Charlie Wilson rose out of the same hardscrabble ground as
another larger-than-life Texan, Lyndon B. Johnson. Wilson
went to Congress at the height of the Cold War, and became
increasingly frustrated because the rules of engagement for that
silent war prevented him from participating. Evewn though he
was on the House Appropriations Committee, where the real power
resided (the power to disburse money), he often felt that the American side limited its effectiveness with petty legalistic constraints.
Then came Afghanistan. The Soviets invaded, though not
officially acknowledging this to their own citizens. America
began funding a ragtag army of Afghan tribal warlords who suddenly
became freedom fighters because they were taking on the Great
Russian Bear. Charlie Wilson's heart ached when he heard
reports of the pitiful World War I rifles that the brave
mujadheen used against sophisticated Soviet weaponry. But it was strict administration policy not to supply American weapons, not to acknowledge that America had a vested interest in this war. A captured M-16 rifle or rocket launcher would hand the Soviets a propaganda coup, one that would seem to justify the Soviet invasion.
Charlie Wilson and his CIA friend Gust Avrakatos set about to change this. George Crile, a veteran 60 Minutes producer with many forays into Afghanistan and Pakistan under his belt, has put together the previously-untold story of how Charlie beat the bureaucrats and got to fulfill his James Bond fantasy by using the mujadheen to stick it to the communists. It is probably fair to say that without Wilson's bravado, there would have been no driving of the Soviets out of Afghanistan, and perhaps a great delay in the collapse of the Soviet Union as well.
How Charlie and Gust got Stinger missiles produced by General Dynamics in the San Gabriel Valley of Southern California, into the hands of the freedom fighters, makes a great story and highlights an overlooked truism of world history - the things that go on unseen frequently have as much effect as the "official explanation" offered to the public.
But, as Crile points out, this is not just the story of an
oversized flawed hero. It is also a story that perfectly
illustrates the law of unintended consequences. Charlie
Wilson's feudal freedom fighters became 20th Century
techno-guerillas without shedding their radical Islamic
fundamentalist tendencies. Somke banded with Osama bin
Laden's al Qaeda after the expulsion of the Soviet Army, and other
swith the brutal warlords who, to this very day, resist the
imposition of Western-style, Kabul-centered
democracy into Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is a Western construct which throws together into one country many rival ethnic factions that have been warring among themselves for centuries. These factions are better at fighting than they are at uniting. Crile reminds us that, in the Afghan language, the same word is used for "cousin" and "enemy." Crile's story of the biggest covert operation in American history is a tale from the 1980s whose chilling relevance to today is obvious.
Dialogue on favorite books with Deane Rink before and during his latest trek to Antarctica, with a note from Bill Ransom and a digression about Frank Herbert (a.k.a Bookbabble 101) -- a very long and rapidly growing document: