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Book Reviews:

Charlie Wilson's War

The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History
The Arming of the Mujahideen

How a fast-living Texas congressman secretly funneled billions of dollars to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets.

by George Crile
Book Review By Lucas Everidge


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Texas does very well in fostering colorful, interesting politicians. Charlie Wilson, who served in the US Congress, represented an area of rural east Texas. Known for his unabashed womanizing and drinking, the charming, tall Texan was dubbed Good Times Charlie by the press in Texas and in Washington, DC.

Writer George Crile spins a riveting, untold story about how Wilson, who to many was just another clownish politician, masterminded what was the CIA's support initiative for the Afghan rebels in the 1980s. Without Charlie Wilson, the Russians might still be in Afghanistan. Wilson used his powerful position on the House Appropriations Committee to push the things he wished for most - to stop the Soviet menace from advancing further into the free world.

The book profiles the men and women who conceived the operation and the journey they took to see it through. Crile explains in detail the background and motivation of all the book's major players, pointing out their unorthodox alliances and how they all found common inspiration.

A blue dog Democrat, Wilson earned the reputation as a military hawk on foreign policy. Crile discusses how growing up in World War 2, he was inspired by the United States fighting for freedom to stop the threat of fascism. After serving in the Navy, Wilson went on to serve in the Texas Legislature from the wooded, Bible-Belt area of Lufkin, Texas. After elected to the U.S. Congress, Wilson had trouble with finding significant political issues that motivated him. Spending time on junkets and in Las Vegas, he earned the reputation as a larger-than-life playboy / Texas politician.

Charlie Wilson's War
Charlie Wilson, front, was architect of the CIA's victory in the last battle of the Cold War.
Wilson was noted by the Jewish delegation of his support for Israel, despite the fact that he had almost no Jewish constituents. His ardent support for Israel helped him win a coveted seat on the House Appropriations Committee, despite the fact that others in the Texas delegation did not support him. The last Texan to try for Appropriations without the Texas delegation's support was Lyndon Johnson - and he didn't make it. Wilson made it. In fact, he got on the perfect subcommittee - Defense and Foreign Operations subcommittee, which let him to exercise a big voice in the power of the purse towards funding any kind of military operation.

Why would a rural east Texas, Blue-Dog Democrat care about Israel? The motivation, like all of Wilson's motivations, were intensely personal. Wilson explains in the book that he found this motivation from his own Texas roots:

Most Americans can't understand what the Alamo meant to Texans. It's like Masada to the Israelis. It sums up what it means to be a man, what it means to be a patriot, what it means to be a Texan. Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett and all who stayed with Travis that day paid the ultimate price, but they had bought time for Sam Houston to mobilize the Texas army to defeat Santa Anna. That is what brave men did: win time for others to do the right thing.

We learn how US government support grew from a few million dollars to over a billion a year within a few years. This occurred in spite of opposition from the CIA's establishment. Crile writes about how the Carter years essentially defanged the agency, taking all the fire out of its belly. When this situation came along, a number of CIA folks - who were not cowed by establishment thinking - helped seize the opportunity to stop the Soviets in Afghanistan. One figure in particular, Gust Avraototos is stationed in that area, and plays a key role with Wilson. An outcast in the patrician world of American spies, the working-class Greek-American was known as a blue collar James Bond, who stretched the CIA rules to the breaking point.

Other New Related Books:

Learning about the operation and politics at the Central Intelligence Agency in relation to all this was especially enlightening. Another opponent was the State Department, who was terrified that the Russians could be provoked into continuing on into Pakistan. Furthermore, being an open ally of Pakistan's new military ruler, General Zia ul Haq, considered in the West as more of a tyrant who is holding down democracy in that country, was anything but politically correct. Besides, the General also had to be persuaded that a plan could work without provoking the Soviets. Congressman Wilson, along with a belly-dancer / former Miss World contender from Dallas, and Joanne Herring, a wealthy sociality from Houston, persuade the Islamic fundamentalist to provide the key support necessary for carrying out the operation.

Herring, one of many of the book's interesting characters, lives a charmed life in Houston in the wealthy River Oaks neighborhood, hosting extravagant parties. She was also proudly patriotic and despised Communism. She was moved by the plight of the Afghans in their battle with the invading Soviets. With General Zia, helping the effort became one of her main causes. "Nothing ever affected me like seeing those twenty thousand men raising their guns and shouting to fight to the last drop of their blood," she relates in the book. She befriended Zia and became very influential in Pakistan.

So who was responsible for stopping the Soviets in Afghanistan and arguably dealt a finishing blow to the dying Communist empire? "Charlie did it," was Zia's version on the Mujahideen's victory. However he had been assassinated by 1989 when every Russian had departed the area.

Charlie Wilson's War is a gripping account of the last battle of the Cold War. It provides eyebrow-raising insight on how tax-dollars get spent.

The book is clear prism on Charlie Wilson's view on the operation. The reader might question whether the war was worth the price. The Soviet Union was crumbling. Was this very questionable operation even necessary? Did the infusion of billions of dollars and additional weapons inflame militant Islam? After the Russians left, Afghanistan devolved into severe chaos until the Taliban were joyously welcomed into Kabul.

Despite these issues, Charlie Wilson's War shines the light on a gripping story of international intrigue, booze, drugs, sex, high society and arms deals. The last great battle of the Cold War was anything but a typical CIA program.

-Lucas Everidge

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