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Excerpt: Charlie Wilson's War, by George Crile

Author George Crile takes readers to the moment Charlie Wilson decided to double the U.S. budget for providing weapons to the Afghan resistance.

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Charlie Wilson's War

By George Crile

Charlie Wilson's War

By George Crile

Declaring Afghanistan “the greatest foreign policy crisis confronting the United States since World War II,” Carter ordered a boycott of the Olympics scheduled for Moscow that summer. He embargoed grain sales to the Soviets and called for a massive defense buildup, including the creation of a Rapid Deployment Force. Reflecting fears about further Russian aggression, he unveiled the Carter Doctrine, committing America to war in the event of any threat to the strategic oil fields of the Middle East. His most radical departure, however, came when he signed a series of secret legal documents, known as Presidential Findings, authorizing the Central Intelligence Agency to go into action against the Red Army.

The CIA’s time-honored practice was never to introduce into a conflict weapons that could be traced back to the United States. And so the spy agency’s first shipment to the scattered Afghan rebels—enough small arms and ammunition to equip a thousand men—consisted of weapons made by the Soviets themselves that had been stockpiled by the CIA for just such a moment. Within days of the invasion containers from a secretive San Antonio facility were flown to Islamabad, Pakistan, where they were turned over to President Mohammad Zia ul-Haq’s intelligence service for distribution to the Afghan rebels. It hadn’t been easy for Carter to get Zia to cooperate. Carter had targeted Zia—along with Anastasio “Tacho” Somoza of Nicaragua—in his high-profile human-rights campaign, and had cut off all U.S. aid to and military cooperation with Pakistan. Now, with the Red Army sweeping into Afghanistan, Carter had to do a 180-degree turn to win Zia’s approval to use Pakistan as a base of his operations. Zia drove a hard bargain: the CIA could provide the weapons, but they would have to hand them over to his intelligence service for distribution. America’s spies would have to operate exclusively through Zia’s men.

Along with the first U.S. shipment, the Afghans soon began receiving arms and money from the Egyptians, the Chinese, the Saudis, and other Muslim nations. That response might have sounded impressive in a news dispatch, but the reality on the ground was that a bizarre mix of unsophisticated weapons was being handed over to tribesmen in sandals with no formal military training.

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No one in the CIA during those early months had any illusions about the mujahideen’s impotence in the face of the Soviet 40th Army. The full might of the Communist empire had descended on this remote, primitive Third World country. Giant Il-76 transport planes were landing in Kabul, the Afghan capital, one after the other, disgorging tens of thousands of combat troops. Columns of tanks were moving in the cities, while MiG fighter jets and helicopter gunships filled the skies. Very quickly the Agency’s strategists accepted the invasion as an unfortunate, irreversible fact of life.

These CIA men were trained to be clinical when making geopolitical judgments. To them, there were more important things at stake than the fate of Afghanistan. There were many reasons for giving weapons to the Afghans, even if none of them had anything to do with liberating the country: it was a useful warning to the Soviets not to make any further moves toward the Persian Gulf or into Pakistan; it was a signal that the United States was ready to escalate a covert killing war aimed at Russian soldiers; and because it involved aid to Muslim fundamentalists, it was an extraordinary opportunity to make friends with the Islamic nations that had treated the United States as a virtual enemy because of its support of Israel and the Shah.

What was happening to the Afghan freedom fighters was tragic, of course, but if the truth were known, the CIA strategists saw a silver lining in the horrific accounts of the destruction of villages and the flood of refugees pouring across the border into Pakistan. As long as these “freedom fighters,” as Jimmy Carter had begun calling them, continued to fight and the Soviets continued to murder and torture them, it was an unprecedented public relations bonanza for the United States. Never before had the CIA had such a powerful vehicle for blackening the image of the Soviet Union. The Agency began placing heartrending articles in foreign newspapers and magazines; academic studies and books were underwritten. To a certain extent this was unnecessary, however, since every account voluntarily played up the same theme: men of courage, armed only with their faith and their love of freedom, being slaughtered by the full evil might of a Communist superpower.

charlie_wilson's_war
  • Charlie Wilson in 1995, age 62. 

  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Curiously, the only ones who didn’t see the Afghans as helpless victims were the Russians. One gets a sense of how terrified they were of these tribesmen and their methods of fighting from a story the Red Army used to tell each new group of combat recruits to discourage them from ever considering surrender. The story is said to be true, and although the details changed over the years, it goes something like this: At sunrise on the second day after the invasion a Soviet sentry spotted five bags on the edge of the tarmac at Bagram Air Base, close to the capital. The soldier was not initially concerned—until he pushed his rifle against the first of the burlap bags and noticed blood oozing onto the tarmac. Explosives experts were called in to check for booby traps. What they discovered was far more menacing. Within each bag was a young Soviet soldier wrapped inside out in his own skin. As best the medical examiner could determine, the men had died a particularly gruesome death: their skin had been sliced at the stomach while they were still alive and then pulled up and tied over their heads.

It was a message from the Afghans—an old, stylized warning, one that a famous Afghan chieftain had given to the commander of British troops in 1842. The warrior had been brought before the British general, who began to dictate terms to the tribal leader. Before he could finish, however, the Afghan started to laugh at him.

“Why are you laughing?” the general demanded.

“Because I can see how easy it was for you to get your troops in here. What I don’t understand is how you plan to get them out.”

