May 25, 2003

'Charlie Wilson's War': Arming the Mujahedeen


For most of his 24-year career in the House of Representatives, Charles Wilson was known for his abiding fondness for hot tubs, women and Scotch whiskey. His friends at the Central Intelligence Agency said, only partly in jest, that the Texas Democrat's reputation as a roue provided a perfect cover for his great passion, the mujahedeen rebellion against the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan. During the 1980's, Wilson used his seat on a military appropriations subcommittee to steer billions of dollars in secret funding to the C.I.A. to funnel arms to the mujahedeen.

So it was hardly a surprise after the Soviets' humiliating withdrawal in 1989 that the C.I.A.'s spymasters invited Wilson out to celebrate at the agency's headquarters at Langley, Va. On a large movie screen in an auditorium at the George Bush Center for Intelligence flashed a huge quotation from Pakistan's president, Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, who had willingly allowed the C.I.A.'s arms pipeline to flow through his country. Zia credited Wilson with the defeat of the Russians in Afghanistan with the words, ''Charlie did it.''

In ''Charlie Wilson's War,'' George Crile, a veteran ''60 Minutes'' producer, recounts the story of Wilson's personal journey from the East Texas Bible Belt to Congress, where he became the secret patron of what was then the largest covert operation in C.I.A. history. Of course, the American effort to arm the mujahedeen must be measured against recent events like the Sept. 11 attacks. The Qaeda hijackings underscored how the American-financed war against the Soviets in Afghanistan helped create a political vacuum filled by the Taliban and Islamic extremists, who turned their deadly terrorism back against the United States.

Moreover, there was concern within intelligence circles about the hundreds of Stinger missile systems that the C.I.A. supplied to the mujahedeen forces in the 1980's to combat the Russians' most fearful weapon, the Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunship. After the Soviet withdrawal, the agency embarked on a costly buyback program, but most of the missiles remained unaccounted for. American military commanders feared they might be used during the war in Afghanistan that followed the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

But in its time there was little dispute that the covert war was one of the most successful C.I.A. operations ever undertaken, a deadly confrontation conducted through a surrogate with the Soviet empire in its death throes. Only a handful of people in the government knew that behind the Afghan resistance was a pirate's crew of misfits, most notably Charlie Wilson himself, whom Crile affectionately profiles as the lawmaker who widened the war through a series of backroom deals on Capitol Hill that were never publicly disclosed or debated.

For most of his years in the House until he retired in 1996, Wilson rarely spoke on the House floor and was never associated with any of the great legislative issues of his day. He infuriated colleagues like Pat Schroeder, a Colorado Democrat, by calling her ''Babycakes,'' and acknowledged when he announced his retirement that ''at times I've been a reckless and rowdy public servant.'' But Crile asserts that Wilson's flaky public persona concealed a fervent anti-Communist and deeply ambitious politician, who built a power base in Congress that he used to pour money into the Afghan cause. In return for voting for military contracts in his colleagues' districts, Wilson won votes from his fellow lawmakers for the mujahedeen.

From a few million dollars in the early 1980's, support for the resistance grew to about $750 million a year by the end of the decade. The decisions were made in secret by Wilson and other lawmakers on the appropriations committee. To help make his case, Wilson exploited one of the decade's scandals, the Iran-contra affair, arguing that Democrats who were voting to cut off funding for the contras in Nicaragua could demonstrate their willingness to stand up to the Soviet empire by approving more money for the Afghan fighters.

''Charlie Wilson's War'' is a behind-the-scenes chronicle of a program that is still largely classified. Crile does not provide much insight into his reporting methods, but the book appears to be based on interviews with a number of the principals. The result is a vivid narrative, though a reader may wonder how much of this story is true in exactly the way Crile presents it. Still, few people who remember Wilson's years in Washington would discount even the wildest tales.

Crile recounts with relish Wilson's partying. There are many anecdotes of his overseas travels, first-class at taxpayers' expense, accompanied by former beauty queens who seem to pop up at events in conservative Islamic countries wearing skintight jumpsuits. In one odd moment, according to Crile, Wilson brought his own belly dancer from Texas to Cairo to entertain the Egyptian defense minister, who was secretly supplying the mujahedeen with millions of rounds of ammunition for the AK-47's that the C.I.A. was smuggling into Afghanistan. Her sultry dancing went far beyond the prudish norms of Cairo, but delighted the powerful minister.

Crile tells us that Wilson enjoyed driving to distraction a succession of C.I.A. officials as he prodded the agency to supply the fighters with increasingly more lethal weapons. The agency bureaucrats were content with a modest program designed to bleed the Soviets, whereas Wilson envisioned a war that the mujahedeen could win. As the money for the war began to flow, the C.I.A. put one of its own misfits in charge of the operation, Gust Avrakotos. He formed a small band of agency officers who quickly got behind the war in Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of automatic weapons, antitank guns, even satellite intelligence maps, redrawn in the form of crude maps that might have been penned by the mujahedeen themselves -- all of it was carried across Pakistan's border into Afghanistan on the backs of mules procured by the C.I.A. from as far away as the Tennessee hill country.

On Feb. 15, 1989, Gen. Boris Gromov, commander of the Soviets' 40th Army, walked across Friendship Bridge as the last Russian to leave Afghanistan. The C.I.A. cable from the Islamabad station to Langley said, ''We won.'' Wilson's own note to Avrakotos said simply, ''We did it.''

David Johnston, a senior Washington correspondent for The Times, covers terrorism and national security issues.

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