Charlie Wilson did not, as the eponymous movie would have it, singlehandedly force the U.S. government to aid the Afghan Mujaheddin in killing Commies and liberating their country from the Soviet grip. Ronald Reagan and Bill Casey, and a large handful of congressmen and senators, dedicated staffers, and a few good people in the national-security apparatus all had a hand. But Wilson did pull strings and push buttons, at the right time, and make important things happen, while imbuing the cause with raffish Texan charm. And, most important, he pushed back hard against the permanent bureaucracy at the CIA that had chosen the wrong guys to back, and the wrong way to back them.
I only met Charlie Wilson once. It was the late fall of 1988, and he had come for a small event at a camp near the Khyber Pass. This was shortly before the Soviets were to leave Afghanistan, and the small, far from impartial expat press corps was unhappy that the USG had not provided appropriate arms to the Mujaheddin, who were going to have to conduct a more regular, less guerilla-like effort shortly. Wilson had been pushing to give them that weapon — the Oerlikon field cannon — for years.
So, there was a ceremony for him. A couple of hundred Muj were assembled, including party leaders who wished to honor a man they knew was their benefactor. Pakistani ISI minders were there to monitor things. The consul general was there to report back what the rogue congressman might say. There was a speech. But what I recall most vividly is what happened when Wilson’s girlfriend, a Miss Texas, got out of the bulletproof Toyota Pajero. Miss Texas towered above the average Afghan refugee. She had long, light-colored hair, and she was wearing a snug pink angora sweater, which showed her curves to devastating effect, there in the land of the burqa. Local American officials rolled their eyes. Journalists snickered. And then a “security situation” ensued as a wave of repressed Afghan men surged forward to touch this American goddess. Wilson was amused.
When things calmed down, he got up to speak. He promised the assembled Muj the anti-aircraft guns they needed, to thunderous shouts of “Zindebad [long live] America!” “Zindebad Charlie Wilson.”
The guns didn’t arrive any time soon.
Charlie Wilson was one man, who, for complicated reasons, fell in love with the Afghans, and devoted himself to forcing spineless American bureaucrats to take a stand in the final battle of the Cold War. He made a real difference. But, ultimately, he couldn’t beat the cautious Agency men who were happy with half measures. And that is why we are back in Afghanistan now.