One hundred and thirty-eight years later, across the length and breadth of Afghanistan in those first months of 1980, came the mullah’s new call to jihad—to take up the holy war. It was not a campaign like the CIA’s ongoing Contra war, in which the rich Nicaraguans fled to Miami and the peasants on the border were paid to take up arms. In Afghanistan, the whole nation of Islam responded to the call. In the capital, just a month after the invasion, the mullahs and rebel leaders decided to show the Russians that there was only one true superpower.

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As dusk fell the first cry sounded from an elder in a turban: “Allahu Akbar”—God is Great. From the rooftops came the response, until the air was thundering with the sound of hundreds of thousands of Muslim faithful chanting the cry of the jihad: “Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar.”

Across town in the Kabul Hotel, a Soviet reporter, Gennady Bocharov, was experiencing a terror like none he had ever known. In the streets and on rooftops around the hotel turbaned men and veiled women added to the basic chant: “Marg, marg, marg bar Shurawi!” Death to the Soviets—death, death, death! Bocharov had retreated into his room with a group of Soviet diplomats and the commandant of Kabul. He later wrote about his terror as they discovered that the phone lines had been cut and all they could hear was the swelling chant: “Each of us knew that the fanatics take their time about killing you. We knew that the first thing they do is pierce your forearms with knives. Then they hack off your ears, your fingers, your genitals, put out your eyes.”

Bocharov’s terror grew when they discovered they had only one grenade, which would not be enough to kill them all before the Afghans arrived with their knives. “I found myself shivering convulsively, uncontrollably,” he reported. “We heard the nearby yells, breathed the smoke of nearby fires, “and prayed to Fate to grant us instant death.” Before the journalist and his friends had to face this specter, a company of Soviet paratroopers arrived to rescue them. By morning, a much-sobered Red Army was back in control, but the night of “Allahu Akbar” had been a rite of passage for the Afghans; they were now all in this together, to the death.

In the following months, the Afghan people would suffer the kind of brutality that would later horrify the world when the Serbs began their ethnic cleansing. Soviet tanks and jets would lay waste to villages thought to be supporting guerrillas. Before long, millions of Afghans—men, women, and children—would begin pouring out of the country, seeking refuge in Pakistan and Iran.

charlie_wilson's_war
  • "Charlie Did It" is engraved on Wilson's gravestone—a tribute to his pivotal role in the Soviet-Afghan War.

  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

In those first months of the war Dan Rather made a dramatic trek across the border at a time when the world’s attention had already shifted away from the sad story. Among other things, Rather was following up on reports that the CIA had already begun arming the mujahideen. Like most people, Rather assumed that if the CIA was now involved, they meant business. He disguised himself as a mujahid, and the curious sight of the familiar anchor dressed up as an Afghan in his 60 Minutes report prompted the Washington Post’s Tom Shales to dub him “Gunga Dan.” The satirical account of his foray into this dangerous war zone diverted attention from Rather’s unexpected and accurate conclusion: the CIA’s support to the Afghans was almost meaningless. The mujahideen were facing Soviet tanks and flying gunships with World War I rifles and little ammunition.

Charlie Wilson was stunned by Rather’s report. He admired his fellow Texan for having the courage to risk his life to expose what Wilson saw as a scandal. Once again, his president was failing to stand up to the test of history. Given the false hope of meaningful U.S. support, there seemed to be nothing in the future for these anti-Communist freedom fighters but defeat.

It was at this moment of despair for the mujahideen, in the early summer of 1980, that Wilson walked off the floor of the House into the Speaker’s Lobby, a rich, wood-paneled room that stretches along the full length of the House floor. A Teletype at one end spewed out stories from AP, UPI, and Reuters. Wilson was a news junkie, and he reached down and began reading a story datelined from Kabul.

The article described hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the country as Soviet helicopter gunships leveled villages, slaughtered livestock, and killed anyone who harbored the guerrillas. What caught Wilson’s attention, however, was the reporter’s conclusion that the Afghan warriors were refusing to quit. The article described how they were murdering Russians in the dead of night with knives and pistols, hitting them over the head with shovels and stones. Against all odds, there was a growing rebellion under way against the Red Army.

Related: 13 Epic Battles That Changed the World 

As he read the dispatch, Wilson found himself thinking of the Alamo and the letter Colonel Travis wrote to the people of Texas just before Santa Anna attacked: “The enemy has demanded surrender. I have answered the demand with a cannon shot. I shall never surrender or retreat.”

The Texas congressman had first gone to the Alamo when he was six years old. He had been there many times since, and each time it had left him teary. Most Americans can’t understand what the Alamo means 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.

It would have been a sobering insight for the Communist rulers if they could have followed what happened in the few minutes after Wilson finished reading the Associated Press dispatch. The mysterious force in the U.S. government that was destined to hound the Red Army with a seemingly limitless flood of ever more lethal and sophisticated weapons was about to be activated.

No one, however, was paying attention, not even in the American government, when Charlie Wilson picked up a phone and called the Appropriations Committee staffer who dealt with “black appropriations,” the CIA funds. The man’s name was Jim Van Wagenen, a former college professor and onetime FBI agent. Wilson had just been named to the Defense Appropriations subcommittee. He was now part of the band of twelve men in the House responsible for funding CIA operations.

The congressman knew enough about the eccentric workings of the subcommittee to know when a member can act alone to fund a program. “How much are we giving the Afghans?” he asked Van Wagenen.

“Five million,” said the staffer.

There was a moment’s silence. “Double it,” said the Texan.

Want to keep reading? Download Charlie Wilson's War today.

Charlie Wilson's War

By George Crile

Featured photo of Charlie with a mujahideen solider: Wikipedia

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