Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of How the Wildest Man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Changed the History of Our Times

by George Crile

Paperback, 2004

Call number

958.104 C



Grove Press (2004), Edition: Reprint, 560 pages


History. Nonfiction. HTML: Charlie Wilson's War is the untold story of the last battle of the Cold War and how it fueled the rise of militant Islam. Charlie Wilson, a maverick congressman from east Texas, conspired with a rogue CIA operative to launch the biggest, meanest, and most successful covert operation in the Agency's history. In the early 1980s, after a Houston socialite turned Wilson's attention to the ragged Afghan freedom fighters who continued to fight the Soviet invaders despite overwhelming odds, the congressman became passionate about their cause and procured hundreds of millions of dollars to support the mujahideen. The arms were secretly procured and distributed with the help of an out-of-favor CIA operative, Gust Avrokotos, whose working-class Greek-American background made him an anomaly among the Ivy League world of American spies. Avrakotos handpicked a staff of CIA outcasts to run his operation and, with their help, continually stretched the Agency's rules to the breaking point. Moving from the back rooms of the Capitol, to secret chambers at Langley, to arms-dealers conventions, to the Khyber Pass, Charlie Wilson's War is a detailed and brilliantly reported account of the inside workings of the CIA..… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member untraveller
Wonderful book with much to be gleaned from within its pages. Two criticisms: the book needs a map or two. I greatly dislike having to find an atlas whenever I need to locate a geographical entity. Second, the book needed a competent editor when it was put together. Atlantic Monthly Press puts out
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quality books, but the number of typos in the book should be embarrassing to somebody at the Press.
The book concerns itself w/ politics, war, and women, more or less. There are several good quotes regarding women:

"The CIA's Gust Avrakotos suggests that Charlie had a kind of James Bond syndrome: 'As I saw it, the tie that bound us together was chasing pussy and killing Communists.'"

"The suggestion was reportedly made that a three-year contract for $600,000 might be available to Gust once he left the Agency, with $500,000 of that up front.
'Shove it up your ass,' Avrakotos shot back. 'I'll pretend I didn't hear what you just said, because the last thing you want is for me to tell Congress you were trying to bribe me.' The worldly Swiss executive did not seem insulted or in any way put off, instead he responded to a question more to Gust's liking.
'Do you like blondes?'
'Well, that's different,' Gust replied."

The book centers around the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the ensuing years when the war was funded by the CIA at a time when the 'Guns for weapons (for hostages)' was playing out w/ Oliver North, the Contras/Sandanistas, and company. Very well written, the book makes sense of some of the confusing history we get by reading newspapers and magazines as well as the garbage of TV.
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LibraryThing member ALincolnNut
Slow and steady, says the old adage, wins the race. Half the battle, others say, is showing up. Whatever cliché you choose, none will explain how Texas Representative Charlie Wilson, an unknown Republican Congressman in a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives spear-headed the exponential
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increase in secret appropriations to support Afghan fighters against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Simply saying "truth is stranger than fiction" still does not adequately explain the bizarre true story told by veteran "60 Minutes" producer George Crile in "Charlie Wilson's War." Undergirded by years of research, including what certainly must have been extensive interviews with several of the principle actors in the story, Crile carefully unravels the story of the clandestine American involvement with the Afghans, with its secret operations, money laundering, arms trafficking, and unofficial foreign relations negotiations.

At the heart of this tale are the incorrigible Wilson and free-thinking CIA agent Gust Avrakotos. Each has a mixed reputation among his colleagues. Wilson is seen as an overt womanizer, who becomes a cocktail party joke when he becomes part of a public drug investigation. Avrakotos, who became disgruntled when passed over for a station chief assignment, is a loose cannon who speaks his mind.

Neither should be in a position to control any major operation. Their outsider status, however, allows them to work without much oversight; their experience in how to get things done in Congress and the CIA means they can use their relative freedom to pursue their own goals. Beyond that, though, they also negotiate with other foreign governments in order to facilitate their plans.

The story of their amazing success -- in that the Soviet Union retreated from Afghanistan in 1989 -- is an amazing tale. There is the sense, though, that the haphazard American involvement may have led to foreign policy problems in the years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. So for the giddiness of the story -- which is frequently filled with humor -- there's also a nagging sense of loss by the books end.

In any event, Crile tells his fascinating story with a no-nonsense style, well aware of the irony and absurdity of many of the twists and turns. It is an enlightening, entertaining read.
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LibraryThing member cbjorke
Halfway through reading Charlie Wilson's War I went out and rented the movie. I had the picture of Tom Hanks on a white horse firmly entrenched in y mind the rest of the way through. It was an interesting exercise to see how much of a Cliff's Notes version of the story the movie really is. Charlie
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Wilson's War, the book, is a much more complete story than the film, and much more exiting.

