“It was all Kiplingesque,” said Charlie Wilson of his first encounter with the Afghani Mujahideen. Sadly, both the tragedy and the irony of that statement seemed to be lost on him. Charlie Wilson’s War by George Crile is billed as a “riveting inside account of the last battle of the Cold War” by the publisher and wildly positive agreements are blurbed underneath that. It lives up to those claims. It is, indeed, a book worth reading from cover to cover and line by line. It is, also, a book that needs some serious critical treatment. Allow me to do a little bit of both.
Charlie Wilson’s War is the story of a Texas Congressman who was notorious for his womanizing and larger-than-life appetites. In Congress, he was on the House Appropriations Committee which gave him power to fund among other things, the CIA. In Texas, he became friends with Joanne Herring, a well-connected socialite and a roving ambassador of Pakistan, who introduced him to the human horrors of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Thus a charismatic, adventurous alcoholic Congressman named Charlie Wilson developed an all-consuming romanticized crush on the valorous and noble Afghani Mujahideen. Driven by his personal demons and appetites, he funnelled hundreds of millions into a covert CIA operation with equal parts Saudi money, without the knowledge of the American public, to train and equip the Afghanis to kill Communists.
There is a lot more to the story and I don’t want to give a more detailed synopsis as this is one book that should be read “spoiler-free”. I will mention that Gen. Zia ul Haq, Gen Akhtar, Gen. Yousaf, Sahibzada Yaqub Khan, Haqqani, Gulbuddin Hikmat Yar, Richard Perle, Ollie North are all parts of the narrative.
My best description of this book is as a hagiography of Charles Wilson. It puts him on a similiar pedestal that Wilson puts the Taliban on. Oh yeah, that word Taliban. It’s not in the book. Neither is Osama b. Laden. Neither is any description about who the Saudi money funnelled into Afghanistan was given to or used for. Neither is any dwelling on the type of training in “urban warfare” given to the Taliban. Neither the consequences of a Pakistani Nuclear Bomb. But, let’s leave all that aside for the moment. This book, like I said earlier, is about Charlie Wilson and the power of unique American individuals to transform the world. With money. It is a rousing tale of Can-Do Capitalism, cronyism and back-channel dealings. The bad guys are the horrible Commies stuck in their bureacracies, the grey-suited WASPs in CIA stuck in our bureacracies, the bungling senators who don’t know the stakes, the lawyers who don’t get it. Charlie Wilson conquers them all. He even gets the Pakistanis, the Israelis, the Chinese and the Egyptians to hang-out [apparently, everone likes money and women]. He does it all. All other players are second fiddle to Charlie.
George Crile misses, by a mile, the obvious implication of his story. That the mastermind was not Charlie but, one, General Zia ul Haq who created relationships with powerful socialites and Congressmen; who showed romantic sights of Peshawar and horrific sights of refugees; who showered red carpet treatments on “dignitaries”; who was not afraid to lie to the American people or trade with the Israelis. Indeed, the real story in Charlie Wilson’s War is how idealistic, naive Americans get played. Cue Ahmad Chalabi.
For the historian, this book is of value as an oral history of CIA’s involvement in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It gives, at the very least, names of various players and their positions. It is NOT a primary source as the narrative is biased, marred and non-critical on all accounts. Still, read it for a good yarn, and for revealing that Richard Perle, known as the “Prince of Darkness” back then, had the following plan to defeat the Soviet Empire:
Cue “The Iraqis will greet us with flowers in the streets.” History repeats itself, don’t it? But never boringly.
Last thing I would like to mention here is the cautionary tale aspect of Charlie Wilson’s War. Democracy has to be transparent otherwise, individuals with their own ideas and agendas are prone to highjack it. The war in Afghanistan is not over and will not be for a while. Charlie Wilson’s efforts created a trained army of fedayeen who brought that training to New York. It is not an “un-intended consequence” as George Crile would like us to believe. It logically follows. The Mujahideen did not combat the Soviets because they were Communists. They waged a jihad against a god-less enemy of Allah. That jihad rages on.
Update: Looks like Tom Hanks wants to be Charlie Wilson on the silver screen.