DATE May 13, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: George Crile discusses his new book "Charlie Wilson's
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The war in Afghanistan in the 1980s between the Afghan fighters known as the
Mujahideen and the invading Soviet army transformed the world. The Afghan
victory contributed to the fall of communism. The Afghans won with arms and
training covertly founded by the CIA. Our arming of their jihad has had many
unintended consequences. My guest, George Crile, has written a new book about
this story, which he describes as the biggest and most successful CIA covert
campaign in history. Crile is a longtime producer at "60 Minutes," who now
works on "60 Minutes II." His new book is called "Charlie Wilson's War," named
after the former Democratic Texas congressman, who, along with CIA operative
Gust Avrakotos, were the main figures behind the covert operation. Charlie
Wilson was an unlikely figure to back a so-called holy war. Crile says
Wilson's reputation in Congress was as a seemingly corrupt, alcoholic,
scandal-prone womanizer. We'll meet Wilson a little later.
I asked George Crile how Charlie Wilson was introduced to the Afghan cause.
Mr. GEORGE CRILE (CBS Producer; Author): Through a most unlikely figure, a
Houston socialite who was part of the oil-rich world of Texas in the '70s and
an archconservative who most reporters at the time who wrote about her
described her as a kind of mix between Scarlet O'Hara, Dolly Parton and I like
to throw in Arianna Huffington. In any case, she was totally the kind of
person who could only be created in Texas. And she was General Zia-ul-Haq,
the dictator of Pakistan's, honorary counsel and his principal adviser on
America, if you can believe it. And she was also a great, passionate
And for some odd reason we came upon her once the Russians invaded
Afghanistan, that if she could just put Zia-ul-Haq, this magnificent Muslim
dictator and the Mujahideen of Afghanistan, who were heroically fighting the
Russians without any weapons, if she could put them together with this
congressman she had met who had supported the independent oil interests so
effectively that she could change the world, that they would combine and they
would go deliver a lethal blow to the Soviet empire. And that's, curiously,
just what happened.
GROSS: Now Congressman Charlie Wilson managed to get a lot of money from the
CIA for arming the Mujahideen. How did he as a congressman manage to make
that connection with the CIA?
Mr. CRILE: With great difficulty. The CIA, at all costs, wanted to avoid
having anything to do with him. They felt that he was a cocaine-sniffing,
scandal-prone, skirt-chasing danger; you know, probably the most notorious
wildest man of Congress at the time. And their reaction when he came into
their lives offering to increase their budget to fight a secret war in
Afghanistan was to look with absolute horror at such an offer. They thought,
`With friends like that, you know, we need no enemies.'
And what ensued was a knock-down-drag-out fight, but it was only possible
because of the curiosities of Congress and his position on the Appropriations
GROSS: How important was he on the Appropriations Committee? And how did
that help him?
Mr. CRILE: Well, if you think of our country, it's so huge, and the number
of things that Congress has to deal with are just so vast that it all gets
broken down into areas of responsibility, and if you're--when it came to the
CIA, if you were not on one of several committees, you really couldn't even
talk to them. And no congressman, no member of Congress had ever been able to
insinuate himself inside an actual covert operation. That was a line that had
been drawn and maintained very effectively ever since the beginning of the
Cold War and the beginning of the CIA.
But what you have is with the Appropriations Committee, where the money is
actually spent, when you drop it down to the defense appropriations
subcommittee, you will have 11 people in the House responsible ultimately for
deciding how much money the Pentagon gets, the NSA, the CIA, all the
intelligence agencies. And Charlie Wilson was one of those 11. And it was
just like you always heard with pork barrel, in that you could see that one of
the powerful members on that subcommittee would suddenly have defense
contracts in his district. They need to have bases and things like that.
Charlie Wilson was one of the people that was a brilliant back-room
politician, and he just always voted for everybody's programs and never asked
for anything in return until the Afghan war. I'm sorry. That's not really
true. He never asked for anything in return except for Israel. He was a
pioneering, non-Jewish champion of Israel on the Appropriations Committee.
But after Israel, it was the only thing he really called for and asked for was
his colleagues support in escalating the secret war in Afghanistan over the
objection of the CIA.
GROSS: Now he finally had an ally in the CIA. Who was the ally?
