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Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of How the Wildest Man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Changed the History of Our Timesby George Crile
"Crile, a producer at 60 Minutes, has hold of a story here that everyone else missed, and his elation at having a big scoop dovetails with the enthusiasm that Charlie Wilson brought to his cause — arming the Afghan rebels to defeat the invading Soviet army in the '80s. Crile has written an extraordinarily entertaining piece of reportage that has much to tell us about how the U.S. armed a group of people who are now using the weapons we provided them to kill us. A fiction writer would be hard-pressed to come up with a comparable tale of American shortsightedness, or one with more hairpin reversals and rich, comic irony." Stephanie Zacharek, Salon.com (read the entire Salon review)
Synopses & Reviews
Hailed by Dan Rather as "a tour de force of writing and reporting," and by Molly Ivins as "a whale of a tale," Charlie Wilson's War was a publishing sensation and a New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times best-seller — the previously untold story of a whiskey-swilling, skirtchasing, scandal-prone congressman from Texas, and how he conspired with a rouge CIA operative to launch the biggest and most successful covert operation in U.S. history.
In the early 1980s, a Houston socialite turned the attention of maverick Texas congressman Charlie Wilson to the ragged band of Afghan "freedom fighters" who continued, despite overwhelming odds, to fight the Soviet invaders. The congressman became passionate about their cause. At a time when Ronald Reagan faced a total cutoff of funding for the Contra war, Wilson, who sat on the all-powerful House Appropriations Committee, managed to procure hundreds of millions of dollars to support the mujahideen. The arms were secretly procured and distributed with the help of an out-of-favor CIA operative, Gust Avrokotos, whose working-class Greek-American background made him an anomaly among the Ivy League world of American spies. Avrakotos handpicked a staff of CIA outcasts to run his operation and, with their help, continually stretched the Agency's rules to the breaking point.
Moving from the back rooms of the Capitol, to secret chambers at Langley, to arms-dealers' conventions, to the Khyber Pass, this book presents an astonishing chapter of our recent past, and the key to understanding what helped trigger the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union and ultimately led to the emergence of a brand-new foe in the form of radical Islam.
"The result is a vivid narrative, though a reader may wonder how much of this story is true in exactly the way Crile presents it. Still, few people who remember Wilson's years in Washington would discount even the wildest tales." David Johnston, The New York Times
"The stories George Crile tells in Charlie Wilson's War must be true — nobody could make them up. This is a rousing tale of jihad on the frontiers of the Cold War, infighting at the CIA and horse-trading in Congress, spiced by sex, booze, ambition and larger-than-life personalities. " Thomas Lippman, The Washington Post
"An amazing tale, made all the more amazing because it was missed by the press. George Crile has written a book revealing the extraordinary details and intrigue of a secret war, and that alone would be a monumental achievement....all of this comes with a breathtaking cast of characters worthy of a LeCarre novel. Only it's all true. And just as vivid." Ken Auletta
"Americans often ask: 'Where have all the heroes gone?' Well a lot of them come roaring through in this tour de force of reporting and writing. Tom Clancy's fiction pales in comparison with the amazing, mesmerizing story told by George Crile. By resurrecting a missing chapter out of our recent past, Charlie Wilson's War provides us with the key to understanding the present." Dan Rather
"A cross between Tom Clancy and Carl Hiassen, with the distinguishing feature that it's all apparently true....Throw in a middle-aged Texan belly dancer, an assortment of Congressional looinies, a few beauty queens, some ruthless Afghan rebels, and a murderous Pakistani dictator who only wants to be understood." Gerard DeGroot, Christian Science Monitor
"[W]hile this may have been the largest covert operation in U.S. history, it was not the most important; that honor goes to Operation Bodyguard, which hid the D-day invasion plan from Hitler. An interesting and readable story that is suitable for academic and large public libraries." Library Journal
"So, let?s see. We arm Afghan rebels to fight the Soviets. The Afghans drive the Russians out of their country. We ignore the Afghans. They stew for a few years and hook up with Osama bin Laden." Kirkus Reviews
"Give Crile his due. He has unearthed some startling details about this chapter of our covert history...and lent a great deal to a better understanding of our recent past and our troubled present." Denver Post
A gripping and vibrant book soon to be released as a major motion picture starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts and directed by Mike Nichols, Charlie Wilsons War was a New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times best seller when it was published in 2003. Criles book is the true story of how a Texas Congressman and a rogue CIA agent conspired to launch the biggest, meanest, and most successful CIA campaign ever — the operation to fund the mujahideen in their fight against the Soviet army that had invaded Afghanistan. Moving from the back rooms of the Capitol to secret chambers at Langley, from arms dealers conventions to the Khyber Pass, Charlie Wilsons War presents an astonishing chapter of our recent past, and the key to understanding what helped trigger the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union and ultimately led to the emergence of a brand-new foe in the form of radical Islam.
It's common knowledge that the U.S. armed the Afghans in their fight against the Soviet Union, but until now, the fact that this was possibly the biggest, meanest covert operation in history has been absent from press reports. In one of the most detailed descriptions of a CIA operation every written, the bizarre twists and turns of the full story are told in CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR. Veteran 60 Minutes producer George Crile explains how one Congressman was able to provide the CIA with hundreds of millions of dollars to fund the Afghan program, dwarfing the price tag for arming the Nicaraguan Contras that occurred at virtually the same time.
"The scope and nature of this campaign has still not registered in the consciousness of most Americans," Crile writes in the book's Epilogue. "Nor is it understood that such secret undertakings inevitably have unforeseen and unintended consequences which, in this case, remain largely ignored."
When Crile produced his first story about Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson for 60 Minutes in 1989, he too underestimated the vastness of the program and its consequences. It was a later trip to the Arab world with Wilson, the Wilson's "princely" reception, and the events of 9/11 that opened his eyes to the far bigger picture of CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR.
