Charlie Did It

Posted by sepoy on June 25, 2004 · 6 mins read

"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:

Their idea was to encourage Soviet officers and soldiers to defect to the mujahideen. As Avrakotos derisively describes it, "The muj were supposed to set up loudspeakers in the mountains announcing such things as 'Lay down your arms, there is a passage to the West and to freedom.'" Once news of this program made its way through the Red Army, it was argued, there would be a flood of defectors.[pg. 333]

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.


Aamir | June 25, 2004

no matter in god they trusted or they were godless or simple coloniasts, afghan people fought against those armies cuz they simply were invaders

sepoy | June 25, 2004

I disagree Aamir. The resistance to the communist regime started in 1974-75 by Burhanuddin Rabbani and Gulbuddin Hikmatyar and was centered against the "godless ness" of Muhammad Daoud Khan - the puppet regime in Afghanistan. This is BEFORE the Soviet invasion in Dec. 1979. Hikmatyar's Hizbe Islami was sponsored by Jama'at-i Islami who hated the Communist atheism. So, let's be clear that these "freedom fighters" were largely "jihadis". Otherwise, the Soviet withdrawal should have seen end to conflict.

Nitin | June 26, 2004

That one corrupt, philandering politician can hijack US foreign policy to such an extent is frightening. American short-sightedness (in the name of expediency) coddled Zia and ultimately produced the Taliban and al Qaeda. That led to 9/11. American short-sightedness in coddling Musharraf at the cost of restoring democracy to Pakistan is rightly seen by the Pakistani people as working against their interests. If the US thinks that it is winning over public opinion, it is mistaken. It looks like the anti-American factor will be manipulated by the Islamist politicians to strengthen their position. That is another negative for the Pakistani people.

Berkut | April 22, 2005

Oh please - While it is apparently Mr. Crile used a fair amount of "dramatic enhancement" I think to judge Wilson's actions soley through the crystal of post-cold war norms is amateurish. As for "hijacking" foreign policy, what is so new about that? Do we not see foreign policy hijacked by special interest groups, corporate interests (remember United Fruit), political interest groups ? As for leading to 9/11, no doubt the aiding of the Afghan rebels and the influx of Saudi extremists helped fuel that problem. Perhaps even more so was the total disregard and abandonment of them by the CIA and the US after the pull out by the Soviets.

kuffir | July 23, 2005

berkut: 'Perhaps even more so was the total disregard and abandonment of them by the CIA and the US after the pull out by the Soviets.' kya woh aapke bhai/bandhu the ke haath pakadkar apne maqam tak le jaaye? what never ceases to amaze me is this favorite sulk/grouse of the actors of that era. the relationship was a purely matlabi one and neither party ever intended to walk down the aisle with the other. folks who brag endlessly about kicking a superpower out of afghanistan should think how this whining reflects on their carefully nourished macho image.

DDF | October 08, 2006

Yes, I remember Zia weeping unconsolably at the mention of the word "Afghan." He is the one true "Shahid e Jihad e Afghanistan"; others are poseurs. In any case, the Taliban are irrelevant to the narrative because at that point they didn't exist in the constituency that the word conotates now. The only group that came close to that was a band of around 1000 or so young men prawling around central-south Afghanistan and wrecking havoc. They were fiercly independent -and unlike the current crop - quite tolerant (they showed up at our doorstep every now and then and my mother would treat them for their wounds - none of this women are forbiden to see males crap) and were cut down to size by both the Ruskies and the factional Mujs. Nor can one characterise Dawood's regime as "communist." He was a nationalist at best and it so happened that the Pushtoon nationalist elements and intelligentsia at that time were closely aligned with the Ruskies (the US was perceived to be in Pakistan's corner). He was ratching up the Pushtoonistan issue and throwing people a herring or two. No coincidence really that Rabbani and Hekmatyar (who until that point was a minor thug at Kabul University) suddenly emerged onto the scene from provinces bordering Pakistan. My two cents... I have yet to read the book though.

mustafah | August 24, 2007

sepoy, ur right about hekmatyar fighting dawud prior to the soviets, but hekmatyar was armed by Pakistan to distract Dawud from the situation in pashtunistan. but email if you would like to discuss.