Mr. CRILE: A most unexpected character named Gust Avrakotos. By the time
that Wilson met him, he both had a very distinguished history at the CIA as a
kind of--I call him the blue-collar James Bond--but also a person who had
alienated most everybody. And he was very, very distressed with what he
thought were the bureaucratic cowardice that had come over the CIA and the
domination of the agency by lawyers.
And what happened in this case is that Avrakotos, who had been making his way
in a very dramatic and bizarre fashion to a position in the Afghan task force,
had encountered Wilson's attempt to force the CIA into a larger war. And
without telling any of his superiors, he took off in a car, went down to
Congress and entered Wilson's office, completely unauthorized, and confronted
him, confronted him with the challenge that, `If you think you want to fight
the Russians and kill the Russians more than me, you're crazy.' And he did it
in such a way that that made Charlie feel that maybe he might physically
attack him. He's a really tough customer.
And from that moment on, the two of them began to engage in a partnership and
what amounts to down-and-dirty plotting to figure out how with Avrakotos's
information of how things happen in the CIA and what Wilson should say using
his power on the Appropriations Committee--how they could put the CIA into a
box where it had no choice but to accept stunning amounts of money that they
didn't want to spend.
GROSS: How did they do that? What was their approach?
Mr. CRILE: The moment Avrakotos walked into the Rayburn House office
building, closed the door and began to talk to Wilson, everything changed.
And it changed because what he did is that he told Wilson exactly what to say
to Bill Casey, who was then the CIA director, and he did it in the following
way. He said, `As soon as I leave, you call the director and say that you
just got $50 million more that you can give to the CIA, and you want to know
if they can use it. And, by the way, I just had run into Gust Avrakotos and I
told him about this and asked him to look into it.' At that point, Casey had
no real choice but to call Avrakotos and ask if he could use the money,
because he needed to know that Avrakotos had not told Wilson that he could.
And what Wilson always had in the back of his ace hidden away that he could
pull out is that Ronald Reagan's rhetoric was so powerful and his popularity
so great that he would simply say, `If you do not support the Afghans with
everything they need and with the money I'm offering you, I'll go to the
president, who is calling for this support, and complain.' And he meant it.
He meant that he would probably destroy, you know, the CIA bureaucrats. And
nobody in a high position in the CIA had ever engaged a congressman willing to
out them, essentially.
GROSS: Was the CIA very interested in supporting the Afghans? I mean, you
talk in your book about how this was one war in which the real enemy, the way
they saw it, the real enemy, the Soviets, could actually be directly engaged.
It wasn't a war with Soviet proxies, it was a war with the Soviets themselves.
Was that very appealing to the CIA?
Mr. CRILE: Yes and no, but mainly no, in that they didn't want to do it in
the way that Wilson and Avrakotos ultimately forced them to do it.
GROSS: Too risky?
Mr. CRILE: Yeah, much too risky. I mean, what had happened, by that year,
or by that time in the early 1980s, the CIA had more or less established a
pattern of conduct where they were engaged in endless war. It was almost as
if it was viewed as permanent campaigns on the fringes to contain the Soviets.
And the one thing they didn't want to do is to take on any kind of provocative
campaigns that could escalate into some unforeseen drama.
And in the case of Afghanistan and Pakistan, they had no choice but to use
General Zia, the military dictator of Pakistan, presidency in Pakistan, as the
base of operations. And it was provocative, because the United States for the
very first time was supporting anti-communist guerrillas who were moving to
kill Soviet soldiers. Curiously, it had never happened in the Cold War. It
was the very first time that the United States actually set out to kill our
enemy, to mount operations designed to kill Russians.
GROSS: So the CIA didn't want the Soviets to know that Americans were arming
the Afghans to the extent that we were.
Mr. CRILE: It was a kind of sense that we could get away with a lot, if the
United States was just sensible and that if it did a calibrated escalation in
which the idea would be to win fantastic propaganda, propaganda victories,
which we were doing, to inflict a certain amount of pain, which we were doing
through blowing things up and killing a certain number of Russians. But what
changed the dynamic here completely is that Wilson, in conjunction with Gust
Avrakotos, transformed the whole idea. They suddenly decided to hijack the
covert policy and to take the United States for the very first time in the
Cold War into a all-out, winner-take-all confrontation, to turn the tables on
the Russians and give them in Afghanistan their own Vietnam, the sort of
payback time in their minds. And it was something that the CIA at all costs
wanted to avoid doing. And it was a knock-down-drag-out fight that stretched
over a couple of years and then ultimately resulted in a total victory for
GROSS: My guest is George Crile, author of the new book "Charlie Wilson's
War." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is George Crile, a longtime
documentary producer for CBS, both for "60 Minutes" and now for "60 Minutes
II." He's the author of the new book "Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary
Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History," and it's the story of how
Congressman Charlie Wilson helped convince the CIA to covertly arm the
Mujahideen in its war in the 1980s against the Soviet Union.