Among the book's more startling revelations:
By the latter years of the 1980s the CIA was not just providing arms to a half million Afghans, it had taken 150,000 of them and transformed them into what it called a force of "techno holy warriors." "From today's perspective," Crile observes, "that may seem more than a bit ill advised-particularly when you factor in the specialized training in urban warfare that the Agency sponsored to include the use of pipe bombs, bicycle bombs, car bombs, camel bombs, along with a host of other tactics to wreak havoc with the army of a modern superpower."
The United States continued to fund the Afghan rebels long after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union. Incredibly, the subsidies continued despite the fact that one of the most important mujahid leaders sided with Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War.
In addition to $200 million in aid from the U.S. and $200 million from Saudi Arabia, in 1991 and 1992 the rebels received Iraqi weapons captured by U.S. forces during the Gulf War. At the same time, the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union ceased to exist. The Cold War was effectively over but what began as a war against Communism was continuing to be funded.
"The question that has puzzled so many Americans: 'Why do they hate us?' is not so difficult to understand if you put yourself into the shoes of the Afghan veterans in the aftermath of the Soviet departure," Crile says. To them, the real superpower in their struggle was Allah. The United States eventually cut off its support in the 1990s. In the Afghan's minds, Allah did not.
CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR is nothing short of a critical missing chapter in our political consciousness. Without a clear understanding of its impact, it may be impossible to comprehend the two world changing events that shook the United States on either side of the millennium: the sudden and mysterious collapse of the Soviet Union and the equally inexplicable appearance of a new global foe in the form of militant Islam. At its core, it tells of an unorthodox alliance-of a scandal-prone Texas Congressman named Charlie Wilson and an out-of-favor CIA operative named Gust Avrakotos-that armed and sustained the Afghan jihad and turned Afghanistan into the Soviet Union's Vietnam.
"The origins of this book go back to a time when the Afghans were viewed by most everyone in the U.S. government as freedom fighters and allies against a common foe," Crile writes in the Epilogue. In 1988, Crile produced a 60 Minutes profile of Wilson that he now realizes barely scratched the surface of this fascinating story. Later, while, accompanying Wilson on a trip to Kuwait, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan just prior to the first Gulf War, Crile was amazed at the "princely" reception accorded Wilson in the Arab world. "The trip was just the beginning of a decade-long odyssey uncovering the many dimensions of the CIA's Afghan War," he recalls. "In short order I realized that it had been anything but a typical CIA program."
As incredible as anything in the pages of Tom Clancy or John le Carré, CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR is a gripping story of international intrigue, booze, drugs, sex, high society and arms deals. Between its covers, we meet:
The charismatic Congressman Charlie Wilson. While Ronald Reagan and William Casey were unable to persuade Congress to fund the Nicaraguan Contras, Wilson was procuring hundreds of millions of dollars to support his Afghan "freedom fighters" through back-room machinations that would have made even LBJ blush. A colorful man of many contradictions, he worked hard and played hard, earning the reputation as the "wildest man in Congreeeeeess" while representing an archconservative Bible-belt district in Texas.
The out-of-favor CIA operative, Gust Avrakotos, whose working-class Greek-American background made him an anomaly in the patrician world of American spies. Nicknamed "Dr. Dirty", this blue collar James Bond was an aggressive agent who served on the front lines of the Cold War where he learned how to stretch the Agency's rules to the breaking point.
The eccentric staff of CIA outcasts hand-picked by Avrakotos to run the operation. Among them were "Hilly Billy", the logistics wizard who could open an un-numbered Swiss bank account for the U.S. government in 12 hours when others took months; Art Alper, the "devilish" tinkerer from the Technical Services division who roamed the world creating such novelties as exploding typewriters and developed portable amplifiers that spread propaganda among the Soviet troops; and especially Mike Vickers, the former Green Beret so junior in status that he couldn't send his own cables. His military genius allowed him to single-handedly redesign the CIA's war plan. Through his highly specific blueprint, he created a systematic plan that turned a rabble of shepherds and tribesmen into an army of techno Holy warriors who gave the legendary Red Army their greatest defeat. Today, Mike Vickers is consulting for the Pentagon on the War on Terrorism and war planning for Iraq.
The many women who shared the Congressman's jihad. It all began with a Houston socialite, Joanne Herring who enlisted Wilson to the Afghan cause via her deep-seated hatred of Communism and her influence in Pakistan. Carol Shannon, Wilson's personal belly dancer who he took with him to the jihad. Charlie's Angels, Wilson's female staffers so strikingly beautiful that they became a legend on Capitol Hill. And finally, Annelise Illschenko, aka "Sweetums", the former U.S. representative in the Miss World competition who traveled with Wilson deep into the Islamic world in outfits that were not the most appropriate attire in the eyes of Muslim men
The Pakistani dictator Zia ul Haq, who early on realized that the way to millions of dollars in American aid was through Charlie Wilson and his covert war in Afghanistan. A dictator whom many held personally responsible for the execution of his democratically elected predecessor, Zia used his favorable status as an ally of the U.S. against the Soviets to divert attention from his own nuclear weapons program while providing the all-important safe haven and operations center for the CIA's Afghan operations .
CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR is the CIA and Congress as they have never been seen before, engaged in the last great battle of the Cold War. This is a book that has direct implications for today's world situation.
A bestseller in hardcover, "Charlie Wilsons War" tells what became of the largest covert operation in history. Moving from the back rooms of the Capitol to arms-dealer conventions to the Khyber Pass, this is a compulsively readable account of the inside workings of the CIA.
About the Author
George Crile is a veteran producer for 60 Minutes. He lives in New York.
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