Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History – George Crile III

Book Cover

Ever since I watched the movie Charlie Wilson’s War, I wanted to read the book the movie was based on. Luckily, last year, my longtime friend Asela Atalugama from Florida, USA brought me a copy when he visited Sri Lanka on vacation. I was thrilled to get hold of the book and I consider it as one of the best gifts I ever had in terms of reading material.

My love with Afghanistan started while I was a teenage schoolboy. Like my late pater who was a socialist I, too, was more interested in world news than local news. So, we both listened to world news the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation aired at 7:30 pm every night. Even though I was small, I could well remember the parties involved in Soviet-Afghan War and some of the early events. I was pro-Soviet as my father had given me a rosy picture that the Communist World was the better camp in the world and the USA was the World’s Policeman. So, I naturally became pro-Soviet and pro-Afghan government and saw the mujahideen (and the USA that financed and trained them) as the evil force. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan also helped the mujs. The Soviet Red Army was helping the then Afghan government which had introduced some remarkable modernization reforms to get the country on the proper track but, as it always happens, the uneducated rural people were encouraged to resist the reforms resulting in the government becoming unpopular among the conservative rural population.

With the arrival of the 40th Army of the Soviet Union to support the Afghan communist government, fierce fighting escalated and the whole country was experiencing a full-scale bloodbath. Afghanistan was in the world news every day for the wrong reasons.

Afghan Women in the Past

By the mid-1980s, my eldest brother brought home a black and white TV that worked with a car battery since we didn’t have electricity in the village those days. Arrival of the TV made me a keener observer of the Soviet-Afghan war and I was shocked to see the fighters who hardly had anything luxury but a rifle, and the poor villagers who getting killed or maimed by the fighting parties and the helpless children who were deprived of education.

However, it was only after reading the book Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History by George Crile III that I understood the dirty politics took place in Afghanistan under the cover of covert Cold War and how the USA fueled the war to defeat the Soviet Red Army.

One would give the credit (or discredit rather) to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) but in Afghanistan, it had been a totally different story. It had been an inebriated Casanova called Charlie Wilson, who happened to be a Senator from Texas in America. He changed the entire landscape of the battlefield in Afghanistan with the support of Gust Avrakotos equally enthusiastic of “killing Russians,” a CIA agent and the former’s lover Joanne Herring that manipulated the American interests in this covert war by encouraging the CIA and the Ronald Reagan administration to divert millions of dollars to Afghan front. The heinous ways they did this were even harsher than fiction. This is why many say that the book Charlie Wilson’s War is almost like a detective novel.

Another despot, the then Pakistani President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq was the main beneficiary of this war as most of the moneys and arms had to go through his government and you know how it happens in this part of the world with the despots keeping a sizeable part of the money or resources.

Afghan Women Today

Anyway the mighty Soviet Empire was defeated and withdrew from Afghanistan and this war was called Soviets’ Vietnamese War as the brunt on Soviet Army was so lethal. In fact, it was this war that ultimately resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union according to the author of this book, George Crile III. Whether the collapse of the Soviet Union brought any good to Afghanistan is a big question though.

Mohammad Najibullah aka Najibullah Khan, the Afghan president was tortured and killed by the Taliban in 1996.

New Cover Page of Charlie Wilson’s War

Charlie Wilson’s War – Movie

Charlie Wilson's War Poster

Charlie Wilson’s War Poster

Charlie Wilson’s War – Movie

I watched Charlie Wilson’s War several times and would certainly watch it again due to its historical importance and cinematic success. This is an American comedy-drama film, based on the story of U.S. Congressman Charlie Wilson and CIA operative Gust Avrakotos, whose efforts led to Operation Cyclone, a program to organize and support the Afghan mujahedeen during the Soviet–Afghan War. For some reason, (maybe due to the title of the movie) the film did not get expected attention though it was a critical and financial success. Had it been named something to do with Afghan-Soviet war, this would have left deeper memories in the world cinema. At a time when films that had nothing to do with Osama bin Laden were called “Osama,” this movie deserved something related to Afghan war. Charlie Wilson is unknown to many except US political circles I guess.

Charlie Wilson’s War is Mike Nichols’ final movie direction and it was written by Aaron Sorkin. He adapted the movie from George Crile III‘s book Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History which was released in 2003.

My favorite Hollywood actor Tom Hanks plays the title role while Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman play the other two main roles. The movie was nominated for five Golden Globe Awards, including “Best Motion Picture”, but did not win in any category. Hoffman was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. My favorite character in this movie is Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman,) the maverick CIA officer.  His role is so unassuming and natural that you will feel he is apparently not acting but living the character. Julia Roberts is as good as in any of her previous roles.

