Charlie Wilson, Former Congressman, Dies at 76
He fought the Soviet Red Army, and won.
Charles Nesbitt Wilson (June 1, 1933 – February 10, 2010) was a former United States Navy officer and a 12-term Democratic United States Representative from the 2nd Congressional District in Texas.
He was best known for leading Congress into supporting Operation Cyclone, the largest-ever CIA covert operation, which supplied military equipment, including anti-aircraft weapons such as Stinger antiaircraft missiles, and paramilitary officers from their Special Activities Division to the Afghan Mujahideen during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. His activities were the subject of the non-fiction book Charlie Wilson's War and film of the same name, starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.
Good Time Charlie
Wilson was known in Washington as "Good Time Charlie" for his reputation as a hard-drinking womanizer. He once called former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder "Babycakes," and tried to take a beauty queen with him on a government trip to Afghanistan.
In a 2003 interview, Charlie Wilson said he wasn't worried about details of his wild side being portrayed: "I would remind you that I was not married at the time. I'm in a different place than I was in at the time and I don't apologize about that,"
In 1980, Wilson read an Associated Press dispatch on the congressional wires describing the refugees fleeing Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. The Communist Democratic Republic of Afghanistan had taken over power during the Afghan Civil War and asked the Soviet Union to help suppress resistance from the Mujahideen. According to biographer George Crile III, Wilson called the staff of the House Appropriations Committee dealing with "black appropriations" and requested a two-fold appropriation increase for Afghanistan. Because Wilson had just been named to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense (which is responsible for funding CIA operations), his request went through.
The formidable MI-24 HIND-D attack helicopter.
In 1983, Wilson won an additional $40 million, $17 million of which was allocated for anti-aircraft weapons to shoot down Mil Mi-24 Hind helicopters. The next year, CIA officer Gust Avrakotos directly approached Wilson – breaking the CIA's policy against lobbying Congress for money – asking Wilson for $50 million more. Wilson agreed and convinced Congress, saying, "The U.S. had nothing whatsoever to do with these people's decision to fight ... but we'll be damned by history if we let them fight with stones." Later, Wilson succeeded in giving the Afghans $300 million of unused Pentagon money before the end of the fiscal year. Thus, Wilson directly influenced the level of U.S. support for the Afghan Mujahideen. Wilson has said that the covert operation succeeded because "there was no partisanship or damaging leaks." Michael Pillsbury, a senior Pentagon official, used Wilson's funding to provide Stinger missiles to the Afghan resistance in a controversial decision.
Texas socialite and businesswoman Joanne Herring played a significant role in helping the Afghan resistance fighters get support and military equipment from the U.S. government. She persuaded Wilson to visit the Pakistani leadership, and after meeting with them he was taken to a major Pakistan-based Afghan refugee camp so he could see for himself the atrocities committed by the Soviets against the Afghan people. About that visit, Wilson later said:
"That was the experience that will always be seared in my memory, was going through those hospitals and seeing, especially those children with their hands blown off from the mines that the Soviets were dropping from their helicopters. That was perhaps the deciding thing . . . and it made a huge difference for the next 10 or 12 years of my life because I left those hospitals determined, as long as I had a breath in my body and was a member in Congress, that I was going to do what I could to make the Soviets pay for what they were doing!"
For his efforts, Wilson was presented with the Honored Colleague Award by the CIA. He is the first civilian to receive the award. However, Wilson's role remains controversial because most of the aid was supplied to Islamist hardliner Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, now a senior Taliban leader and a supporter of al-Qaeda.
Mujahadeen in 1985: the Muj on the right carries the same kind of Lee-Enfield rifle that Charlie Wilson brandishes in his Capitol Hill office (above).
Early Start in Politics
Wilson first entered politics at age 13 by running a campaign against his next-door neighbor, city council incumbent Charles Hazard. When Wilson's dog entered Hazard's yard, Hazard retaliated by mixing crushed glass into the dog's food, causing fatal internal bleeding. Being a farmer's son, Wilson was able to get a driving permit at age 13, which enabled him to drive 96 voters, mainly black citizens from poor neighborhoods, to the polls. As they left the car, he told each of them that he didn't want to influence their vote, but that the incumbent Hazard had purposely killed his dog. After Hazard was defeated by a margin of 16 votes, Wilson went to his house to tell him he shouldn't poison any more dogs. Wilson cited this as "the day (he) fell in love with America."
After successfully supporting the Mujahedeen to a victory that helped speed the downfall of the Soviet Union - Wilson was unable to keep the money flowing after the Soviets left. Afghanistan plunged into chaos, creating an opening eventually filled by the Taliban, who hosted the al-Qaeda terrorist organization.
After the September 11 attacks, and the subsequent U.S.invasion of the country it had once helped liberate, Wilson said, "People like me didn't fulfill our responsibilities once the war was over. We allowed this vacuum to occur in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which enraged a lot of people. That was as much my fault as it was a lot of others."
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