What makes George Crile’s book Charlie Wilson’s War so compelling is the two characters at its center: the Congressman of the book’s title, a war-hawk Democrat from Texas nicknamed “Good Time Charlie” for his off-field antics; and Gust Avrakotos, the no-nonsense, blue-collar CIA agent who was first Wilson’s doppelganger in the CIA and later his partner in crime.
The story itself is fascinating for its windows into the bizarre worlds of Washington politics and CIA bureaucracy, and how Wilson and Avrakotos manipulated the former and avoided the latter enough to wage the biggest covert war in history. After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the mujahideen – poorly-armed Muslim men who fought the Soviets as part of a jihad, or an Islamic holy war – became a pet cause of Wilson, who believed both that the Afghans were noble warriors whose dedication should be rewarded with support, and that this was a good way to stick it to the Russians. (Wilson repeatedly says he wants to turn Afghanistan into the Soviets’ Vietnam, but given its role in hastening the collapse of the U.S.S.R., it would be more accurate to call it the Soviets’ Waterloo, or, if you enjoy morbid irony, their Leningrad.) Avrakotos came to the Afghan cause somewhat by circumstance, as he was an outlaw within the CIA whose future had been dimmed by internal politics and his suggestion that one of the top men in the CIA go f— himself, but he quickly became a true believer in the value of this conflict within the broader battle with the Soviets. The two men, with plenty of help, independently and then together engineered a large effort to arm and train the mujahideen to fight the Soviets, originally with the goal of just inflicting heavy casualties and expensive damage, then later with the goal of driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan entirely. The tale spins through global arms manufacturing, back-room deals (including the willingness of the Israelis to manufacture and sell arms to the CIA for use by Muslims in Afghanistan), the internal politics of Pakistan, and eventually, the Iran-contra scandal, which nearly killed the Afghan program by association.
But it’s the characters who drive the book. Wilson is almost a caricature of a politician, a man who makes Diamond Joe Quimby look dull and two-dimensional by comparison. In his political mode, Wilson plays the country boy, speaking with an exaggerated southern drawl and, despite his Democratic affiliation, voicing a lot of conservative views. (One notable exception is on abortion. Wilson’s sister Sharon was chairwoman of the board of Planned Parenthood, and despite the fact that his constituents overwhelmingly opposed abortion, Charlie Wilson voted according to his sister’s wishes.) Wilson was a classic political horse-trader, but a shrewd one who gathered his favors over a period of years before calling them in. He backed up John Murtha – still in Congress, I might add – when Murtha was caught up in the Abscam scandal, telling one of the undercover operatives that while he wouldn’t take the bribe just then, he’d be open to it down the road. When Wilson needed Murtha’s support for the Afghan program years down the road, he got it.
But in his personal life, Wilson was a mess. He nearly drank himself to death, got sober, and started drinking again a year and a half later. He was caught with two showgirls in a Vegas hot tub, with cocaine in the room (earning himself another nickname, “Cocaine Charlie”). He had a succession of girlfriends and insisted on bringing one along on each of his junkets to Pakistan and to the Middle East. And he nearly killed a man in a hit-and-run accident that by all rights should have ended his political career – although Ted Kennedy’s continued support from the ignorati of Masschusetts makes it clear that voters will even overlook manslaughter if they want to.
Given that history, it’s all the more amazing that Wilson is a clear second fiddle among the characters to Avrakotos. A Greek-American born in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, Avrakotos speaks his mind regardless of the consequences, both to Crile and to everyone he encountered during his nearly thirty years at the CIA. Avrakotos was on assignment in the CIA’s Greek detachment when the Greek army overthrew the country’s left-leaning government, and as a result he became one of the most powerful men in Greece during the early years of the junta’s rule. Avrakotos later survived a near-firing and the above-mentioned telling-off to land in the CIA’s Near East group just at the time that the Afghan rebellion was getting under way. Avrakotos hated the communists as much as Wilson did, partly borne of his upbringing in an area of Pennsylvania heavily populated with people from all over Eastern Europe who could only agree on one thing: that they hated the Soviets. Although it’s never spelled out, it was clear to me that Avrakotos also got a significant charge out of the Afghan operation itself, such as its cloak-and-dagger aspects and the way he was subverting the higher-ups who wanted him out of the CIA.
To Crile’s tremendous credit, he avoids offering judgments on what these men were doing, and in particular avoids the facile explanation we’ve heard since 9/11 that the United States somehow created al-Qaeda or otherwise facilitated the attacks through its Afghan operations in the 1980s. The Soviet Union was headed for an economic collapse at the start of the 1980s, and the CIA’s involvement in Afghanistan hastened that collapse and produced a relatively good outcome when the communists in Russia gave up power voluntarily; since the Soviets were the clear enemy of the United States at the time, a strategy to undermine them made sense. And Crile also makes it clear that one possible reason for the anti-U.S. sentiment of the Islamic militants we supported in Afghanistan is that the CIA was so careful about disguising our involvement that the mujahideen had no idea where these arms came from. The relationship between the covert war and the eventual rises of the Taliban and al-Qaeda is far more complicated than the “it’s the CIA’s fault” side would have it, and Crile refrains from offering his opinion, letting the story tell itself, only delving into the aftermath in Afghanistan in an illuminating epilogue where even Wilson himself offers his thoughts on the matter.
I listened to the unabridged audio versionof Charlie Wilson’s War, clocking in at just over twenty hours. The narrator, Christopher Lane, does an excellent job of bringing the various characters to life with just slight variations in his voice, and apart from the occasional stumble over a foreign phrase (I can’t even reproduce his mispronunciation of “piÃ¨ce de resistance”), his reading was clean and sharp.