“Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History” by George Crile; Atlantic Monthly Press (416 pages, $26).
“In a little over a decade, two events have transformed the world we live in: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of Militant Islam.” – George Crile
Published in 2003, George Crile’s Charlie Wilson’s War shares the untold story of how the United States funded the only successful jihad in modern history, the CIA’s secret Cold War operation in Afghanistan that was intended to give the Soviets their own version of the Vietnam War. It follows Charlie Wilson, a left-wing congressman from eastern Texas, who conspired with a rogue CIA operative to launch the biggest, meanest, and arguably most successful covert operation in CIA history.
In the early 1980s, right-wing Houston millionaire socialite Joanne Herring turned Wilson’s attention to a ragged band of Afghan freedom fighters who continued their fight against Soviet invaders despite overwhelming odds. The congressman became passionate about their cause and saw the opportunity to make new allies over a mutual foe. While Ronald Reagan faced a total cutoff of funding for the Iran-Contra war, Wilson sat on the all-powerful House Appropriations Committee. Using his position, he would manage to procure hundreds of millions of dollars for the mujahideen (“those engaged in jihad”) whom were at war with Soviet forces invading Afghanistan.
Arms were secretly procured and distributed to the mujahideen with the aid of an out-of-favor CIA operative by the name of Gust Avrakotos, whose working-class Greek-American background made him an anomaly among the usual Ivy League American spies. Nicknamed Dr. Dirty, Avrakotos was an aggressive agent who learned how to stretch the Agency’s rules to the breaking point while serving on the front lines of the Cold War.
This operation was run by a staff of CIA outcasts handpicked by Avrakotos. Among them was codename Hilly Billy, the logistics wizard who could open an unnumbered Swiss bank account for the US Government in twelve hours when others took months; Art Alper, the grandfatherly demolitions expert from the Technical Services Division who passed on his dark arts to the Afghans; and Mike Vickers, the former Green Beret who created a systemic plan to turn a rabble of shepherds into an army of technologically-gifted holy warriors.
Moving from the back rooms of the Capital, to secret chambers at Langley, to arms-dealers conventions, to the Khyber Pass, Charlie Wilson’s War is brilliantly reported and one of the most detailed and compulsively readable accounts of the inside workings of the CIA ever written. While reading this book, I felt as though I had a front row seat for watching the real life James Bonds of the world in action and all of the dangers and breaking of international laws that entails. I’d highly recommend the book for anyone with an interest in the Cold War era and/or America’s involvement in Afghanistan.
George Washington Crile III (1945–2006) was an American journalist closely associated with his three decades of work at CBS News and known for his work as a producer for 60 Minutes and 60 Minutes II. He specialized in dangerous and controversial subjects, resulting in both praise and controversy. He received an Emmy Award, Peabody Award, and Edward R. Murrow Award. From 1968 to 1974, he served in the United States Marine Corps reserves as a lance corporal.
In the late 1980s, Crile began the research and reporting on the Afghan War that eventually led to the creation of his best-selling 2003 book Charlie Wilson’s War. It would go on to become the basis of the Tom Hanks/Mike Nichols film, Charlie Wilson’s War, which was released by Universal Studios in December 2007.
Donavon Anderson is a reference library assistant at May Memorial Library. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.