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Monday, September 24, 2007

Charlie Wilson's War by George Crile

Charlie Wilson's War by George Crile is the true story of the largest covert operation in USA history. It details how Charlie Wilson, a Congressman from Texas diverted millions of dollars from the USA congressional defense appropriations budget to support the Mujahideen when Russia invaded Afghanistan in the 1980's. Wilson, along with Gust Avrakotos, a CIA operative, and President Zia of Pakistan, orchestrated the plan that would eventually cause Russia to give up their war in Afghanistan and ultimately result in the end of the Cold War.

Charlie Wilson is what you get if you'd cross J R Ewing, Ted Kennedy, and the let-me-spend-your-money gene from Bill Clinton. If Charlie is going to stop in for a visit, it's best to lock the women in a vault, hide the liquor, and drain the hot tub.

Gus Avrakotos is what you'd get if you bred a bear (named something like One Eyed Jack), a ferret, and Andre The Giant. If he's stopping by to visit, particularly if he's bringing any of his Afghan Mujahideen friends with him, it would be advisable to move to another solar system, and it couldn't hurt to Express ship all the mules in the country ahead in advance of your departure.

Together these two men funded (with other people's money), directed (through Pakistan), and ultimately enabled the Afghan Mujahideen to end the murderous occupation of Afghanistan by the Russians in 1989. Deciding whether what Wilson and Avrakotos did was a good thing entirely depends upon your point of view and how you perceive both the Congress of the USA and the CIA.

There are several disturbing aspects to this story. One of them, for me, was why Charlie Wilson did what he did to help the Afghans. The stock answer was that he did it as payback to the Russians for what they did to us and our soldiers in Vietnam. But near the end of the book there is this passage that I think is closer to the truth of the matter:
"But Gust [Avrakotos] was equally right about his old friend: Charlie had also done it because it was plain and simple fun, because it was so exotic, and because in the end he had been able to turn it into his war and even pretend for 60 Minutes at the Khyber Pass that he was an uncomplicated American patriot like John Wayne."

And as far as how the media portrayed Charlie Wilson... no one said it better than Peter Henning, a cameraman for 60 Minutes when he observed to George Crile that
"You could turn Charlie Wilson into the biggest hero you've ever heard of... or a complete clown. It just depends which way you want to cut it."

The best reason to read this book is not so much to read about the outrageous behavior of Charlie Wilson and those who worked so closely with him. I think the best reason to read it is to better understand what happened in Afghanistan pre-9/11 and just how complicit the US was in what came during and after the Russian occupation.

George Crile has done an excellent job in telling this story... he's done such a good job that I believe I better understand how the US Congress works and how little we really know about what goes into the making of Congressional decisions. I will never again listen to a Senator speak or watch a congressional hearing without wondering what the real story is and having the sense that more than likely, unless someone writes a book exposing it all, I'll never really know for sure.

I read this book for the Readers In Thongs Weight Loss Book Challenge

The book weighs 2 pounds.

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