Charlie Wilson's War has a cast of characters, real world people, who are like some demented screenwriter's idea for a film version of the A-Team. First is Wilson himself, a hard drinking playboy, who always has a beauty queen on his arm while jet setting around the world at the taxpayers' expense, who represents a straight laced, bible belt district in Congress and who gets the money to run the operation by wheeling and dealing on the hill; Gust Avrakotos, a rogue CIA case officer, working undercover inside his own agency, undermining the stated Afghanistan policy by overstepping his authority at every opportunity; technical wonder- boy Mike Vickers, Green Beret, weapons expert, he is a lowly GS 11 who isn't supposed to even know what's going on and he's the commanding general at CIA headquarters, calling all the shots; Muohammed Zia ul-Haq, dictator of Pakistan, he has a secret program to develop an atomic bomb , meanwhile he is doing everything in his power to help the CIA defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Despite the movie tie-in, this is not a work of fiction. This is the story of a real CIA operation, which became the largest in history, thanks to the efforts of a congressman from east Texas who made it his business to find a way to shoot down the Soviet Union's Hind helicopters. Charlie Wilson, on a trip to Pakistan, was shown the devastation caused by these flying tanks, which were invulnerable every weapons that the Afghan Mujahideen had.

The CIA was providing the Afghans with World War I era Enfield rifles and some light machine guns to fight the Soviet Army with. The had a $5 million a year budget at the time. Their goal was to annoy and bleed the Russians and keep them on edge, as part of the longstanding policy of containment. Wilson thought that, with a way to shoot down those helicopters, the Afghans were capable of driving the Soviet Army out of Afghanistan altogether. He wanted to abandon containment and attempt to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. He was only a congressman. He succeeded.

By the time the Soviets left Afghanistan the CIA operation there was spending over a billion dollars a year, half of it provided by Saudi Arabia. Kalashnikov rifles, Stinger missiles, mortars, Swiss Oerlikon anti aircraft guns, and millions of rounds of ammunition were streaming in through Pakistan.

Those Afghan "freedom fighters" who defeated the Soviet army with the help of Charlie Wilson and the CIA, helping to precipitate the fall of the Soviet Union, are the same Afghans who now are fighting again in Afghanistan, some with us and some with the Taliban. The Arab volunteers who went to Afghanistan to join in the jihad against the Soviets are the core of Alkaida. The challenges we face today are a direct result of our success in facing down the last perceived existential threat to or way of life. The biggest shortcoming of the movie is that it mentioned none of this. Instead there was a scene where Wilson fails to get a pittance appropriated to build schools in Afghanistan. In fact there was a multi million dollar AID effort that went on for three years after the defeat of the Soviets, which was finally cut off because the Mujahideen were robbing the aid convoys.

I'll Never Forget The Day I Read A Book!
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LibraryThing member idiotgirl
Listened as an audiobook. This is an excellent book. Well written overall for non-fiction. And a really amazing story. I think I pay attention to my world. I was active engaged in the 80s and totally missed this one. This book provides a context for the current struggle in the Middle East that is
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transformative. How we armed and educated the guerillas. I knew we were involved in Afghanistan with the jihadis against the Russians, but I never imagined the extent. How do we know what we are doing in the moment? How do we learn? This book leaves me believing I (we) have a lot to learn.
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LibraryThing member iammbb
Unbelievable but not.

Crile presents an insider's view of the behind the scenes machinations and maneuvers which allow our government to operate.

Obviously well-researched, Charlie Wilson's War is a fascinating tale of what's possible when rules are ignored and no isn't an option.

Charlie Wilson was a
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playboy Congressman who was rarely taken seriously. A Democrat from Texas who was also fervently anti-Communist, Wilson made it his life's work to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan and in the course of doing so, set the stage for the collapse of the Soviet Union.

While the book deals with events which took place 25 or so years ago, there's an awful lot of it which echoes today. I had an eerie familiarity with many of the names and locations such as Abdul Haq, Bagram and Jalalabad.

Wilson and his cohorts were trying to make Afghanistan the Soviets' Vietnam but as I read, I just kept seeing disconcerting parallels between the Soviet experience in Afghanistan and our present day experiences in Iraq.

I had an a-ha moment when Crile states that "Israel's most dangerous enemy was Saddam Hussein's Iraq."

