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Charlie Wilson’s War
Monday, 31 December 2007 19:42
by Larry C. Johnson

I guess it is impossible for any movie, with the exception of Lord of the Rings, to capture the essence of the original book (come to think of it, Hollywood took liberties with Tokien). That is true for the recently released film of George Crile’s masterpiece, Charlie Wilson’s War. You lose the nuance and complexity that Crile captures, but the basic storyline is sound.

There are two central characters – Congressman Charlie Wilson and CIA case officer, Gust Avrakotos. Wilson was a womanizer, alcoholic, and patriot. Avrakotos was a working class guy not viewed by his supervisors as management material. He was too rough around the edges. This is a story of a Washington that no longer exists.

As the Reagan Administration spent its political capital during the mid-eighties to fight the Democratic controlled Congress’s efforts to cutoff covert funds for the Contras fighting to overthrow the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, an obscure Democratic Congressman, Charlie Wilson, working almost alone helped organize and fund a massive covert operation to beat the Soviets in Afghanistan. The movie tells that basic story in a very entertaining fashion, but it does not approach the wild truth that George Crile brings to life in his book.

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Unfortunately, Hollywood is no damn good with history. They take enormous liberties with the real story. Gust Avrakotos, for example, appears as the central CIA guy running the op throughout. In the real world Gust subsequently was replaced by Jack Devine and Frank Anderson. You also hear nothing about Milt Bearden, who actually was in charge in Pakistan and oversaw the training and equipping of the various mujahideen recipients of CIA funds.

The movie also tries to gloss over the fact that the United States was funding some of the mujahideen – Haqqani and Hekmatayar in particular – that we are now fighting in Afghanistan. Shah Ahmad Massoud is presented in the movie as the main beneficiary of U.S. largesse. Not so. He received one, but there was continuing tension between Massoud, a Tajik, and the Pushtun Afghans who were backed by Pushtun cousins in Pakistan.

This much is true – the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was seen as an atrocity and outrage. And the Soviets were guilty of killing and maiming hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians. It was a noble effort on our part. But the movie also is ripe with irony. How many Afghan refugees have we helped create? While we are not engaged in the same indiscriminate attacks on Afghan civilians, there are unfortunately too many credible reports in which our forces have bombed villages and killed civilians. It is tough to leave the movie feeling too comfortable about our own moral superiority.

Too bad the movie could not show the contrast between the covert effort backing the Contras and that of the Afghans. Crile accurately captures the night and day difference. I was fortunate during the fall of 1985 to work on the Afghan Task Force and then, in the Spring of 1986, on the Central American Task Force. Crile correctly notes that the Central American Task force was a black comedy of errors and the Afghan Task Force was an unsung, under appreciated effort. It was the worst and best of the CIA.

If you are 35 or younger you have no memory of this period. George Crile’s book is required reading. Get the book first and then see the movie. Both are worth your time. 
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