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BOOK REVIEW: CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR – The Extraordinary Story of The Largest Covert Operation in History


Before details of the largest and most elaborate covert operation surfaced in 2003, men in suits were thought to be in charge in the real world while lone rangers saved the day in Hollywood. The new version of the Afghan freedom fighters struggle against the Russian occupation is one which author George Cirle believed “neither the United States government, nor the forces of Islam will want to be known”. This former producer of the CBS show ‘60 Minutes’, while covering the Afghan angle in the 1980’s, crossed paths with a maverick Congressman and went on to pursue what could have been the biggest expose of its time. His findings made the greatest story instead; one with all the makings of an epic.

While the second coming of Afghan Mujahideen is neither romantic nor pleasant, back in the day however, a Texas Congressman’s personal crusade against Reds found expression in the Afghan Holy War and an unlikely partnership gave birth to the modern jihad of the 1980’s. Secrecy was easier to preserve in those insular times and so, the mother of all covert wars in history fought in our back yard went on without exciting undue interest from our press. And though “Charlie did it” was President Zia’s historic pronouncement, from a Pakistani standpoint, Charlie Wilson’s historic role has remained the greatest story never told. Till now. Although in 1993, CIA did acknowledge that “Wilson engineered one of the lethal body blows that had wrecked the communist empire”; it would be 10 years for a book to exclusively document his singular association with that War and 4 more for a film and documentary to immortalize the character.

Who prompted Charlie to go off the beaten track to the Afghan refugee camps of Peshawar and grace the corridors of power in Islamabad, and the role socialites, beauty queens, and desperate housewives played in this noble mission is admittedly unorthodox; but then, so is the entire premise of this drama. Subsequently, the dynamic duo of Texas Congress man, Charlie Wilson and a streetwise CIA operative Gust Avrakotos converted CIA’s apathetic involvement into a full blown endorsement of the Afghan War. The extremes this Congressman went to in his single-minded pursuit of a vision and the diverse cast of characters and oftentimes questionable ethics enlisted to achieve the impossible make this one the most provocative stories of recent history.

The raw depiction and gritty dramatization rides roughshod over the niceties, marking the moral ambiguity – an unofficial trademark of such enterprises. This approach also captures the inherent cruelty of Afghan psyche that struck fear into the enemy, even without the benefit of modern weaponry. How Charlie circumvented the system for the Afghani resistance is astonishing – some even thought it admirable at the time - but a glimpse into the gruesome mindset of these mountain warriors and their passion for retribution is, nevertheless, chilling.

If the notion of a nuclear armed Pakistan was discomfiting to the world, the creeping threat of Communism weighed far more heavily at the time. A frontline state then as it is now, Pakistan’s involvement enables readers to explore the depth of an alliance impervious to our nuclear ambitions, the extent of our involvement that nearly led to a head on confrontation with Soviets camped at the doorstep, and the level of an ISI-CIA collaboration that helped transform a medieval fighting spirit into a modern militia capable of taking on the mighty Red Army.

The age of the hapless mujahideen may be over; toxic residue left over from Charlie’s War and the trajectory of change it initiated, held responsible for the eventual fallout of 2001, has also introduced a more complex regional dynamics. This portal into the past, while alarming opens the doorways of understanding the present – which is equally worrying. Deconstructing an Afghan resistance from its eccentric beginnings to the frenzied end would be incomplete without Charlie Wilson’s War – the extraordinary story of the largest covert operation in history.

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