Friday, April 03, 2009

Charlie Wilson's War by George Crile

Charlie Wilson's War by George Crile is an incredible yet true story of perhaps the largest and the most expensive covert operation in our immediate history. The major protagonist, Charlie Wilson is a six-feet-four-inch Texas Congressman. He gets involved in serial affairs with beauty queens and belly dancers, appears liberal on most issues, keeps the most handsome, personal staff in Washington, and drinks excessively, or rather nearly to his death and destruction. But Charlie is also the man who believes in underdogs, in anti-communist policies, in support of Israel on one hand and on the other, to build 'a billion dollar a year' funding for covert operation in Afghanistan, for the US sponsored jihad against the Soviets. The importance of this story must be measured in terms of the consequences that Charlie Wilson's War brought upon the world. The defeat and dissolution of USSR in late nineties, rise of Taleban and Al Qaeda leading to the September 11 attacks and ongoing Afghan and Iraq war in their aftermath, the twenty years of (spin-off) terrorism in Kashmir, all are the consequences of the Charlie Wilson's War.

While Charlie is the politician, the man on the ground, is an equally improbable character. Enter a second generation Greek-American, street-smart CIA operative, Gust Avrakotos. His language is infested with slurs. He is an outcaste of sorts in the ivy league dominated detective agency. Crile introduces him in a chapter titled "A rogue elephant in the agency woods". Gust's character was brewed in small town bar-fights and brawls. Gust has had his share of adventures and misadventures before he got involved as the operative that masterminded the ground operation in Charlie Wilson's War. While Charlie would run through Congressional committees to get the money sanctioned, and find Israeli or Egyptian or European or American arm dealers (or politicians) to get insane amounts of ammunition, Gust worked out how, what, where, when of the mission they both loved. The mission of killing the communists. In that mission, the jihadists, the Afghans with all their tribes and peculiarities, seemed the perfect warriors for the agency as well as the key actors in the game.

The novel, like the movie based on it, moves through landscapes that tell you something about each character. Like the young Charlie transports as many voters as possible to the voting booth in Texas, to ensure that the guy who shot his dog loses the case. Gust grows up in a small town, Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, and then learns about the distastes and despair of men of different nationalities, basically when he just needs to figure out how to sell more cigarettes to bars frequented by Russians, Lebanese, Serbs, Poles, Greeks and so on. Charlie Wilson always gets into trouble, whether it is a case that made him famous as Cocaine Charlie (he got away due to lack of evidence), or a hit-and-run case, where he eventually was saved by his more than supportive staff. He has the gall to take a belly dancer to Egypt and have her perform for the minister there. He had one or the other pretty woman by his side, while he met 'the holy warriors who were destined to destroy the evil Russian empire'. Gust and other characters are developed in great detail, and if it were only a novel, I would perhaps say something about plot, writing style, sequence of events and so on. While this reads like a spy novel, with lots of sex bombs and lots of exploding bombs, Congressmen and Russian army, belly dancers and Mujahideen, billions of dollars and exotic locations, the mind-boggling thing is that Charlie Wilson's War is a line by line description of how our world was transformed. Not necessarily into a better place!

An old Indian adage says: "Behind every successful man, there is a woman". Charlie Wilson was seduced into the mission of fighting Russians and helping Afghans (termed as freedom fighters by Reagen) by the ever resourceful , glamorous, social lioness, Texas bombshell, Joanne Herring. Crile says, "In the pivotal first years of jihad, she became the matchmaker and muse to Pakistan's Muslim fundamentalist, military dictator, Zia-ul-Haq, as well as to the scandal prone Charlie Wilson". Joanne brought together the key players, Charlie, Zia, Saudi princes, and so on, who later fought and financed the war, and yes, all this was happening behind the scenes. The most interesting bits in the novel are where it gets into details of how much money was used to finance these missions, how weapons were acquired by fair and unfair means, even donkeys that carried weapons in Afghanistan were imported at exorbitant price, and how many nations were involved in this mission.