Mr. CRILE: Terry, can I give you a context here?
Mr. CRILE: You know, if you think back to that time, when this story begins,
right after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas of 1979, just
about a month later the Afghans are a lost cause. The whole world has come to
recognize, with 100,000 Russian troops in Afghanistan, with the invincible Red
Army occupying the country, that the story is over. And the terrible scenes
that were broadcast around the world of the Afghans beginning to flee their
country and the beginnings of what came to be called a genocidal war were
very evident, and there was nothing really that they could do to change the
picture. They just had World War I rifles and hunting rifles and this
ferocious fighting spirit and conviction.
But at that moment they had nothing really that could help them, other than,
as in a fairy tale, they needed a heroic figure to emerge out of somewhere and
magically come to their rescue, and there was such a person, curiously. But
at that moment he was stepping into a hot tub in Las Vegas at Caesars Palace
in the fantasy suite with two naked women with cocaine in their purses. And
it is so odd to think that this is the man, Charlie Wilson, Congressman
Charlie Wilson, who will get himself out of the hot tub and pull himself
together and, about a year and a half after this, discover the Afghans,
discover this cause. And for a period of about five years, he will emerge as
the centerpiece in the biggest and meanest and most successful CIA campaign in
history, and will be responsible for giving and making possible a total
victory for militant Islam in the greatest jihad of modern history.
GROSS: Do you think that the fundamentalist Muslims who Charlie Wilson helped
arm had a sense of who he was as a man and, you know, his kind of sexual
appetites, his whole world, which had so much to do with pleasure seeking?
Mr. CRILE: There was a line that has always haunted me, that's helped me to
follow this story, because the characters are so wonderfully bizarre and
fascinating, and it goes like this, that Ala writes straight with crooked
lines, and it's the only way to make sense out of any of this, because how
could Charlie Wilson, with personal belly dancers and beauty queens and hot
tubs and naked women, somehow become the sponsor and patron of the greatest
jihad with these fundamentalist Muslims, who he loved, and who loved him,
other than through mystical forces that you can't really explain.
GROSS: Did he bring his friends, the former beauty queens and the belly
dancer, with him to Afghanistan?
Mr. CRILE: Always. First time he went to--out to Afghanistan, he was charmed
by the Mujahideen. He was moved by them. But he was something of a hedonist,
I guess you'd have to say, at that point. He was caught up in what he calls
the longest midlife crisis in history. And he decided that once he found out
there was no alcohol, no women, that he was never going to the Islamic world
again without a good Christian girl by his side. And the people he brought
were just unbelievable. They were--almost invariably, they were former beauty
queens, small town girls with big wondrous eyes. They were being given a
queen-for-a-day experience that they, to this day, look back on as being the
high point of their lives. And even a belly dancer from Dallas, Texas.
GROSS: Let's get back to the covert arming of the Mujahideen. What
arrangement was Charlie Wilson with the CIA able to arrange to covertly get
high-tech weapons to the Afghan Mujahideen who were fighting the Soviets in
Mr. CRILE: Yeah, you'd think that the CIA could take care of all of its own
arms purchases easily. But in the Cold War, they had a hard and fast rule,
that they would not ever introduce weapons into a secret war that could be
traced back to the United States. And so they had to go through an elaborate
process in the black markets to get Soviet weapons that could be claimed to be
captured on the battlefield. And the big problem that existed at that point
was the--these flying gunships, which--like Hind helicopter, which no matter
how many times the Mujahideen, the Afghans, would shoot at that helicopter,
the bullets would just bounce off of its armor, and they would sit up there
and just mow down people by the thousands. And it was a terrible problem, and
Wilson became completely preoccupied by it. And to a certain extent, the CIA
people did, too. But they didn't know what to do, and they didn't really know
where to go. It just so happened, though--and how--how you could explain
this, I don't know. It just so happened that Charlie's best friend and
drinking buddy at that point was the minister--wildly powerful minister of
defense of Egypt, Mohamed Abu Gazawa(ph), who had told Charlie, `Come to
Egypt, and I will open my storehouse of weapons, and you can buy whatever you
want.' And Egypt had once been a client state of Russian, so they had all
these weapons. And so the CIA--so Wilson, in his very first trip after
getting his foot in the door with the CIA, led this delegation, headed by Gust
Avrakotos, to Egypt, where the doors to the arsenals were opened because of
his great friend, Mohamed.
