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Charlie Wilson's War - George Crile

On September 11, 2001, there was likely not a single American who did not ask the following questions: Why? And how?

Therefore, I am providing a service when I insist that all citizens of this country should read George Crile's new book, Charlie Wilson's War.

I say "new" book because it's only just now been published. But this illuminating history of the road to 9/11 was fifteen years in the making, and actually starts far earlier, principally on Christmas Day, 1979. On that day, the Soviet Union invaded a country that we've gotten to know rather well over the last few years: Afghanistan.

It's difficult to conceive now, but during the 1980s, the Afghan people were regarded as heroes by many in the United States. Though suffused with a particularly fundamentalist brand of Islam, they did not welcome the Soviet invaders. In fact, they gained such a reputation for ferocity and ruthlessness against their aggressors that Russian soldiers began quaking in their boots. They had heard the shockingly accurate tales of the Afghans skinning their captives alive, sometimes first subjecting them to rape or more unspeakable tortures.

But the Soviet Red Army remained confident of eventual victory because the Afghans did not have the technology to bring down the Russians' most lethal killing machine: the Hind helicopter gunship. Afghans cursed these "devils in the sky" that would slaughter tribal caravans, hovering just out of rifle range as they mowed down villagers with impunity.

The plight of the Afghan soldiers, or mujahideen, came to the attention of an unlikely champion: A wealthy Houston socialite name Joanne Herring.

Herring was an odd duck indeed. Believing she was descended from George Washington, she and her social circle held foreign policy soirees the way other upper-crusters held wine-tastings. In the course of her networking, she had come to know Pakistan's controversial dictator, President Zia ul-Haq.

Zia was the primary logistical force behind the mujahideen, arming the Afghan warriors from his long and dangerous border with Afghanistan. Zia sensed that if Afghanistan fell, Pakistan would be next on the Russians' list, offering as it did a foothold in the Indian Ocean.

Zia's regime was known for its strict Islamic fundamentalism, and it had been roundly condemned by the United States and the West for pursuing a nuclear weapons program. But Herring was a staunch anti-Communist, and she saw in Zia and the Afghans a way to give the Soviets their own Vietnam, challenging the reputation of the unstoppable Red Army.

She also saw a way to get the United States behind the mujahideen: A hard-partying, womanizing, alcoholic congressman from Lufkin, Texas named Charlie Wilson.

To say that Charlie Wilson was an unlikely champion for the largest jihad in history is something of an understatement. Wilson's East Texas district was and is a hotbed of fire-breathing Christian fundamentalism. It boggles the mind to think that the man Capitol Hill knew as "Good Time Charlie" could even hold office in such a place. But the disarming honesty and Sunday-morning remorse with which he addressed his foibles kept his constituency behind him. Besides that, Wilson was fast becoming one of the most powerful figures in Congress, sending pork barrel funding and programs to his home state in prodigious quantities. No one back in Lufkin wanted the gravy train to derail.

Wilson had been introduced to Joanne Herring in the late 1970s, attending her lavish parties with powerful and oil-rich Texas royalty who wanted the ears of Washington insiders like him. But in 1981, after Herring had become obsessed with Zia and the mujahideen, she sought out this congressman and began to bring him into her world.

Wilson, too, was a rabid anti-Communist. He had gone to Annapolis (though he received more demerits than anyone in the institution's history) and sailed with the U.S. Atlantic Fleet in the tense years immediately following the Korean War.

Steeped in Cold War paranoia, Wilson took a hard line against Communist adventurism around the globe. As a ranking member of the powerful Appropriations Committee, he became a special friend to Israel. Under his influence, the House passed bill after bill for military funding to the tiny nation as it faced its Soviet-backed neighbors.

So when Herring got Wilson together with Zia, Charlie too sensed an opportunity to sock it to the Russians. Over the course of the next eight years, he would almost single-handedly bully, badger, and maneuver the United States government into running the largest covert military operation in history.

But as he began his far-reaching campaign, Wilson faced a seemingly impenetrable obstacle: the CIA.

For in fact, the CIA was already assisting the mujahideen through Zia. The problem was one of attitude. The CIA brass did not believe that the Afghan War was winnable. The true battleground against the Soviets, they believed, would be along the Iron Curtain in Europe. CIA resources were hard at work there and in Central America, where small republics like Nicaragua were boiling over with Communist forces mere miles from U.S. territory.

The CIA plan in Afghanistan was simply to bleed Russian resources, to force the Red Army to siphon off troops and weaponry to Afghanistan that would otherwise be deployed in Eastern Europe. No one in the Agency believed that a band of mule-riding religious zealots could bring down the world's second-largest superpower. Hind helicopters were wiping out Afghan villages by the score, and no one felt that these simple tribesmen had a chance.

