Charlie Wilson’s War, the movie, is set to open nationwide on Friday. A recent screening in Manhattan was about two-thirds full, and the response when the lights came up was tepid applause. It’s not a bad movie, basically Tom Hanks wearing suspenders, grab-assing with Julia Roberts, and drinking a lot of scotch. It also features trademark Aaron Sorkin screenwriting: dense, snappy dialogue a la “West Wing” and A Few Good Men (Sorkin also has a new Broadway offering, The Farnsworth Invention), and direction by Mike Nichols (Primary Colors). Philip Seymour Hoffman rounds out the cast, and he does his usual fine turn as Gust Avrokotos, a CIA agent with a chip on his shoulder. It is a film based on actual events, events chronicled in George Crile’s book, subtitled “The Extraordinary Story of how the Wildest Man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Changed the History of Our Times.”
Charlie Wilson’s War, the book, takes a lot longer than the movie to absorb, but it is worth the time. It’s an amazing story that just about does justice to that rambling subtitle. In addition to being a sensational tale of political maneuvering, high-power high jinks, and clandestine operations, Crile’s reporting provokes deep thoughts about how the Cold War was ended and how legislative government really functions in America. Crile hints that Wilson, the Democratic Congressman from Texas, hard drinker, notorious philanderer, “Good Time Charlie,” as he was called, may have had a hand in saving the world from the Soviets. As a member of the all-powerful House Appropriations Committee, Wilson wrangled millions of Federal dollars for the CIA to support the Islamic tribal guerrilla factions within Afghanistan that battled the Red Army, which occupied Kabul in late 1979, throughout the 1980s. Guns, mortars, mines, rocket launchers: things that jihadists need to kill Commies.
“Afghanistan was the largest and most successful covert operation ever mounted by the CIA,” writes Crile. The partnership between Wilson, the congressman, and Avrakotos, head of the CIA’s South Asian Operations Bureau, made it happen. The degree to which the Red Army’s defeat in Afghanistan, culminating in complete withdrawal in 1989, influenced the subsequent raising of the iron curtain, collapse of the U.S.S.R., and end of the Cold War, is a matter for debate. Wilson recognized that there was one place in the world, Afghanistan, where the U.S. had an opportunity to have a hand in the killing of Soviet soldiers. After seeing the refugee camps in Pakistan, and meeting with numerous mujahideen, Wilson came to view them as freedom fighters, and he championed their cause.
But inspiring as Charlie Wilson’s story is, let’s face it: it’s frightening to think that an obscure congressman could have such awesome power to dictate American foreign policy. Did Wilson and Avrakotos break laws in the course of directing the most successful covert operation ever mounted by the CIA? Crile writes the following:
At a time when [Nicaraguan] Contras could not get a dime from Congress, Charlie Wilson had managed to turn the CIA’s cautious bleeding campaign in Afghanistan into a half-billion-dollars-a-year operation that dwarfed any prior agency effort. For all practical purposes Wilson had hijacked U.S. foreign policy and was busy transforming it into the first direct winner-take-all contest with the Soviet Union… He was now engaged in the kind of sensitive diplomacy that is technically illegal for anyone other than the White House to conduct: Cutting arms deals with the defense minister of Egypt; commissioning Israel to design weapons for the CIA; negotiating all manner of extraordinarily controversial matters with the all important U.S. ally general Zia [ul-Haq, president of Pakistan].
Whether or not his actions were legal, it would seem that Wilson was motivated by patriotic ideals, to aid victims of tyrannical aggression and hurt the U.S.’s great Red enemy. But part of what makes this such a jaw dropping story is that Wilson was able to accomplish what he did – and get away with it.
Honest though his motives were, Wilson’s actions had unforeseen consequences, a fact that was brought home to him on September 11, 2001. All of the hijackers who hit the World Trade Center and Pentagon had spent time training in Afghanistan. I shuddered when I read this sentence:
For anyone trying to make sense of this new enemy, it would seem relevant that for over a decade in the 1980s and early 1990s, the U.S. government sponsored the largest and most successful jihad in modern history; that the CIA secretly armed and trained several hundred thousand fundamentalist warriors to fight against our common Soviet enemy; and that many of those who now targeted America were veterans of that earlier CIA sponsored jihad.
Especially when considered in light of the intelligence failures that predicated the 9/11 attacks, the CIA emerges from the Charlie Wilson saga with their usual black eye, despite the Afghan war with Soviets being supposedly the Agency’s finest moment. It is a perverse glory that comes with winning a “proxy” war. It would seem a rather ignoble pursuit.