GROSS: So the United States used Soviet missiles that the Soviets sold to
Egypt, that the US bought from Egypt to covertly arm the Afghans against the
Mr. CRILE: That was one--one of many, many channels. But at that time, once
the war started to escalate, and they needed--you know, we're talking numbers
that are hard to conceive, maybe as many as a half million Afghans,
fundamentalist Islamic warriors, who ha--were carrying CIA-issued weapons.
And once Charlie Wilson's war began with his funding levels and Avrakotos's
secret partnership, they started to introduce very sophisticated weapons and
mixes of weapons, and this called for getting governments to provide that,
that had Soviet-manufactured weapons, the Chinese, the Egyptians, and in this
case, there's a--fantastic stories connected to each one of these channels
that were opened up.
GROSS: George Crile is the author of the new book, "Charlie Wilson's War:
The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History." Crile is
also a producer at "60 Minutes" and "60 Minutes II." He'll be back in the
second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with George Crile, author
of the new book "Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest
Covert Operation in History." It's about the CIA's covert backing of the
Afghan mujaheddin in their fight against the invading Soviet army in the
1980s. Charlie Wilson, who was at the time a Democratic congressman from
Texas, was one of the main figures behind the covert operation. Let's pick up
where we left off.
Once the CIA funding of the covert operations in Afghanistan increased, where
did Pakistan fit in?
Mr. CRILE: From the beginning, there was no Afghan war, there was no Afghan
resistance, were it not for Pakistan. And even today when you hear about the
great hunt for bin Laden, there is an area called a tribal zone between
Afghanistan that stretches into Pakistan, but for a certain number of miles,
tribal law prevails, not Pakistan law. And it really is an extension of
Afghanistan. And so you have the same tribal mix. And the war was always
based, really, in Pakistan and in this tribal zone, where the same primarily
Pashtun warriors, the famous Afghans who defeated the English and the
Russians, were based.
But Pakistan was everything because its president, Zia-ul-Haq, was a dictator,
and so he was able to dictate that there would be a base of operations for the
Afghans. But he put down a pretty hard set of conditions to the CIA and the
United States, which is that his intelligence service, the ISI, would be
responsible for distributing the weapons and running the Afghans with limited
supervision from the CIA.
GROSS: There are other things you say he wanted from the United States. For
example, he expected the United States to turn its head regarding Pakistan's
nuclear weapons program.
Mr. CRILE: Well, he certainly did. And at the heart of everything,
curiously, with Zia was not so much his dealings with the US government, but
the set of relationships he had with this woman who got Charlie Wilson into
the war, Joanne Herring(ph), the unusual Texas character who was the honorary
consul to Pakistan, and Charlie Wilson. Because Zia came to rely on Wilson's
word that if Charlie said that he could count on military assistance of a
certain amount, that then he would go ahead and allow escalations of the war.
And every time there were huge battles over whether Pakistan was working on
what everybody called the Islamic bomb, there would be knock-down, drag-out
fights in which Wilson would always organize the resistance and keep the money
And it did keep flowing, and it was a condition of Zias. And it kept flowing
until the Russians left, whereupon we immediately discovered that they were
working on the bomb and, with great apparent or ostensible shock, imposed
sanctions and cut off military assistance.
GROSS: Were there any concerns in Congress or in the CIA or in the Reagan
administration that the United States was going to be arming Islamic
fundamentalists with high-tech weapons, training these warriors how to use the
weapons while knowing that a lot of the Islamic fundamentalists hated the
United States? They didn't just hate the Soviets.
Mr. CRILE: There was certainly a good deal of concern inside the CIA in the
early years, when Charlie Wilson was trying to force them to escalate this
war. And one of their perfectly understandable concerns was that. You know,
`What happens afterward? What are the unintended consequences? Is it a good
idea to make this a huge war? Would it provoke an attack by the Red Army, the
Russians, on Pakistan? What consequences could that have? What are we going
to do with all these Muslim fundamentalists? What kind of weapons, what kind
of training is appropriate to give to them?' And all of those questions were
very real and part of the initial battle that the CIA waged to try to prevent
this massive escalation.
