There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War on the bus

Finished George Crile's masterful "Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History." As regular readers of this blog will realize, spooks and wars are two topics that fascinate me. And Crile's book has both as it tells the story of the United States' covert war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

In the last 12 months I've read "Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House," Valerie Plame Wilson's attempt at a memoir along with "Curveball: Spies, Lies, and the Con Man Who Caused a War" by Bob Drogin. I read "OSS: The secret history of America's first central intelligence agency" by R. Harris Smith; "No Other Choice," the autobiography of George Blake, who spied for the KGB against the West; and "Breaking the Ring: The bizarre case of the Walker family spy ring" by John Barron. Even in my rare fictional outing, I read John Le Carre's "The Mission Song."

I bring all of this up as a way to underline my opinion of Crile's book: It is simply superb. It is by far the best book I read in 11 months of riding the bus to work.

If it were not all true, it would be unbelievable.

Rep. Charlie Wilson, a liberal Texas Democrat with a self-destructive streak that mixes booze and beauty queens, becomes the patron of the Afghan warriors, on a mission to find a way to shoot down the Soviet Hind helicopter gunships. Gust Avrakotos, a street-tough CIA agent, refuses to kiss up to the dandies who control the CIA bureaucracy and manages to land a job supervising what would become the biggest covert war ever waged while his bosses were focusing on the ill-fated war in Nicaragua. Mike Vickers, a young former Army Green Beret just starting out in the agency, is given a chance to design and execute a military strategy and ends up turning ragtag Afghans into techno-guerrillas who take the war to the Soviets.

And then there are the women: the leggy Charlie's Angels who work in Wilson's Capitol office; Joanne Herring, the right-wing Texas socialite and honorary Pakistani consul; Carol Shannon, Charlie's belly dancer who entertains the Egyptian defense minister; Playboy centerfold Liz Wickersham, who has an important role in a Las Vegas hot tub; a Nordic blonde named Cynthia Gale Watson, whom Charlie introduced to everyone as "Snowflake"; and Annelise "Sweetums" Ilschenko, a former Miss World contestant and Charlie's fiancee until Snowflake answered the phone in Charlie's hotel room one day.

"What brought us together," Gust Avrakotos famously says, "was chasing pussy and killing Communists."

It's no wonder Hollywood wanted to make a movie out of this material. I haven't seen the Tom Hanks version of Charlie Wilson's War, but I can't imagine how it could possibly come close to capturing more than the surface of Crile's book.

Afghanistan was the Soviet Union's Vietnam, and the CIA's covert war was America's attempt at payback.

The Soviets were supposed to be providing support to the independent Afghan government. It was, in fact, their puppet government. The Red Army was supposedly just serving as advisers and suppliers of the Afghan army, which had been close to 100,000 strong at the beginning of the war. Now, after the tremendous infusion of Soviet arms and money, it was down to 30,000, and units were defecting en masse to the mujahideen. Once the Soviets had determined that the Afghans wouldn't fight, they'd found themselves with no choice but to take over the fighting. It had been the same for the United States. And just as in Vietnam, the Soviet infantry hadn't been organized to cope with a dedicated, cunning, and increasingly well-armed guerrilla force. To compensate, the Soviets, like the Americans before them, had grown increasingly dependent on air power.
Of course, today, in hindsight, the enthusiasm -- and the tons of ammunition and weapons -- we showered on the mujahideen seem more than ill-advised.
Afghanistan was the largest and most successful covert operation ever mounted by the CIA. But the scope and nature of this campaign has still not registered in the consciousness of most Americans. Nor is it understood that such secret undertakings inevitably have unforeseen and unintended consequences, which in this case remained largely ignored. None of the sponsors of the campaign, least of all Charlie Wilson, has ever felt responsible for the path the CIA-sponsored jihad has taken; perhaps that's because their intentions were so pure and because the specific objectives they sought were initially so overwhelmingly successful.
This book tells the story of Wilson's ability to get hundreds of millions of dollars for the covert war against the Soviet Union, the battle within the CIA to overcome the bureaucratic inertia that felt WWI rifles were all that the Afghans needed against the Soviet Army and a staggering world arms supply chain that linked China, Isreal, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, England and others to supply the jihad in Afghanistan, a war run mostly by the Pakistanis, who were busy at the same time creating the Islamic bomb.

This is an excellent book on so many levels. Just fantastic.

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