This movie clearly states that how a lesser known unimportant bigot like Senator Charlie Wilson can move a whole government, with the support of his paramour, the influential socialite Mrs. Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts). against an enemy thousands of miles away with using influence and connections to define the fate of an entire region by killing thousands and leaving millions of people in destitution and making an entire region a never-ending battle field.

The inveterate drinker and irresponsible womanizer Senator Wilson, with the help of the CIA officer Avrakotos, and with the influence of Mrs. Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) convert the budget of a measly $5 million USD to a double of that amount. The CIA’s anticommunism budget evolves from $5 million to over $500 million later (with the same amount matched by Saudi Arabia) for covert operations against the legitimate Afghan government and their northern allies, the Soviet Union who enters Afghanistan on the request of the Afghan President Najibullah Khan. The way it is done, if the story is true to the true events in the history, tells a lot about how light the world’s fate is taken by the vile people of American politics.

Mujahedeen rebels of Afghanistan wage a guerrilla war against Najibullah Khan’s legitimate Afghan government and when things get worse, Khan invites the Soviet forces to depend Afghanistan from the rebels.  By this time the USA’s covert operation is of a small budget. When the war worsens millions of Afghan refugees cross the Afghan-Pakistani border and enter Pakistan. General Zia-ul-Haq is forced to spring into action and he turns to the US help according to a manipulated plan by Senator Charlie Wilson. This makes the bloody Zia who was in the bad books of the US government for hanging the then legitimately elected Prime Minister of Pakistan Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in an unfair trial and declared Pakistan a military state to an American ally. Zia visits America and gets the funding to train Afghan and Pakistani youth as mujahedeen fighters to fight Afghan and Soviet forces. Zia makes use of this opportunity to show the Pakistani people that he is pro-Islamist and uses religion to claim the popular support him. This is the major turning point of secular Pakistan to become an extremist one. As anywhere in the world, people are fooled and Pakistan loses its way to development and gets entangled in a quagmire of a religious extremism something which it has not been able to come out of to date. Pakistan’s defense budget is increased by manifold and in addition to its traditional enemy India; it has to fight an unnecessary enemy too. The mujahideens who were indoctrinated, funded and trained by US-Pakistani coalition started waging their war against Pakistan government (and that of Afghanistan) in the form of Taliban and you know the rest.

Anyway, the money pumped to Afghan operations ends up with leaving powerful Stinger missiles on the hands of bloody mujahideens who fire them at Soviet MI 24 gunships and make the Red Army abandon Afghanistan unceremoniously without accomplishing the mission. This is a major victory of America’s Cold War against the Soviet Union. With the US help, America is able to create “a Vietnam for the Soviet Union” and making Ronald Reagan, the then US president a happy man.

I can remember this series of events as a schoolboy as I remember how the Soviet Union entered Afghanistan and the war started thanks to CNN news on local TV, Rupavahini telecast the world events for few minutes every night during their newscasts.

At the end, the movie comes to a universal truth. The parties who engaged in the war by supplying millions of dollars hesitate to fund for education and development. Charlie Wilson also understands the unhappy truth. However, his pride is damaged by his reasonable fears of what unintended consequences that his clandestine efforts could result in the implications of US disengagement from Afghanistan. Wilson follows Gust’s guidance to seek support for post-Soviet occupation Afghanistan but finds almost no enthusiasm in the US government for even the modest measures he proposes. This is common to many other battlefields the USA got involved in from Vietnam to Syria I guess.


P.S. There are a number of interesting dialogs in the movie and I prefer these two of all of them.

Dialog 01.

Larry Liddle: Miss?

Charlie’s Angel #1: Yes sir?

Larry Liddle: It seems to me lookin’ around, that it’s almost all women workin’ here; and that they’re all very pretty. Is that common?

Charlie’s Angel #1: Well… Congressman Wilson, he has an expression. He says uhh, “You can teach ’em to type, but you can’t teach ’em to grow tits.”

Larry Liddle: Well, that’s… charming.


Dialog 02.

Charlie Wilson: You’re no James Bond.

Gust Avrakotos: You’re no Thomas Jefferson, either. Let’s call it even.

To read the rest of the dialogs, please click this link


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Handout of actors Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts in a scene from the film "Charlie Wilson's War"

Actors Tom Hanks (L) and Julia Roberts are shown in a scene from the film “Charlie Wilson’s War” in this undated publicity photograph. “Charlie Wilson’s War” received a total of five Golden Globe nominations, the second most for any film including best musical or comedy film, as nominations were announced in Beverly Hills, California December 13, 2007. The Golden Globe Awards, which were presented by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, will be held in Beverly Hills January 13, 2008. REUTERS/Universal Pictures/Handout (UNITED STATES). EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO ARCHIVES. NO SALES.

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