But the truth is once they got into it, once they lost the battle with Charlie
Wilson and the secret partner, Gust Avrakotos, helping him from within the
CIA--once they lost it and the money started to flow in and the war started to
escalate and the tide started to turn, the CIA became absolutely giddy and
thrilled at this battle because it was the first time that they were actually
setting out to kill the enemy, to engage him in a winner-take-all battle. And
no one thought that this was possible to win, but they increasingly came to
think it would be. And then it happened. And for the longest time, this was
viewed as the great triumph of the CIA in the last campaign of the Cold War.
GROSS: How long do you think it took for the CIA to start thinking about the
blow-back, about the bad, unintended consequences of arming the mujaheddin?
Mr. CRILE: I think we have a problem in our country, period, when it comes
to the aftermath of campaigns like this. You're starting to see it in
Afghanistan today. Hopefully we don't find it in Iraq. But, you know, I
think that, you know, the simple answer is that they really worried about it
but didn't think too much about it for a long time because so many incredible
things were happening. Almost immediately after the Russians withdrew after
this thing that President Zia of Afghanistan called `the miracle of the
century' when the Red Army turned tail and walked out with their own Vietnam
haunting them, everything started to tumble. You know, it wasn't very long
before the wall came down, and it wasn't long before the Velvet Revolution and
the fall of Communism.
Too many things were happening that were too exciting for anyone to worry
about what was happening inside Afghanistan. And because it was a secret
campaign and because people didn't really understand that it had been a huge
victory, there was no sense of accountability to the Afghans or a sense that
we had to worry about whether we had a responsibility to stay in there and try
to help rebuild the country. So it was the blow-back concerns, the whole
sense of the unintended consequences, probably didn't really set in until the
first World Trade Center bombing in 1993.
GROSS: George Crile, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. CRILE: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: George Crile is the author of the new book "Charlie Wilson's War: The
Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History." Crile is
also a producer at "60 Minutes II."
Coming up, we talk with Charlie Wilson. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Charlie Wilson on his role in helping Afghans fight
the Soviets in the 1980s
TERRY GROSS, host:
Charlie Wilson is the focus of the book we were just discussing, "Charlie
Wilson's War," about the CIA's covert funding of the Afghan mujaheddin in
their battle against the invading Soviet army in the 1980s. At the time,
Wilson who was a Democratic congressman from Texas. He took on the
mujaheddin's cause as his own and became one of the leading figures behind
their covert funding. After serving 24 years in Congress, Wilson is now a
lobbyist for Pakistan. I asked him why he felt so strongly about the Afghan
Former Representative CHARLIE WILSON (Democrat, Texas): I was outraged, of
course, Christmas of 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan for no
reason other than simple aggression. And I thought that, `Well, this will
just be another case of six weeks, and they'll pacify the country and kill all
the fighters. And it'll just be another satellite.' But after several
months, it began to dawn on me that the Afghans, without weapons, were killing
Russian officers in Kabul with knives and stones and anything they could get
their hands on.
And then it became clear to me--and I think this is the most important single
part of this war. It became clear to me that the Afghans had made a decision
themselves without American or any Western participation, but they had made a
decision themselves to fight till the end if they had to fight with their bare
hands. And I just strongly felt that people that brave, that were that
opposed to being subdued by the evil empire, if you will, that we would be
damned by history if we let them fight with their hands. And so my interest
was aroused there.
And after another few months, I made a trip just to see for myself as much as
I could see along the border there. I had been friendly with Pakistan before
this. And when I visited the hospitals and saw the children with their feet
and hands blown off by the Soviet mines that had been disguised to look like
toys and that sort of thing, I just became radicalized.
GROSS: Now at the time, you were living a lifestyle very different from the
Afghan mujaheddin. You were hanging out in casinos, hot tubs, relationships
with beauty pageant queens. Is there an example you can think of of the most
unusual coming together of cultures, your culture and their culture?
