x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

American warrior

Charlie Wilson, a US congressman, spearheaded the clandestine war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Rep Charlie Wilson holds a British Enfield rifle in his Capitol Hill office in Washington in 1988.
Rep Charlie Wilson holds a British Enfield rifle in his Capitol Hill office in Washington in 1988.

Charlie Wilson, the colourful Texan Democratic congressman, was as renowned for indulging his carnal appetites as for spearheading America's clandestine war during the 1980s that furnished Afghan Mujahideen with arms in their sustained campaign against the Soviets following the 1979 invasion. The enterprise proved diverting enough to interest Hollywood and in 2007 Charlie Wilson's War, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, was released.

As a member of the House defense appropriations subcommittee "Good-time Charlie" obtained billions of dollars in US military aid for the insurgent groups fighting to overturn the Soviet puppet government in Afghanistan. At the height of the Cold War, keen to avoid an overt military confrontation with Moscow, Wilson sought other means to challenge the Communist regime. "I hated Communism because I hated tyranny of any kind," he said by way of explaining his involvement.

On the insistence of a Houston socialite Joanne Herring, he witnessed firsthand the wounded Afghan guerrilla fighters stationed in a refugee camp in Pakistan and returned to America keen to do something. Vehement lobbying from his right-wing associates in Washington fuelled his determination. Sitting on a key House subcommittee, he helped to secure significant increases in funding for the CIA's efforts to assist the mujahideen, leading Congress into supporting Operation Cycle, the largest-ever CIA covert operation.

Amazingly no details of the operation were ever leaked to the press, a fact Wilson credited to the bipartisan nature of Congress at the time. "It never leaked because nobody wanted it to," he said. "Everybody was pulling for [the mujahideen]." When the Soviets killed camels and mules to sabotage the Afghan supply lines, Wilson flew in mules from Tennessee. When the CIA refused to provide the rebels with field radios, he sent them walkie-talkies procured from a Radio Shack store. On a grander scale, he ensured that Stinger missiles were readily available to the Afghans and shipped arms through Pakistan with the agreement of the then president Zia ul-Haq.

By February 1989, his efforts had paid off. The Soviets withdrew and the US ended its support. During the intervening decade, the operation Wilson pioneered cost around US$750 million (Dh2.7 billion) per annum. Financial aid had come from many quarters, including well-placed American Jews and several Wahhabi Muslims in Saudi Arabia. Many of Wilson's colleagues also committed their support in exchange for military contracts that served their respective districts well.

Graduating from the Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1956, Wilson served in the Navy for four years. Patrolling the eastern Mediterranean on a destroyer, he achieved infamy for exhausting his ammunition long before each practice session concluded. His entry into politics began in 1960. On leave from the Navy, Wilson entered his name into the race for Texas state representative for his home district, an act in direct contravention of Navy regulations. When he returned to duty, his family and friends campaigned on his behalf with no small success. In 1961, aged 27, he was elected to the State House of Representatives and later to the State Senate. In Congress for more than 35 years, he weathered various accusations of louche - and sometimes illegal - behaviour, revelling in his playboy reputation. His congressional office was staffed with beautiful women.

For Wilson, Winston Churchill was something of a hero. "I used to drink a lot," he said in a 2008 interview. "One time I had barely gotten out of a DUI [driving under the influence]. They made me go to a class, at 7.30 on Saturday mornings, about not drinking whiskey. The teacher was a radical former drunk, and there's nothing more insufferable. At one point he said something, and I picked my head up. 'Oh, I was just saying, can you imagine what contributions Winston Churchill could have made had he not been an alcoholic?' I said, 'I guess it's all in the way you look at it. But he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. He wrote his first serious book in his 20s. He wrote A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. And in his spare time, he saved western civilisation. So if it's all right with you, Professor, I'll take him drunk.'"

Where he did voice regret was over what happened - or rather, failed to happen - in the wake of the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan. America should, he argued, have remained in the country, aiding the development of its infrastructure - building schools, hospitals, roads and power stations. Instead, al Qa'eda found fertile ground from which to launch offensives against its one-time ally. Charles Nesbitt Wilson was born on June 1, 1933, and died on February 10. He is survived by his wife.

* The National