No one except a scrappy Greek-American CIA agent named Gust Avrakotos.

Avrakotos had spent time in Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion, and had marveled at the Afghans' natural tenacity. Since joining the CIA in 1962, he had spent much of his career carrying out shadowy assignments in turbulent places like Greece, and didn't fit in with the Ivy League types who ran the Agency. By 1984 he was angry and frustrated with the glass ceiling he continued bumping his head on. He had been operating on the Afghan project since 1982, and himself believed that more could be done, but his orders remained the same: Containment, not victory.

So when this crazy Texas congressman started calling blue-blooded CIA directors on the carpet and demanding that they accelerate the Afghan program, Avrakotos was intrigued.

Completely violating protocol, Avrakotos showed up at Wilson's office unannounced, looked him right in the eye, and made him a proposition. Together they would escalate the Afghan program whether the CIA wanted to or not. Avrakotos could take care of slipping items through the bureaucracy, if Wilson could provide the money.

The most shocking part of this tale is how successful the conspiracy was. Over the next five years, the U.S. government would send billions of dollars of aid, ordnance, and logistical support to the mujahideen through Pakistan. They sent mules from Tennessee. They sent Stinger missiles to shoot down the deadly Hinds. They sent medical teams, even going so far as to bring Afghans to Texas hospitals when the field hospitals were full.

From his perches on the Appropriations Committee, the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, the Intelligence Committee, and even the Ethics Committee, Wilson maneuvered and horse-traded the money into CIA coffers, where Avrakotos wiggled it through loopholes and built the Afghan program into the largest department in the Agency. While scandals rocked the comparatively small Iran-Contra operation, Avrakotos and his team were breaking every rule in the book.

They bought captured PLO weapons from Israel to give to the mujahideen. They secured massive donations from Saudi Arabia and Egypt. They even enlisted Communist China to manufacture ammunition for the Afghans to use against the Communist Soviets. While Oliver North was testifying before a skeptical nation, these men were running roughshod over the rules.

Wilson, who is now retired from Congress but remains on Capitol Hill as a Pakistan lobbyist, has no regrets about the operation. Avrakotos and many others involved in the operation agree, and maintain that the Red Army's defeat in Afghanistan directly led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It can never be conclusively proven that the Red Army's humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 hastened the demise of the Soviet Union two years later, but one thing is clear: The campaign launched by Charlie Wilson and Gust Avrakotos was directly responsible for that withdrawal, and put an end to the myth of invincibility that had surrounded the Russian advance for nearly half a century.

But neither Wilson nor Avrakotos were prepared for what would follow this apparent victory. For as the Soviets were retreating, so were the Americans. Satisfied that their job was done, the CIA abruptly curtailed its presence in Afghanistan, leaving the fractious tribes to their own devices. Except now, their own devices included immense caves full of high-tech weaponry.

Few in the U.S. seemed concerned that billions of dollars of equipment and training were now in the hands of extreme Islamic fundamentalists. Worse, no one appreciated that over the course of the war, the CIA had encouraged patron countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt to send volunteers to support the mujahideen. Volunteers like Osama bin Laden, who had their own agendas, and who would later help install the brutal Taliban regime.

In addition, the U.S. reliance on Pakistan had forced our government to turn a blind eye to Zia's nuclear program, which was eventually successful, and now makes nonproliferation in Southeast Asia all but moot. Relations with Pakistan's strict military regime continue, due to current needs of our new Afghan campaign.

Add this to the fact that all manner of chemical and biological weapons were being sold to Saddam Hussein by the U.S. during the period of the Afghan War, and the powderkeg of the early 21st century begins to take shape.

Not two years after the end of the Afghan War, ruthless CIA darlings like Gulbiddin Hekmatyar and Ahmad Shah Massoud--picked for support by the U.S. because of their bloodthirsty zeal--were denouncing the United States' interference in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Hekmatyar and Massoud were committing unspeakable atrocities with U.S. weaponry, even while the puppet regime the Soviets had put in place was talking about democratic reform. Still the U.S. paid lip service to the mujahideen, who eventually took over the country and created a haven for anti-American extremists from around the world.

In Charlie Wilson's War, veteran 60 Minutes producer George Crile documents this history with a zest for great storytelling, illuminating these fascinating characters, for better or worse, and putting events in their context. Simply put, this is a piece of United States history that should not be forgotten. For as Charlie Wilson's War shows us, the enemy of our enemy is not necessarily our friend.

Mo' Reviews