May 11 , 2012
‘Charlie Wilson’s War’: A Film Based on a Best-Seller Book
The film, now showing across the United States and drawing large crowds, is based on George Crile’s fascinating book by the same name and revolves around the role in the Afghan war of a fun-loving Texas Congressman, known for his drinking and proclivity for showgirls and Playboy bunnies that earned him the nickname “Good-time Charlie”. But, Charlie Wilson, a tall and handsome man, was also a highly successful politician who had the uncanny faculty of earning intimate friendships and confidences of President Zia of Pakistan, Defense Minister of Egypt, Field Marshal Abu Ghazala, Saudi Princes and the top men of Israel apart from his Congress colleagues holding crucial positions.
Charlie invariably stood for the underdog. He became a strong supporter of Israel as he thought that the tiny state was threatened by the Arab states surrounding it. He had only seven Jews in his constituency but bulk of the money for his election chest came from the Jewish community all over the US. Yet, his enthusiasm waned considerably when he visited Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps outside Beirut and learned how his hero, Ariel Sharon, had connived in the massacre of the innocent there. In the words of Crile, “What he saw and heard shattered him….Something dies in a man like Charlie Wilson when he loses his faith in the purity of a cause”.
His visit to an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan created empathy in the heart of this quixotic person for the cause of the Afghans. Added to this was his antipathy towards Communism. He decided to do whatever he could to buttress the Afghan resistance to do a Vietnam on the Soviets. The Afghan freedom fighters’ urgent demand was for a weapon that could shoot down the Soviet Hind helicopters which were well-shielded against the fire power available to the Afghan guerrillas. The Aghan need became an obsession for Wilson. He launched an extensive search to find a weapon that could not be traced to the US and that was mule-portable so that it could be carried in the mountainous terrain by mules. He discovered that an anti-aircraft gun called Oerlikon, manufactured by a Swiss factory, could pierce through the heavily shielded belly of Hind helicopter. A good portion of the book describes Wilson’s maneuverings to secure the Oerlikons for the Afghan Mujahideen.
In this process, the reader is entertained to the bureaucratic red tape, and the hurdles created by rules, procedures and office rivalries. In this dark labyrinth appears the maverick, foul-mouthed, rule-breaking, go-getter CIA operative, Gust
Avrakotos, who teamed up with Wilson to funnel money, weapons and even mules to the Mujahideen. Both had the same objective, and both paid scant regard to the normal processes of decision making and carrying them out. Another CIA functionary who played a key role in the formulation of strategy was a young man, Mike Vickers, 31, gifted with an uncanny subtlety of intellect. Wilson would squeeze money from the Congressional Committees, the Saudis would match those funds, Avarakotos would buy the weapons and channel them to the Mujahideen, while Vickers served as the strategist who planned how to trump the Soviets in Afghanistan. Gen. Zia of Pakistan was another fully committed player in the game. He kept himself informed of even the minutest detail of the war to make sure that “the pot was kept boiling in Afghanistan but without boiling over into Pakistan”.
The teamwork did keep the pot boiling but it was the introduction of the American Stinger missiles that tipped the scale in favor of the Mujahideen. It was in the second term of President Reagan that the US decided to drop the façade of not being involved in the war and instead of being content with bleeding the Soviets, go for the kill. The Stinger missiles were thus allowed to be provided to the freedom fighters. Not a day passed since then when a Hind helicopter was not downed by the Afghan fighters. End of the war became imminent. So did the end of the “Evil Empire”. The Afghan war did play a significant role in this outcome, but some other factors too contributed to this end.
The book paints, in parts at least, an unfavorable picture of the Afghans. They are presented occasionally as but a step above the primates. They are said to have treated the Russian prisoners of war as “concubines” -an ugly, humiliating and revolting description. The book has been banned in Afghanistan for a similar slur on the Tajiks and the followers of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud.
The Afghans are really very religious, courageous and honest people. I have had the advantage of seeing them at close quarters in Islamabad for almost a decade and visiting their camps. I could talk to them direct as they spoke Farsi. An Afghan may be emaciated and famished but he would neither steal, nor beg. The Afghans have never in history accepted a foreign yoke. For want of effective weapons, hundreds of thousands of them got killed in the war, as against 25,000 Soviet troops. Their spirit to fight for their independence never flagged. The book failed to make an appropriate mention of this crucial factor, which was captured by Charles Fawcett in his documentary “Courage is Our Weapon”.
Due credit to the Afghans was not given as encomiums were perhaps intended to be showered on Charlie Wilson and the CIA. With the exception of Jalaluddin Haqqani and a couple of other Afghan leaders, grotesque caricatures are drawn of others to perhaps add human interest to the narration.
Larger than life portraits of Wilson and his CIA cohort are painted, on the other hand, to draw attention to CIA’s “largest and most successful covert operation ever”. But, both men are heavily flawed. Wilson, an alcoholic almost drowned himself into drink; Avrakotos became persona non grata with his superiors owing to his abrasive manners.
George Crile, the author of the book and producer for two decades of the CBS program ’60 Minutes’ who died of pancreatic cancer in 2006, has presented both men as the powerful driving force behind the Afghan project.
The CIA is known to have messed up numerous covert operations. The success in Afghanistan therefore merited to be projected through this 523-page tome that has earned a place next to the widely read CIA story “The Invisible Government”.
I did enjoy reading George Chile’s book and watching its film version and recommend the book to your reading.