Charlie Wilson: The Man Who Won the Afghan War

Seldom is one individual so closely identified with an epic event, but that is the case with Charlie Wilson and the Afghan victory over the Soviets. As a rather obscure member of the U.S. Congress, he skillfully maneuvered against daunting opposition to put the United States fully behind the Afghan resistance. And yet as a recently published book points out, he was the most unlikely man cast for this role. VOA’s Ed Warner talks to the author, the former Congressman and the director of CIA Afghan operations in the war against the Soviets.

On the CBS-TV program 60 Minutes, the interviewer was clearly puzzled. He asked Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq how can one man be held responsible for winning the Afghan war against the Soviets, the last crucial campaign of the Cold War? Responded Zia: “All I can say is Charlie did it.”

Yes, he did, echoes George Crile, author of Charlie Wilson’s War, a vivid account of the Congressman’s tireless efforts to aid the Afghan resistance.

Yet who would have expected this of fun-loving Charlie, asks Mr. Crile, a producer of 60 Minutes. The tall, strapping, ebullient Texan was in and out of scandals and scrapes with the law. Most politicians, writes Mr. Crile, promote their virtues and hide their vices. Charlie did the opposite.

“There was no way to take him seriously at the time,” Mr. Crile says. “He was such an outrageous character. He looked like he was lucky to be not just in office but out of jail. It turned out that he was actually the driving force behind this entire campaign. Without him, it just never would have happened.”

There was perhaps method to Charlie’s madness. I wanted to seem a little crazy, he says. It was perfect cover for his deadly serious effort to turn the U.S. Government around on Afghanistan. U.S. policy, he says, was to help the Afghan resistance, but not too much. Let the Soviets bleed but don’t push them too hard. They might invade neighboring Pakistan.

This outraged the Congressman. Afghans would continue to die for nothing. He says there were two concepts of the war. “One was that we would use it to embarrass the Soviets, to keep the kettle boiling but not let it boil over and never really threaten them,” he says. “The other view was that we probably could defeat them and cause them the same kind of humiliation that they caused us in Vietnam. And that is what happened.”

It didn’t happen easily. Charlie had to contend with strong resistance throughout the government even under the highly anti-Communist President Ronald Reagan. The Congressman went about his task adroitly, using all the political levers at his command.

He maneuvered to get on various congressional committees from where he could bring pressure on both the Pentagon and the CIA. If they were reluctant to increase aid to the Afghans, he could threaten to cut their budgets. In the end, he was able to provide more money and better weapons for the hard-pressed resistance.

Today he modestly says circumstances were on his side. The Democratic Party, which controlled the Congress, and the American media were preoccupied with the Reagan Administration’s anti-Communist policies in Central America. They concentrated their fire on these, while largely ignoring Afghanistan. Charlie saw his opportunity.

“The stars and the moon just aligned perfectly,” he says. “That the national media was so focused on Nicaragua and then Iran-Contra we were just able to slip in under the radar, and nobody paid any attention to it. It was the biggest covert operation in history, and yet it was the least noticed.”

With the funds supplied by Charlie Wilson, the CIA launched a massive effort, headed by Milt Bearden in Pakistan. The Congressman gave him some bad moments, he says, but the Crile book has it right.

“Charlie Wilson was a man who found a cause at a certain moment in his life – driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan,” he says. “He sat on all the key committees. He was able to find funding for things, and he was able to keep the Democratic side of Congress, not always willing to along with Ronald Reagan, absolutely in lock step on Afghanistan.”

As a member of the Democratic Party, Mr. Wilson was able to muster bipartisan support for his cause. He was a master of the quid pro quo: an exchange of favors. You help me; I’ll help you – the Washington way. Nobody was out of reach, not even a cantankerous Congressman, Doc Long, known for spitting in hallways and hurling chairs when angered. He was also hostile to Pakistan, crucial for funneling aid to the Afghans.

Charlie went to work since Doc controlled a lot of money. He flattered and cajoled and finally took Doc on a trip to Pakistan where he met President Zia amid a spectacular pageant complete with Afghan freedom fighters thundering their battle cry. Doc succumbed and approved aid to Pakistan.

At the same time Charlie pursued his social life, combining business with pleasure. A belly dancer accompanied him to Egypt, where she performed for top officials. He introduced a friend called Snowflake to the fearsome Afghan commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, known to skin prisoners alive. His response is not recorded, but she found the meeting very exciting.

Can you imagine what these austere devout Afghans thought about Charlie’s companions asks Mr. Crile. By Muslim standards, they were hardly dressed and looked like something out of Hollywood. But there was an explanation.

“One of the reasons why it was not so surprising to the Afghans is because of their absolute belief in the mystery and wonder of their God Allah,” he says. “If He chose such a strange messenger, well, it just demonstrated the great all-knowing wisdom of Allah to find a good way to disguise him.”

The climax of Charlie’s Afghanistan crusade came with his demand to witness the fighting first hand. Everyone was aghast. To lose the Congressman at this point would be a disaster. But there was no stopping him.

So Milt Bearden sent him off with proper fanfare and as much protection as possible. After a few exhilarating days with the resistance, he returned unscathed. Mr. Bearden bawled him out, then laughed and congratulated him.

“Charlie always accuses me of having done a Cecil B. De Mille (Hollywood) production of his going to war,” he says. “But it was a great scene of Charlie riding around on a white steed in Afghanistan, and all of us deeply concerned to keep him alive. He absolutely fell in love with the Afghan resistance in a hopelessly Kiplingesque romantic sort of a way, which Charlie is deep down anyway.”

The war ended in victory, says George Crile, but not the aftermath. The United States forgot the Afghans and all they had been through. “We did not follow up that historic victory,” he says, “by doing what we had done after World War Two in Germany and Japan when we rebuilt those countries of our former enemies. But in Afghanistan, to these people whom we owed so much, who had sacrificed so much, we ended up by really doing nothing – no schools built, no highways, no hospitals, nothing. It was a very unfortunate vacuum that formed as a result of our, I think, irresponsibility.”

Mr. Crile adds the United States missed a crucial opportunity, possibly a global turning point. It had supported the greatest and only successful jihad in modern history.

“It was a moment when the United States was allied with militant Islam,” Mr. Crile says. “We really could have moved in at that point and rebuilt Afghanistan and emerged in a very heroic positive light, having secured the end of a nightmare era and could have introduced a new era in that part of the world with an Afghanistan poised to move into the modern world.”

Now the United States is once again in Afghanistan and yet again not fully committed, says Mr. Crile. When will we learn what Charlie knew?