Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History
by George Crile
Release Date: April, 2003
The book was excellent and I highly recommend it. Having seen the initial "60 Minutes" program, I was vaguely familar with the book's subject matter, however, the detailed description contained within the book is exceptional.
Although I highly recommend the book, I find the description of Charlie Wilson, his activities and the government bureaucracy disappointing. Descriptions of Congress funding hundreds of millions of dollars for programs, as a "favor" to a peer, lower my respect for the government and our elected representatives.
Having recently read "All the Shah's Men", a description of the CIA's overthrow of the Iranian government in the 1950's, the book reminds me of the law of "unintended consequences".
Charlie Wilson illegally diverted hundreds of millions of dollars to fund arms for Islamic armies to battle the Soviets. Major efforts were spent to provide the Afghans with a ground-to-air missle to shoot down Soviet helicopters.
Today, Americans have to worry that the "Stinger" missles, provided by Charlie Wilson to the Afghans, are not used by Islamic militants to bring down American passenger planes.
Although I believe the book rates "five stars", I am depressed by the description of our government in action.
This is an amazing inside look at not only how a politician becomes passionately involved in Afghanistan and the war against the Russians but also about the inner workings of the CIA, which is told, in surprising detail and the author explains how big money can be moved around in congress without much scrutiny. It's a fascinating story of how Charlie Wilson, the good time Congressman from a Baptist district, is able to not only party with numerous women, almost kill himself with alcohol but somehow adopt his freedom fighters of Afghanistan and become an international broker of middle east alliances so successfully that he actually creates deals that astonish the badly wounded CIA recovering from the Carter era and later Iran Contra.
Wilson has the friendship of John Birch society millionaires that fuels Wilson through her connections with Texas politicians and her inexplicable connections to Pakistan's Zia who she whole-heartedly supports in the name of anti-communism. But aside from Wilson is the story of the Greek American in your face CIA chief that refuses to play political games within the agency and some how survives through inner agency friendships to command the CIA Afghanistan operation that secretly supplies the warriors millions of dollars through US funding that is directly matched by the Saudi's. It is hard to imagine how the CIA was able to provide such an astonishing array of modern weaponry like stinger missiles, thousands of Tennessee mules and all kinds of technical support to these horse-riding warriors that seem almost the same as those who fought the British centuries ago.
There are some fascinating interpersonal stories such as the head of the appropriations committee, "them that has the gold, makes the rules", Wilson's non-stop escapades and his Greek CIA associate Avrakotos telling one of the highest ranking officers in the CIA exactly what he thought of him in four letter words, and Wilson's close relations with all the governments of the Middle east including their enemy Israel. There are also many humorous moments such as Wilson bringing his own American belly dancer to the east to entertain his eastern associates.
This story really tells how this US war in Afghanistan broke the Russians and may have directly caused the collapse of the Russian ability to sustain the cold war together with Reagan's build up of arms. What is difficult to fathom is the lack of participation in this operation by Reagan and his officers or perhaps they kept more behind the scenes then the author knows. In addition, this is looked upon as revenge for Russia' support of the North Vietnamese and that this was an opportunity to get even.
A very sad turn to this book is the treatment of captured Russian soldiers particularly if you take the vein that soldiers are not the decision makers for war. The level of cruelty is noted in matter of fact detail in the book and it is so gruesome it reminded me of the book about Indian warfare written years ago by Thomas B Marquis, "Keep the Last Bullet for Yourself: The True Story of Custer's Last Stand". Obvious psychological warfare particularly as the atrocities are advertised by the warriors and many a Russian mother is advised never to open the coffin to look at her son. A quick death was most likely for the lucky. This is something to think about today since our troops our fighting some of the same people whose culture is very complex, stoic, deeply religious and very desirous of revenge. The epilogue covers the seeds of the warriors turn against the US and includes an earlier warning that some of the warriors were so extreme that the author mentions that the remaining Afghanistan government (deserted by the Russians) that is overthrown appeared far more tolerant than the liberators. .