Charlie Wilson: Congressman whose support for the mujahideen helped force the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan
It takes a larger-than-life Congressman to bring down a superpower.
A strong case could be made, however, that Charlie Wilson did precisely that, by channelling to Afghanistan's mujahideen resistance fighters the weapons that were crucial in forcing the Soviet occupiers to withdraw in 1989. Beyond all argument however, he was larger than life – in every sense.
Wilson was part politician, part playboy. He was a liberal, yet a ferocious Cold War warrior. He had rugged good looks and a towering stature. He relished women, booze and, from time to time, cocaine. His favoured dress at work consisted of striped shirts, loud ties and ostentatious coloured braces. Yet this flamboyant figure was also a prime mover in one of the most successful covert operations ever mounted by the US government.
A former navy lieutenant and Pentagon intelligence officer who specialised in Soviet affairs, Wilson was first drawn to the struggle in Afghanistan when he learned in 1980 of the plight of early refugees from the war. As a member of the House budget subcommittee that dealt with secret funding for the CIA, he used that position to secure a doubling of aid to the mujahideen. Over the years, he would channel hundreds of millions of dollars to the Afghan resistance, saying he wanted "to make sure Afghans could do everything possible to kill Russians, as painfully as possible."
Of all the weapons Wilson and Gust Avrakotos, his chief ally and enabler at the CIA, sent to Afghanistan, none was more effective than the shoulder-fired Stinger missile, lethal against the low-flying helicopter gunships employed by the Soviets to terrorise the local population. By 1986, Stingers were arriving by the planeload in Pakistan for delivery to the mujahideen. Three years later, Moscow concluded the war was unwinnable and pulled out. Less than three years after that, the Soviet Union itself was no more. Asked in an interview on US television about the turn of the war's tide against Moscow, Pakistan's former president Zia ul-Haq replied, "Charlie did it."
In more conventional political terms too, Wilson defied almost every rule. A liberal who favoured abortion rights for women, he was 12 times elected to Congress from a district in the rural east Texas bible belt. But he tirelessly served the interests of his constituents, to whom he was never 'Congressman Wilson,' but simply 'Charlie". In that part of the world everyone loves a character. "He was a rascal, but he was our rascal," said Jack Gorden, mayor of Lufkin, Wilson's home town
The Congressman played up to his image shamelessly. He gave his girlfriends names like Firecracker, Tornado and Snowflake, and the bevy of female aides in his Capitol Hill Office – some of little obvious qualification – was known, inevitably, as "Charlie's Angels". As he explained to the Texas columnist Molly Ivins, "even feminists like me, because I am an unapologetic sexist, chauvinist redneck... who votes with 'em every time." But "I try not to let 'em know I vote with 'em. It's more fun to have 'em mad at me."
Once, even Congressional colleagues who knew him well were stunned when this politician privy to some of the most sensitive secrets of US intelligence took up with a new girlfriend who was Russian. Not to worry, Wilson assured them, "the only secret she's getting is Victoria's."
In George Crile's 2003 book Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History – which revealed for the first time the extent of his secret support for the mujahideen – Wilson gleefully admitted to a Las Vegas escapade in 1980. with two strippers in a hot tub. "The girls had cocaine, and the music was loud. It was total happiness. And both of them had 10 long, red fingernails with an endless supply of beautiful white powder."
The book formed the basis for a 2007 film of the same name, starring Tom Hanks as Wilson and Julia Roberts as Joanne Herring, the Texas socialite and activist who persuaded Wilson to visit refugee camps in Pakistan to see first-hand the human devastation wrought by the Russians on Afghan civilians.
For his work, Wilson was the only civilian ever to be recognised as an "Honoured Colleague" by the CIA. But the award later acquired a somewhat bitter flavour, as the Islamist fighters he had helped became the nucleus of the Taliban who gave shelter to Osama bin Laden while he planned the 9/11 attacks on the US.
Wilson, however, never apologised. Washington, he admitted, might later have taken its eye off events in Afghanistan with disastrous consequences. But in the 1980s, "who the hell had ever heard of the Taliban?"
Charles Nesbitt Wilson, politician: born Trinity, Texas 1 June 1933; member, US House of Representatives, 1973-97; married firstly (marriage dissolved), 1999 Barbara Alberstadt; died Lufkin, Texas 10 February 2010.
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