2004-02-26: Charlie Wilson’s War

Charlie Wilson’s War

The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History (2003)

by George Crile (1945-2006)

This is a history book by a reporter. Crile has interviewed dozens of the key participants in the CIA’s war against the Soviet Red Army in Afghanistan. The book focuses on the activities of Charlie Wilson, a little-known and less respected Congressman, and Gust Avrakotos, an out-of-favor CIA case officer.

Wilson was motivated to help the Afghan mujahideen, and managed, nearly single-handed, to force the CIA into expanding its support for the Afghan refugees from a few million dollars a year, and WW I rifles, to a program of over a billion dollars a year with the most high-tech weaponry available.

The CIA was not enthusiastic, and was battling Congress over its efforts in Central America, especially backing the Contras against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. But Wilson and Avrakotos were able to put together an effective program, that lead (more or less directly) to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European client states.

The story is fascinating, and quite well told. Crile worked for 15 years, and managed to interview practically everyone involved. It seems that nearly everyone was prepared to honor Wilson for his long-overlooked contribution to the effort.

The book is useful also for the perspective it gives on the effect of the Afghan war on the Soviet Union. Crile interviewed the Soviet generals and many soldiers. It also shows the involvement of the UK, Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, China, and others.

One interesting aspect of the various groups involved is their motivations. Apparently the Afghans are strongly motivated by revenge. This made them implacable against the Soviets, but also keeps inter-tribal blood feuds going. On the other hand, it was also one of Wilson’s motivations, for the beating the U.S. took in Vietnam at the hands of the Soviet-backed North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. There are other motivations as well, some very honorable.

Finally, the book is intensely interesting for the portraits of the very unusual men and women who became involved in the effort, including “Good Time Charlie”, his beauty queens, the Texas Socialite who became Pakistan’s roving ambassador, the Texas belly dancer who had the Egyptian defense minister in her power, the dictator of Pakistan, the rogue CIA agent who made Wilson the de-facto station chief on Capitol Hill, and many more.

If this were fiction, it would rank with Tom Clancy and John LeCarré. As non-fiction it is unparalleled.


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