Crile's non-fiction book reads like a spy novel and provides an effortless education into an area of the world which continues to have a global impact.
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LibraryThing member co_coyote
This is the most interesting and exciting book I have read this year! Molly Ivins called it a “whale of a tale,” and it was that and more. This book reads more like a spy novel than the truth, but it is undoubtably non-fiction. I saw the recently released movie of the same name last night, and
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the movie is good, but you seriously don't want to miss this book. The movie would have been three days long to include all the interesting parts of this complex and compelling story. And this morning I read that Benazir Bhutto has been assassinated. Having finished this book just a few days ago, I can clearly see the machinations of unintended consequences at work in this tragedy. If you read only one book this year, this is the one I would recommend without reservation.
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LibraryThing member yeremenko
This is book tells a story that is rarely expressed elsewhere. The characters are so flamboyant it is hard to believe they are real people, and this is nonfiction.

Late in the book Crile discusses the dilemma anyone writing about Charlie Wilson deals with. Wilson could easily be portrayed as a
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hero or a buffoon. This dichotomy dominates the narrative. Wilson the brilliant legislator, master of the smoke filled room, the true idealist is hampered by his drunken, womanizing, junket taking alter ego.

Though this book is a tribute to Wilson’s effort to arm the Mujadeen against the Soviets and their ultimate victory in that war, but the true revelation is how he did it. One man, Wilson pushed literally billions of dollars American money to arm Muslim extremists in a great jihad. That one congressman could so alter foreign policy, and the course of history is both amazing and frightening. The press and the rest of congress focused on the Contras and Charlie Wilson began a far bigger program virtually unnoticed. Even without the dangerous aftermath of the Taliban, of a young Osama Bin laden seeing a superpower fall, the fact billions of dollars can be spent by a handful of men with little oversight is chilling.

It is clear much of the information comes from interviews with Wilson and other protagonists like CIA man Gust Avrakotos and socialite Joanne Herron. Though Crile pays lip service to the dreadful aftermath of 911, and Islamic extremism he identifies too closely with his subjects. He mentions Texas Billionaire Herron steadfastly defended murderers and brutal dictators because of favorable impressions she gained from brief meetings. But he is generally gentle in his portrayal of this naïve manipulator. It is staggeringly sad such people have such influence on government policy entirely because of their wealth. It is not hard to imagine how the private discussions at few select social clubs decide the fate of nations. It seems all you need is a billion dollars, or to impress somebody who has a billion dollars to enter the conversation.

It is great story, an exciting story, but hardly a heroic one.
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LibraryThing member DSeanW
Yes the book is overly long but the bigger problem is that I couldn’t help but being put off by this cheerful celebration of American short-sightedness.
LibraryThing member Eagleduck86
A riveting account of one of the most intriguing and peculiar chapters in Cold War history.
For anyone who liked the movie, the book is a MUST for its additional details and anecdotes; such as the kerfuffle over the indecent liberties the Afghan Mujahideen took with the Tennessee mules we gave them.
LibraryThing member BoThompson
What amazes me is that one Congressman manipulates the system, spends that much money and gets those things done. And we are still spilling our blood and treasure there thirty years later. We go in and follow the Russians' folly. Oh, the price of empire!!! What a tale - better than any fiction.
LibraryThing member mrluckey
Very interesting book on the inner workings of Congress the CIA and foreign political relations. Well researched and written.
LibraryThing member nkrastx
This one proves that truth is stranger than fiction. Charlie Wilson, former US congressmen and cold-warrior extraordinaire befriends the mujahadeen (who would later become the Taliban)and creates all sorts of schemes to support them in their struggle against the evil empire (Soviet Union). The cast
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of characters of this book is what makes it amazing, and all of them were real people!
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LibraryThing member LizHD
Although I never saw the movie, it made me curious about the book. This is a sad and crazy story, and anyone interested in the background of the US involvement in Aghanistan and the Middle East in general would be well advised to take a look. The book paints a picture of Charlie Wilson as an
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unbalanced, alcoholic megalomaniac who manipulated rules (with great success) to pursue his agenda of driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan. Of course, it turned out he was also arming and training the Taliban, who clearly did not share the rest of Charlie Wilson's values.... I listened to the audiobook, which was well done.
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LibraryThing member MHStevens
If you've ever seen (or never seen) 'Charlie Wilson's War', a good little 2007 movie starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman (who earned an Oscar nomination for his role as an angry and embittered CIA operative), this is the book behind the Mike Nichols movie. And a
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fact-filled, completely comprehensive tome it is.

Penned by 60 Minutes journalist George Crile, this is the behind-the-scenes story of the CIA's involvement in, and support of, the successful 1980s Afghan rebellion against the Soviet invasion.
Charlie Wilson was a devil-may-care playboy member of the US Congress, and thanks to a strong suggestion from Texas socialite Joanne Herring, Wilson decided to make the Afghan rebellion his cause célèbre. The book describes in great detail the machinations of Wilson's covert actions to shame the CIA into increasing their financial support for the Afghan rebels from a few million dollars a year to a BILLION dollars a year ($500 million from the US budget plus a matching amount from the Saudi government).

