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The Rediff Interview/George Crile, author of Charlie Wilson\'s War
March 22, 2004
Tom Hanks doesn't always love to play immaculate guys. The Oscar-winning star has not only bought the rights to the bestseller Charlie Wilson's War but also wants to play the Texas Congressman notorious for boozing and serial affairs.
A colorful man of many contradictions, Wilson, representing an arch conservative Bible-belt district in Texas, earned a reputation as the 'wildest man in Congress.'
But Hanks, who loves playing complex characters, must have been drawn to something else in Wilson. For, Wilson as depicted in George Crile's Charlie Wilson's War, emerges as a maverick Congressman who in the 1980s led the largest covert operation in history resulting in the Soviet troops' humiliating exit from Afghanistan.
He was helped by Gust Avrakotos, a blue collar Greek immigrant at the CIA, who circumvented most of the barriers to arming the Afghan mujahideen and supplied the rebels with sophisticated arms.
Charlie Wilson and Avrakotos, with the help of then Pakistan president Zia-ul Haq, got Israeli-modified Chinese weapons smuggled into Afghanistan.
While then US president Ronald Reagan and CIA Director William Casey were unable to persuade Congress to give them $19 million to fund the Nicaraguan Contras, Wilson procured hundreds of millions of dollars to support his Afghan 'freedom fighters' through backroom machinations, Crile reveals.
Crile (left), a veteran 60 Minutes producer, who covered the Afghan resistance for over a decade, discusses the importance of his book for today's readers with Senior Editor Arthur J Pais.
Why are you fascinated by Charlie Wilson?
Imagine how this big, tall, handsome, whiskey-swilling man surrounded by a bunch of bimbos and who had his own belly dancer traveling with him was responsible for the biggest jihad in modern history. And how he conspired with a rogue CIA operative to launch this incredibly successful operation against an evil empire called the Soviet Union.
He was something like Lawrence of Arabia, wasn't he [in helping a people to fight their colonizers]?
There was certainly an element of it in him.
You mention how Charlie Wilson was surrounded by colorful women and that he took some of them wherever he went, including Pakistan. How did the puritanical leaders there tolerate all this?
Zia was a much more interesting and complicated person than his public image. Among other things, he spent a good deal of time in the United States. He had many American friends and he knew them socially. He also knew how essentially libertine American society was.
What was Wilson's image in the Arab world and in Pakistan?
To some, including Zia, he appeared to be like their Hollywood image of the cowboy. Remember, Charlie was also from Texas. To someone like Zia he was a much more familiar kind of character to deal with than mysterious bureaucrats who were perhaps not telling the truth.
Don't you think many people still have this impression of Zia as a fundamentalist?
Zia was not at all like a Muslim fundamentalist who was repulsed by the sight of women dressed like Americans. Seeing this man [Wilson] with a cowboy hat and surrounded by beautiful women… Zia would have enjoyed it.
What else interested you about Charlie Wilson?
I would eventually discover that this was a story of how an individual [Wilson] and then how two individuals [Wilson and Avrakotos] and then how a small collective of individuals [the ragged band of Afghan freedom fighters] changed the history of our times. This was an untold story.
You write extensively about a mysterious Texan woman who had strong influence on Wilson. She was a socialite who became involved in the fight against Communism. How did it come about?
Because she was a Texan (laughs)… What is important is that she [Joanne Herring] saw potential for greatness in the most unlikely characters, including Wilson and Zia, who were perceived as losers.
Charlie was going through a midlife crisis and looked like a loser. Zia was out of favor with [then President] Jimmy Carter who condemned him for human rights violations. But Joanne knew they had an important role to play in the war against the Russians in Afghanistan.
You also mention there is 'something about Texas and its oil heritage,' and the hunger for larger than life experience. Tell us more.
Texas seems to permit its citizens to reinvent their histories and to carry out their lives as if they were part of a theatrical experience. I felt so all the while researching the book and interviewing people.
You also believe Wilson pushed CIA into this covert war, isn't it?
Many people believe the CIA is trigger-happy and is ready to start secret wars. In this case it was absolutely the opposite. The CIA did not want to cause a confrontation between two nuclear powers, and it did not want to risk the invasion of Pakistan by the Russians. But Wilson persuaded and pushed the CIA into the secret war.
Why is this story significant now?
In little over a decade, two events transformed our planet: the collapse of our Cold War nuclear foe, the Soviet Union; and the discovery after 9/11 that we face a new global enemy. The story of Charlie Wilson in Afghanistan and what happened thereafter could help us to understand today's reality including the growth of Islamic fundamentalism.
You also saw the book as dealing with a missing chapter in Afghan history, isn't it?
It had struck me that the role of the Afghan war in helping to trigger the collapse of the Soviet empire had not been fully acknowledged. That idea suddenly expanded into a second missing chapter about how we not only lost, mysteriously, one foe that seemed to be omnipotent but why equally as abruptly we found ourselves with a new global enemy seemingly able to strike at will.
You also mention that this book is a cautionary tale. Tell us more about it.
There is a danger that the United States is acquiring a reputation in the Islamic world as being hostile to Islam and only interested in controlling and using Muslims for its dirty work. America is also faulted for not helping the Islamic world to move into modern times because it has failed to create such models. We could have done that in Afghanistan as soon as the Russians were thrown out. This was a very cheap way of buying a great deal of goodwill for America and we did the biggest mistake in abandoning the Afghans.
You feel it led to a fundamentalist country?
We left Afghanistan a war-scarred country and a vacuum for Muslim fundamentalists. Thousands of Afghan refugees poured into Pakistan during the chaos that followed the Soviet rout. We did not do enough to help them.
What made the Afghans forget the American help?
What followed the Soviet exit was anarchy and despair. It was like an entire country was wasted. So the legend of tribesmen and shepherds winning the war by themselves began to grow.
How much of credit should be given to the Americans?
The reality of Afghanistan was that it was first and foremost an instance of Afghans fighting their war with all their sacrifices. It so happened this jihad could not have gotten off the ground and could not have been so successful but for the astonishing, hidden role of the United States. It was the largest covert operation in history.
You also mention in the book that in a secret war, the funders take no credit.
True, that is why the mujahideen and their admirers around the world never viewed American support as decisive. That honor went to Allah, they say.
Why did Russia's defeat in Afghanistan lead to the Soviet Union's collapse?
The demoralizing effect on the Soviet high command and the loss of stature had a lot to do with the Russian decision not to interfere when the East Germans rebelled against Communists there.
Then other Communist countries began rebelling. Soon the Communists in the Soviet Union were so demoralized that they could not stop the collapse of their evil empire.
Afghanistan became Russia's Vietnam, isn't it?
It certainly did but the trauma was far more than what America underwent [when it withdrew from Vietnam].
How could knowing these facts have helped the Americans after 9/11?
Many Americans felt so helpless after September 11 because of the lack of knowledge about the 'size or scope or significance' of the CIA's Afghan war. The Afghans interpreted the victorious outcome as their greatest modern jihad.
Americans should have been able to take some credit for that jihad.
They should also be able to argue against the criticism that America never helped Muslim countries.
Photograph: Doug Benc/Getty Images
Image: Uday Kuckian