Mr. WILSON: Well, let's see, there certainly wasn't an example that had
anything to do with alcohol because I didn't do that in front of them. I
suppose the fact that I was single at the time, and I'd been traveling to
exciting and exotic places. You like to have someone to share it with. And
so I suppose the fact that I wasn't married and they saw me with different
Western girlfriends was a major shock to them, although they never, never gave
any evidence of it. They didn't lift an eyebrow.
There was one--and this is a passage in the book, but there's an example. The
most fundamentalist of all the fundamentalists--and he's now wanted. He's now
wanted as an Islamic terrorist. But his name was Hecmarti Argulbatin(ph).
And at one point during the war, I knew that we couldn't get quite--this was
at the time when the rules were that all the weapons had to be Soviet bloc
weapons. And we were short of some AK-47s and RPG-7s, which is an anti-tank
rocket. And we were short of those, and I knew that Israel had a large number
of them. And so I was proposing that we buy from the Israelis the weapons
they'd captured from the Palestinians and other enemies they had and that we'd
buy from the Israelis and furnish them to the mujaheddin.
Well, some of the people in the agency and others in the American diplomatic
corps were horrified by that, and they said, `They'll never accept a weapon
from that had anything to do with Israel.' So I asked Hecmarti Argulbatin,
who was, as I said, the most radical fundamentalist of all of the mujaheddin
leaders, and he had a very interesting reply. He said, `We use weapons that
we take from wounded and killed Soviet soldiers. So I don't know why we can't
use a weapon that Allah provides from Israel.'
GROSS: And so is that what you did? You got Israeli weapons that Israelis
had gotten from Palestinians and sold those to the Afghans?
Mr. WILSON: Well, we didn't sell anything to the Afghans.
GROSS: You gave it to them, excuse me. Yeah.
Mr. WILSON: Yeah.
GROSS: So that's what you did. OK.
Mr. WILSON: That's what we did.
GROSS: There's an expression called blow-back to describe the unintended
consequences of a war. What surprised you most about the blow-back after the
Afghan war with the Soviets?
Mr. WILSON: Well, of course--and I take my full share of the blame, and at
the time I didn't realize how serious it was, but the United States, once the
Communist government had fallen, once the Russians had left, we sort of lost
interest, the United States and other Western countries. And because of that,
we created a vacuum. And Afghans in a vacuum tend to fight each other for
power, and there were many of them that had been radicalized on the Islamic
side from their war with the godless Soviets. So it was largely our
responsibility because we should have stayed there, and we should have
insisted that they somehow work together. We should have held out a lot of
carrots and, more or less, forced them to work together or at least not to go
to war with one another. And I was surprised by that.
The Taliban then, when they really came in and totally filled the vacuum--and
many people in Afghanistan supported the Taliban that did not adhere to their
religious beliefs or to their philosophy, but simply because they saw them as
the first chance to have order in 15 or 18 years, to not have war. I was
stunned and totally surprised and felt very badly about it.
GROSS: Anything you would do differently if you were going about helping to
arm the mujaheddin?
Mr. WILSON: No.
GROSS: If you were doing that again?
Mr. WILSON: No.
GROSS: You'd do it all the same.
Mr. WILSON: There's nothing I'd do different.
Mr. WILSON: Yup. Now what I would do profoundly differently would be to try
to prevent--and I don't think one congressman could have done it, but I would
have tried to prevent the immense distraction that our country had with the
falling of the Berlin Wall, with freedom in Poland and Czechoslovakia and all
the others, where we just completely were distracted from the problems in
I would try to persuade the administration--and that was the Reagan
administration and the first Bush administration that was extremely
sympathetic to the cause of the mujaheddin. And I would have tried to
persuade them to not leave and to maintain an American presence and to do
whatever was necessary in the form of a mini Marshall Plan, not only in our
own interest to keep something like the Taliban from gaining control of the
country that provided a refuge for Osama bin Laden, but also to say thank you
because these people are the ones that shed the blood, that defeated the Red
Army for the first time it had left its barracks since 1945. And we owed them
a great deal and, in my view, never properly said thank you.
GROSS: What are some of the things you think the CIA did to try to hide the
fact that it was funding the weapons for the mujaheddin...
Mr. WILSON: Well, I don't think...
GROSS: ...and that it was funding intelligence? Yeah.
