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Why Charlie Wilson hated India

February 16, 2010 22:05 IST

Charlie Wilson, the flamboyant Congressman from Texas who directed millions of dollars in covert funding to help mujahideens including Osama Bin Laden fight the Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s, died last week in Texas. He was 76 and was ailing with heart problems.

A strong opponent of India, the Democrat who was the subject of the movie Charlie Wilson's War -- in which Om Puri played the Pakistani military dictator Zia-ul Haq -- admired Zia for facilitating mujahideen (freedom fighter) training. They became close friends. 

In the movie, based on the book of the same title and written by CBS reporter and producer George Crile, Tom Hanks played Wilson, who was a congressman from 1973 to 1996.

According to Crile, Wilson had said that had India joined the Americans in opposing the Soviets in Afghanistan, India would have been able to impress its own Muslim population. New Delhi missed a golden opportunity to win the hearts of its Muslims, he had said. Crile, who died in 2006, had also said Wilson was upset over India seeking to play a role in ousting the Taliban. He disliked the Taliban but thought India did not have the moral spine to be active in Afghanistan.

"He [Wilson] did something extraordinary, something like what Churchill did to defeat the Nazis," Crile had told Rediff-India Abroad. He also said that Wilson had an extraordinary ability to bend the law, even subvert it because he had "the bigger picture in his mind" all the time.

Many Americans, Indians and even Pakistanis disliked Wilson. "Wilson's legacy remains omnipresent in Pakistan," wrote Pakistani journalist and political analyst Fatima Bhutto -- estranged niece of the late former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto -- last year on her blog. "Inspired by the success of its neighbours, Pakistan now has their very own Taliban (thank you, Charlie), and the ISI [Inter Services Intelligence] continues to exert its might over the country in a distinctly undemocratic way."

Wilson had said on many occasions that it was not fair to blame him or likeminded people for driving out the Soviets from Afghanistan.

'We were fighting the evil empire,' he told Time magazine three years ago. 'It would have been like not supplying the Soviets against Hitler in World War II. Anyway, who the hell had ever heard of the Taliban then?' 

"Charlie was the polar opposite of Zia," Crille told Rediff-India Abroad seven years ago. "Charlie loved everything about life but Zia in contrast was a puritan. They had a common enemy: The Soviet Union. And he helped America back the biggest jihad the world has seen."

If bin Laden and the leaders of Taliban benefited from the aid and turned against America later, Wilson argued, it was because America lost interest in rebuilding Afghanistan after the Soviet defeat.

Widely known for his playboy lifestyle, Wilson flew a Texas belly dancer to Cairo as he sought support from Egyptian officials for an arms transfer. On a government-funded trip to Pakistan, he openly traveled with a girlfriend, Annelise Ilschenko, a former Miss USA World. "Zia pretended she was not around," Crile said. 

Wilson began taking interest in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1982 when he added a stop in Pakistan during an official trip to the Middle East countries at the request of a Houston socialite, Joanne Herring, played in the film by Julia Roberts.

Crile wrote in the book that Herring swept Wilson 'from the Bible Belt into her dazzling world of black-tie dinners, movie stars, countesses, Saudi princes and big-time Republican oil magnates'.

As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, Wilson pushed through massive funding, some say exceeding $2 billion, for weapons for the mujahideen, including shoulder-fired Stinger missiles that destroyed the Soviets' air supremacy.

Arthur J Pais