If you want to read this book (and I recommend that you do), be prepared to spend weeks with it. At 530 pages, it is packed full of fascinating, previously Top Secret facts about how covert operations are managed, the internal and external political machinations necessary for success, and the details of how US Representative Charles Wilson became the only civilian recognized internally as a hero at the CIA.

Author Crile spent years researching this work, and it shows. His interviews included presidents and princes, senators and spooks. The detail is not impressive, it is amazing. If the secret world of James Bond appeals to you as a reader, indulge your interest by reading a cracker of a true story, the greatest (and perhaps only) successful CIA covert operation of the Cold War.
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LibraryThing member normaleistiko
I understand this is based on a true story. If so, this is an extraordinary story. Tom Hanks is marvelous...his acting becomes better every year. Philip Seymour Hoffman who plays the CIA agent is the same actor who played the writer (from "In Cold Blood); he plays the agent as humorous, I laughed
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out loud. Julia Roberts is having a wonderful career. What a great trio!
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LibraryThing member scottcholstad
Dislike. I don't approve of the author, subject, context or tone.
LibraryThing member tmph
Finally saw the movie. I saw Wilson speak here in Alexandria a few years ago. Wonderful guy.
LibraryThing member nicdevera
the movie was a fun romp, the book is darker and more ambivalent. philip seymour hoffman was great, but in the book gust avrakotos is more clearly a horrendous asshole. charlie wilson is still charming, but the backdoor porkbarrel deals and an egregious hit-and-run make him less
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remember when the mujahideen were freedom fighters? remember rambo 3? several times the book talks about muj fighters raping, mutilating, and executing captured russian soldiers, to the extent that the idea of russians troops surrendering or defecting to mujahideen was considered ludicrous.

and of course over it all hangs the shadow of 9/11. I've often thought star trek needs to get past the prime directive, or have iain m. banks's culture series supplant it. explicit interventionism, horse trading, trolley problems, unintended consequences, imagine charlie wilson's war IN SPACE.
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LibraryThing member dougwood57
The book opens a fascinating window on US involvement in the Soviet war in Afghanistan and how the Congress operates. Charlie Wilson is an American archetype - the boozing, loud-mouthed, brash Texan with the trophy woman on his arm. (The cocaine snorting maybe is not quite so much a part of the
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stereotype.) Wilson managed to stay barely a half step ahead of the law as he indulged his reckless self-destructive behavior.

At the same time, he took full advantage of the arcane rules of the US House of Representatives to wield an out-sized influence in the US Afghanistan policy supporting the Afhgani resistance and pushing to provide them with high-tech weaponry. An entertaining character! And if he had confined himself to pork barrel projects for his East Texas district, you could say 'no harm, no foul'. Unfortunately, he appears to have had a sizeable amount of influence over policy. The Soviets left, the US lost interest and control of Afghanistan fell to the Islamist fundamentalists who now had modern military equipment to sell on the black market. In the end the Taliban ended up in power with the attendant dire consequences.
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LibraryThing member robeik
Why read fiction when you can read books like this one? You just can't make this stuff up.

But taking a few steps back. The British and the Americans have had interests in Middle East since the 1800s, often finding themselves in the middle of local/tribal conflicts. Someone took it upon themselves
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to draw some lines on a map to create countries. When oil was found, the interests ramped up. However, when locals wanted a fair share of the spoils, they found themselves with puppet and often corrupt and cruel governments. And the story continues to evolve. Take for example, Iran. Talks of nationalising by Mosaddegh the oil in the 1950s was met with the imposition of the Shah. With the Soviets on the outer, and the Cold War in full swing, they sought to exploit whatever they could. After the Shah was sent packing by a Khomeini, and eventually ended up in USA, the American influence in Iran all but disappeared, helped along by some students taking the American embassy hostage.
In the meantime, the Soviets moved into neighbouring Afghanistan. The Cold War had a new theatre of operations; but most of the world did not know. Covert CIA-led operations, using Pakistan as a proxy, provided every increasing support to a guerrilla war against the Soviets. This book tells that story. It's an unbelievable story of the dirty world of global politics.
When the Soviets finally moved out, they found the USSR falling to pieces as well, and for the most part the Cold War was over. The Afghans devolved into new, or rather old conflicts. This is where the book finishes.
However, we know that the story continued, and even though the US and their allies have now (in 2021) decided to withdraw after a further 20 years on the ground in Afghanistan I doubt anyone thinks that this is the end of the story.
P.S. I have not seen the film. I do not think I want to - there is no way to capture this incredible story in a short film.
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