Its often said that truth is stranger than fiction. While this may not always be the case—that Pan’s Labyrinth movie looks pretty dang weird—that rule most definitely applies to the story of Charlie Wilson and his CIA run Muslim jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan during the 1980’s. Former 60 Minutes producer George Crile chronicles this surreal and largely forgotten episode in American history in Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History. The book (and soon to be released major motion picture) is at once fascinating, thrilling, and startling. The story is utterly improbable, something even Tom Clancy couldn’t make up, and yet is entirely true.
Charlie Wilson was a Congressman from East Texas, a liberal democrat on most social issues, but rapidly anti-communist, pro-gun, and pro-defense. He was also a hard-drinking, skirt-chasing, alleged coke-using wild man who had more of a reputation for being the life of the party than a responsible legislature. But underneath the “Good Time Charlie” persona, a driving passion was lying in wait, needing only to be given a purpose. The Afghan mujahideen “freedom fighters” became that purpose. Wilson had grown up idolizing Winston Churchill and the way he had led Great Britain during the darkest days of World War II, refusing to surrender despite tremendous odds. His mother had taught him to always pull for the underdog, and like the British when he was a child during WWII, there was no greater underdog now that he was a United States Congressman in 1980 than the Afghans fighting the invading Soviet Red Army. And he was determined to give the Soviet’s their very own Vietnam.
Spurred on in this calling by Texas socialite Joanne Herring, who had somehow become close friends with Pakistani dictator and champion of the Afghan cause, Zia Ul-Haq (just one of many bizarre relationships in this tale), Wilson, over the course of the next decade, worked behind the scenes to turn the CIA’s modest covert operation to harass and bleed the USSR into a full-scale covert war. The CIA budget for the operation before Wilson got involved was a mere few million and the mujahideen were being supplied with mostly WWI era bolt-action rifles. In fact, the CIA became alarmed when Wilson kept throwing money at them, afraid that their covert war would be compromised by this brash congressman. That is until Gust Avrakotos, a CIA outsider not afraid to bend the rules was given charge of the Afghan program. Once Charlie and Gust were teamed, virtually nothing could stand in their way from escalating the fight. By the time the Soviets withdrew ten years later the money being funneled to Pakistan, which trained and armed the mujahideen (no US personnel were allowed inside Afghanistan), totaled (after a dollar for dollar match from the Saudis) nearly a billion dollars a year and the once primitive tribal warriors had been transformed into “techno holy warriors” using sophisticated weapons and tactics with proficiency.
The book works on a number of different levels. It’s a thrilling spy novel with a cast of characters that boggles the mind. From Congressmen to Texas socialites to Pakistani dictators to rogue CIA men to housewives turned belly dancer to Egyptian defense ministers to Saudi princes to Israeli defense contractors, to even the Communist Chinese, the cross-section of Charlie and Gust’s friends and associates seems pulled from a hundred different stories rather than this one engrossing saga. The fact that these two men were able to piece together a broad alliance to “kill Russians” out of these seemingly very divergent groups, with seemingly very divergent interests is astounding.
The book is also an eye-opening account of how politics are played behind closed doors. Wilson’s ability to wrangle his way onto important House committees (such as Appropriations and Defense) and his wielding of power once on those committees is fascinating and a little unnerving. The quid pro quo (you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours) of how Congress works would be distasteful to pretty much anyone who really saw everything that goes on, and yet at the same time that is often the only way, or only expedient way, to get things done. As Bismarck said, “Laws are like sausage. Better not to see them being made.” Wilson’s mastery of this “system” is the only way the amounts of money, and shocking lack of scrutiny, the Afghan program received was possible. This was the era of severe criticism of the CIA by the media and liberals in congress, especially over the Contra efforts in South America, and yet Afghanistan, while becoming increasingly more expensive and escalated, was virtually given a free pass. Wilson knew when to call in favors, when to get aggressive and when to take a back seat and let others step into the spotlight. With all his carousing and scandal-dodging, Wilson managed to achieve pretty much everything he wanted on his way to a legitimate Cold War victory.
The book also works as a character study of Wilson, and to a lesser extent Gust Avrakotos. Wilson, for all his massive character deficiencies was clearly an immensely talented and driven individual. His inner fire for Afghanistan was fueled by a lifelong dream to imitate his childhood idol Winston Churchill. His desire to be a player on the world’s stage was instilled in him at such a young age, and even if he had to do it behind the scenes, he understood that those who were truly involved knew who the menhaden’s benefactor was. As Zia said in a 1989 60 Minutes interview when asked how the mujahideen had been able to beat the vaunted Red Army, “Charlie did it.”
The book brings to mind some interesting questions. Was Charlie Wilson a hero? Given that many of the Afghan mujahideen became enemies of the United States after the Russians were finally driven out of the country, some declaring so as early as the first Gulf War, was the war well-advised? In other words, was the victory over the Soviets, which may have hastened its collapse, worth the arming and training of a new generation of enemies? Relevant to that question, was such an outcome even foreseeable? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, but I think they are worth considering.
Though I would say that fans of spy novels and histories would immensely enjoy this book, I do offer a word of caution. As might be expected when dealing with the shadowy world of spies and secret wars, there are things described that may be unsettling and the language can be pretty severe. May this serve as your warning.