Former Texas congressman Charlie Wilson, the architect of the US support for anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan and subject of the Hollywood movie Charlie Wilson’s War, died today. He was 76.
In the 1980s Wilson, a Democrat, used his position on a military appropriations subcommittee to secure covert US backing for the mujahideen forces instrumental in driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan. Pakistani president Zia ul-Haq, who had allowed the CIA to ship arms through his country, credited Wilson with the defeat.
During his more than two decades in Washington, Wilson was known as ‘Good Time Charlie’, the scotch-sodden womaniser portrayed by Tom Hanks in the 2007 movie.
Charlie Wilson’s War was based on a 2003 book by former 60 Minutes producer George Crile. According to Crile, Wilson once brought a belly dancer from Texas to Cairo to perform for the Egyptian defence minister, who was supplying ammunition to the Afghans.
The CIA officers Wilson worked with joked that his reputation as a party animal gave him the perfect cover for his work in arming the insurgents, using conservative Muslim countries in supporting roles. The operation eventually grew to about $750m a year – at the time the largest covert operation in the spy agency’s history.
To the public, Wilson appeared a political backbencher, rarely speaking on the floor of the House and staying out of the major policy battles of the day. But behind closed conference room doors on Capitol Hill, Wilson worked in secret to secure his colleagues’ support for the mujahideen by supporting military contracts in their constituencies, according to Crile.
While Wilson’s efforts helped win one of the deadliest proxy battles of the Cold War, the victory left a power vacuum later filled by the Taliban, many of whom were heavily armed with weapons procured by Wilson and provided by the CIA.
A graduate of the US Naval Academy, Wilson served as a lieutenant before entering the timber business. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1973 and retired in 1996.
Wilson died at Memorial Medical Center-Lufkin after he started having difficulty breathing while attending a meeting in the eastern Texas town where he lived, said Yana Ogletree, a hospital spokeswoman. Wilson was pronounced dead on arrival, and the preliminary cause of death was cardiopulmonary arrest, she said.
In 2007, Wilson had a heart transplant at a Houston hospital. Doctors had told Wilson, who suffered from cardiomyopathy, a disease that causes an enlarged and weakened heart, that he would likely die without a transplant.