Mr. WILSON: I don't think that the Soviets were ever fooled. They were
fooled for the first few years, maybe till 1983, something like--'84. They
were fooled by the magnitude. But it was taking us that long to get
everything in the pipeline: as the book points out, the Chinese connection,
the Egyptian connection and all the rest. But I think that they knew that it
was a far bigger piece of cake than they had intended to bite off in '84 and
'85. And then in '86, when the Stingers started shooting down their Hind
helicopters, which were their major and most effective weapon, then they knew
it was a fight to the death.
GROSS: My guest is former Congressman Charlie Wilson, the subject of the new
book "Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert
Operation in History." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Charlie Wilson, the subject of the new book "Charlie
Wilson's War." In the 1980s, when he was a Democratic congressman from Texas,
he became one of the main figures behind the CIA's covert funding of the
Afghan mujaheddin in their war against the invading Soviet army.
You're lobbying for Pakistan now. What are some of the issues or business
interests that you represent?
Mr. WILSON: Well, I don't represent any business interest. I represent the
country of Pakistan. And you try to present your client in the best possible
light to Congress. You try to not have crippling amendments. You try to
defeat sanction legislation or anything that would be damaging to them. And
many, many countries have lobbyists: the Greeks, the Turks, the Colombians.
Of course, there's an enormous homegrown lobby for Israeli in the United
States. That's the most powerful. The second most powerful are probably the
Indians, the Hindus. Third most powerful are probably the Armenians.
GROSS: You've been described--and I think, in fact, you even described
yourself--as having gone through the world's longest midlife crisis. Do you
feel like you're still going through that, or do you think it's continuing?
Mr. WILSON: No, I'm recovered from that.
GROSS: You're recovered from that.
Mr. WILSON: I'm recovered from that, yeah.
GROSS: How has your life changed since recovering from that?
Mr. WILSON: Well, I have a lovely wife. A live a totally monogamous life.
I don't drink whiskey or wine or beer anymore. And so all of my bad habits
are gone, Terry, or all of the habits that other people would judge to be bad
or that some people would judge to be bad.
GROSS: What's your assessment of how the United States is doing in
Afghanistan now? Do you think the United States is doing enough to help
rebuild the country?
Mr. WILSON: I think that the United States is trying and doing a much better
job than we did after the last one. I think we're end-of-the-road building.
I think we're into providing jobs. I think we're into stringing electric wire
and some of the things that we do the best. But where I really think, this is
as best I can tell from the newspapers, I think that we've made a mistake by
not pacifying the whole country. As I understand it, we're basically just
GROSS: What do you mean by pacify?
Mr. WILSON: Well, right now there's still areas in which warlords of
different ethnic groups rule different parts of the country.
GROSS: What do you mean by pacify?
Mr. WILSON: Well, by pacify, I mean maintain law and order, maintain a rule
of law in Kandahar and in Jalalabad and in Herat, not just in Kabul...
GROSS: Are some...
Mr. WILSON: ...because without the whole country, the capital's kind of an
GROSS: Are some of the warlords or former warlords in Afghanistan now people
who you worked with when they were members of the mujaheddin?
Mr. WILSON: Not that I know of. But some of the people I worked with in the
mujaheddin are on the wanted list and are--apparently have joined the ranks of
the very radical Islamic militant criminal groups. And I say that with great
sadness because I really cared for some of them.
GROSS: Do you feel personally betrayed, or do you feel like you didn't quite
get what was happening?
Mr. WILSON: Oh, no, no, no, no. I feel like we didn't do enough and that we
could have kept those guys on our side.
GROSS: What went through your mind on September 11th, you know, when you
found out that it was Islamic fundamentalists who were behind the attacks?
Mr. WILSON: Well, I was very grievous and devastated, and somehow I knew
that--I felt very badly about that. I didn't feel conscience stricken. I
just felt sad that--of the cruelty of the attacks and the fanaticism of the
attacks and the fact that they obviously were coming from radical Islamic
people, who I still felt that we were in great debt to many of for really
driving the nail in the coffin of the evil empire. And then to see them not
on our side was a tough nut for me.
GROSS: Well, Charlie Wilson, I want to thank you very much for talking with
Mr. WILSON: You bet.
GROSS: Charlie Wilson was one of the main figures behind the CIA's covert
funding of the Afghan mujaheddin in their war against the invading Soviet
army. He's also the subject of the new book "Charlie Wilson's War" by George
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
We'll close with a track from a new CD by composer and pianist Carla Bley.
This is "Og Can Uc?" from her variations on the national anthem.
(Soundbite of "Og Can Uc?")
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