To quote from the book:
"No insurgency had ever enjoyed such a range of support: a country (Pakistan) completely dedicated to providing it with sanctuary, training and arms, even sending its own soldiers along as advisers on military operations; a banker (Saudi Arabia) that provided hundreds of millions in funds with no strings attached; governments (Egypt and China) that served as arms suppliers; and the full backing of a superpower (the United States through CIA). All of that plus various kinds of support from different Muslim movements and governments, as well as intelligence services of England, France, Canada, Germany, Singapore, and other countries."

It is true that this support inflicted heavy losses on the Russian army and air force. It is true that Charlie Wilson's War was the grand punch which bought down the Soviet Empire. It is true that the mission remained covert in spirit and achieved its goals by using some of greatest resources (brainpower, muscle, technology, espionage). The grand warriors of that time, the Afghan freedom fighters, were even transported to American hospitals for treatment. What is curious and interesting, for it is most apparent throughout the story, is the fact that the extreme fervor of jihadis, their hate for people outside their tribe and culture, was ever staring in the face of the key operatives. If ends satisfy means, then Charlie Wilson's War was a justified, for it met its initial aim. But, but... things must come a full circle, and the story just doesn't end with Wilson's script.

The Russians left, but the tribal mistrust that has existed for centuries did not. The warriors were not disarmed, were not resettled, and to top it, a whole system of planning, organizing and manning armed struggle was created. Soon these jihadis were up in arms against each other, and Afghanistan continued to bleed. Many warriors were now sent to other missions. Kashmir and Punjab in India became hot beds of militancy, and the weaponry and savagery procured for fighting Russians destroyed the peace and sub-cultures there. Since Zia was the man in charge of covert operation, he was kept in power (that he had hung Bhutto, democratically elected leader, was forgiven) and the amount of money poured into Pakistan then, was what financed their nuclear arsenal, their army and their propensity to support jihadis against chosen enemies. Later and before, US supported such dictators to meet their ends in Pakistan and elsewhere.

Only a decade after the grand exit of Russian army, American armies were to enter Afghanistan to hunt for Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda and Taleban... and fight against some of the very people US & CIA has trained and armed with their taxpayers money. It is said in India that whenever outsiders tried to rule the Afghans, they failed or they perished soon after, and this legend dates back up to the times of Alexander. The unsuspecting British army had a harsher experience in early nineteenth century. But of course, in this case, even the more immediate history is not discussed or remembered. It is not recalled that every exhibition of brutality by the jihadis that has hit headlines in the past decade was cheered when it was done against the Russians. Every tactic of using air force to bomb villages in Afghanistan was criticized by the US when the planes and pilots were Soviet. Sadly, only the characters have changed, the methods, motives and means have not, the telling effects on a country ravaged by war are very much there. Charlie Wilson's War is a reminder of not only how a war was won, but also of how the neo-enemy of United States was created out of a breed of men who wanted to fight and slaughter their enemies with bare hands.

In Mahabharata, unarguably the greatest epic poem ever written, it becomes clear that in wars, there are no real winners. There is no moral war, for in a war, men and armies use any means possible to win. Even though the valor is real, there are heroic fights, exhibitions of skill and martial superiority, the only outcome a war warrants is the destruction of both parties. Charlie Wilson's War ends with an epilogue titled: "Unintended consequences". Since we live in a world terrified of these unintended consequences, since we wish to understand how it all began, and how is it all carried out, we all must take time to read the Charlie Wilson's War. While the movie gives a sampler of what the book portrays, the movie is not full of as many details or rather, it is impossible for anyone to assimilate this information so easily. Yet, if it were not for the unintended consequences, and if it were not all real, Charlie Wilson's War makes for a 'fun' reading. Once you start thinking about it, which you will, it turns into a horror. Since it is better to face the facts and fight our ghosts, I recommend this book to every thinker, politician, historian, American and human being living in our times.

1 comment:

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