Book Review: Charlie Wilson’s War by George Crile

I haven’t seen the movie, but the book (upon which the film is based) is outstanding. Riveting from start to finish — a real-life CIA thriller. Crile presents a detailed, blow-by-blow account of how the United States congress came to fund the biggest covert CIA campaign in history and the actual on-the-ground effort in the 80’s to help the mujahideen defeat the Soviets. I found much of the book infuriating: the shameless usurpation of democratic processes by congressman Charlie Wilson, the win-at-all-costs mentality that infects the minds of warmongers, and especially the tragic irony that we armed the very people who are now killing us in Afghanistan.

One of the most haunting paragraphs of the book:

…the more dangerous legacy of the Afghan war is found in the minds and convictions of Muslims around the world. To them the miracle victory over the Soviets was all the work of Allah — not the billions of dollars that America and Saudi Arabia poured into the battle, not then ten-year commitment of the CIA that turned an army of primitive tribesmen into techno-holy warriors.

In other words, as they attributed their improbable, U.S.-backed victory against the Soviets to greater religious forces, the present-day insurgents carry a sense of invincibility fighting the current American soldiers in Afghanistan. Their resilience the past nine years backs up this point.

A few other quotes from the book:

“They are a nations of tribes with an extreme ethnocentricity which makes them not only hate or suspect foreigners but Afghans living two valleys away.” [BC: America is currently trying to train a “national army” in Afghanistan.]

“If you asked, ‘Did Charlie do it with my approval?’ No. But he did it with my consent.” – Speaker O’Neill on Wilson’s Afghanistan efforts

“Operating in the black markets is like trying to get laid in a city you don’t know. In a strange city, if you have enough money, you’re bound to find something, but there might be a disease contracted, you might get rolled or arrested, and there’s not telling how much it will cost. With your wife, it’s predictable and in a steady quantity.”

“…an old tactic of Muslim warfare: to leave one man to tell the tale.”

“The dirty little secret of the Afghan war was that Zia has a extracted a concession early on from Reagan: Pakistan would work with the CIA against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and in return the United States would not only provide aid but would agree to look the other way on the question of the bomb.”

“In Pashtun, the word for cousin also means enemy.”


A more detailed analysis of the history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan from 1979 until 2001 can be found in Steve Coll’s excellent book The Ghost Wars. I reviewed it here.

4 comments on “Book Review: Charlie Wilson’s War by George Crile
  • The main contention I have with this type of authorship is that it ascribes too much to culture, and projects what isn’t there.

    Tibetans aren’t exactly what Mr Gere thinks they are. Indians aren’t noble savages. Aborigines in Australia do not live in harmony with their environment.

    The moment we think Afghans are not like us, we fail ourselves in helping our future generations navigate this world.

  • since i worked in the ISI during the afghan jihad…i can safely say that most of what is written in “charlie wilson’s” war is a work of fiction, to get cheap publicity for the CIA.

    Charlie Wilson was probably nothing more than an ISI mole who obeyed Zia’s order and channeled vast amounts of funds to Pakistan.

    It was a war that was run and managed and then sold internationally by the ISI, with CIA being merely a silent spectator. Since Pakistan was sandwiched with India to the east and its ally the soviet Russia to the west it had to get out of that predicament.

    Even now the solution to the Afghan mess is with Pakistan.

    And just to clarify, it isn’t afghans that are killing Americans, but an invading American army butchering Afghans.

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