Saturday, January 20, 2007

Review of “Charlie Wilson’s War” by George Crile – An Astounding Story

While I was in London on my recent trip, my friend, Roy Vella, was kind enough to pass on to me a remarkable book that he had just finished reading. George Crile, a veteran producer for “60 Minutes,” has done a remarkable job of assembling a dizzying array of implausible facts into a well-told tale of America’s largest covert operation in history. Dan Rather’s blurb on the book’s dustcover summarizes very well what I experienced as I tore through the pages of this true story that reads like Clancy or Le Carre on hallucinogenic mushrooms:

“Americans often ask: ‘Where have all our heroes gone?’ Well a lot of them come roaring through in this tour de force of reporting and writing. Tom Clancy’s fiction pales in comparison with the amazing, mesmerizing story told by George Crile. By resurrecting a missing chapter out of our recent past, 'Charlie Wilson’s War' provides us with the key to understanding the present.”

In short, this is the story of an obscure congressman from Texas who teamed up with a rogue CIA operative to find ways to fund and to funnel arms to the Afghan “Freedom Fighters” – the mujahideen. That stream of escalating aid eventually turned the tide and tipped the scale in their favor and empowered them to rout the Red Army from the mountains of South Asia. What makes the tale so compelling is the cast of real characters who populate this tale of realpolitik and hidden levers of power In Washington. Charlie Wilson emerges as a comic book hero – full of flaws and bravado - yet one who accomplishes what no one else in history had been able to do.

What makes this book timely is the fact that the very arms that Charlie Wilson managed to get into the hands of the Afghan "Freedom Fighters" were eventually used against the U.S. as the Afghans turned from fighting the Russians to seeing the Americans as the enemy of fundamental Islam. This book is a brilliantly told cautionary tale of unexpected consequences.

Crile obtained access to a broad array of world leaders in piecing together his riveting tale of swashbuckling powerbrokers changing the way the world fights wars. The dramatic escalation of U.S. dollars flowing through the CIA to Pakistan and on to the “Freedom Fighters” is all the more remarkable in that it was done in stealth mode while the Iran-Contra scandal was commanding the intense scrutiny of the press.

One of the striking aspects of this story of Charlie Wilson and his private war is the nature of the friendship that Wilson formed with Pakistani dictator, Zia ul-Haq. Crile cites Rudyard Kipling to great effect is talking about the special nature of the unlikely partnership that was forged between Zia and Charlie:

“Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,

Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;

But there is neither East nor West, border, not breed, nor birth,

When two strong men stand face-to-face, though they come from the ends of the earth!”

(page 501)

For anyone who wants to gain greater insight into the real working of Congress, the intelligence community, the events that sowed the seeds that led to the attacks on 9/11 – this is a “must read” book.

Thanks, Roy, for a wonderful gift.



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