“When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.”
– Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Young British Soldier’
When you study history in school, everything seems very structured and comprehensive, very coherent when viewed through the lense of economics and cause-and-effect. History is all about treaties and laws, trade, economic theory, statesmen and the hard realism of power….but then, time and time again, as you flip through the pages of history, they come at you – rollicking out of the mist with some grand wild-eyed vision, a chaotic elemental force that just seems to skew everything sideways…and at the end of the day you are left surveying an empire in ruins, millions of people freed from oppression and a blowback that is today, still only barely understood or acknowledged.
At the end of the day, Zia ul Haq’s observation “Charlie did it.” rings utterly true.
Charlie Wilson was a womanizing, alcoholic wastrel, an East Texas congressman best known for his booming voice, drinking, congressional junkets and proclivity for showgirls and Playboy bunnies. He was also the hinge and the catalyst for the largest covert operation in history – the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
Charlie Wilson’s War is, quite frankly, an extraordinary piece of work. George Crile, a producer for the television news show 60 Minutes, has put together a vivid and fascinating book that tellingly examines how a U.S. congressman essentially hijacked U.S. foreign policy into supporting the Afghan mudjahideen to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.
This quixotic politician became obsessed with the plight of Afghanistan, the Afghan people,and with taking the fight to the Soviets directly. This passionate ambition (or obsession depending on your perspective) brought Wilson into play initially as the primary critic of the CIA’s early efforts in Afghanistan, and through his political machinations, almost single-handedly pushed the CIA into a far more active covert role than they had planned. The operation evolved into one of the most critical centerpieces of the Cold War and a major contributing factor in the collapse of the USSR.
Crile’s ability to draw vivid and motivated portrayals of the many people working with Charlie Wilson is one of the defining characteristics of this compulsively readable book. Charlie Wilson was aided in is endeavors by an unlikely and diverse cast of characters including Gust Avrokotos, a street-smart, “working-class” CIA agent of Greek-American descent, adrift in a sea of bureaucratic Ivy League “cake-eaters”; code-breakers, eccentric politicians trading favors and committee funding votes, suicidal mujahidden, Israeli weapons dealers, the President of Pakistan Zia ul Haq (who seemed to find a kindred spirit in Charlie Wilson), a Dallas housewife turned belly-dancer and an ex-Green Beret who helped turn the muj into an effective and deadly army of peasant techno-guerillas. Maybe too effective…
The result of Charlie Wilson’s obsession was eventually 25,000 dead Russian soldiers…and a profoundly changed world.
I have just three words to emphasis: Read. The. Book. It is simply terrific.
For some historical perspective on Afghanistan and its role as a crossroads of empire (and a relentless eater of foreign armies) , I highly recommend Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia, and that timeless classic Kim by Rudyard Kipling. You may also want to consult this chap…
For a slightly different, very moving and evocative take on Afghanistan check out An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan by Jason Elliot, a first-rate travel book that was published just after 9-11.
Interested in what Afghanistan looks like? Be sure to check out National Geographic’s Afghanistan in Crisis site. Also check out the University of Texas’s Afghanistan Map Collection and get a look at life in Afghanistan here, here and here.
As a crossroads between Islam and Buddhism, Afghanistan and Central Asia are a priceless archaeological treasure trove, albeit one that has been difficult, if not impossible to study in recent years. Find out more at Central Asia Archaeology or if you are feeling ambitious, read another solid work by Peter Hopkirk called Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Cities and Treasures of Chinese Central Asia.
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