson.

Now Herring is dedicating herself to a different cause in Afghanistan, this time for peaceful development.

"We are proposing a totally humanitarian plan where we are going to go into the villages and give them food, water, education and medical care." she said.

Herring has identified 10 non-governmental organizations doing projects on the ground in Afghanistan and her goal is to get US government funding to support and expand what they are doing. Among the organizations is Living Wells, which develops water resources, ARZU, which helps Afghan women support themselves selling rugs and a project to grow castor beans for both food and biofuel.

She says it is important these projects operate without US military involvement and avoid the high costs associated with current US aid programs.

"Most Afghans have never seen an American without a gun. If we get some government help, which we hope, we can take these plans and multiply them," Herring said. "It will cost a third of what it is already costing and we know it will work," she continued.

Herring says the non-governmental groups she works with have already proven their effectiveness and just need further funding to expand operations.

"We do not want to tell them what to do. We want them to do what they do. But we want each organization to do one thing that they do better than anybody in the world," she said.

Herring says it would be money well spent since social and economic development would compliment the security operations of the US and Afghan forces and help prevent the Taliban from turning the country into a base for terrorists again.

"Where are the leaders trained? Afghanistan. No other place, Afghanistan. Do you think the Taliban is going to quit training them?" she asked.

But even as the Obama administration sends more troops to fight the Taliban, there are critics of the war calling for a negotiated exit. Joanne Herring thinks the United States has a responsibility to stay there long enough for Afghans to develop a modern and prosperous society that they are capable of defending on their own.