Charlie Wilson’s War reduces nearly 10 years of the Soviet-Afghan War into an hour and forty minutes of Sorkin-scribed witty dialogue focusing almost entirely on how one alcoholic, womanising congressman helped to raise the billions of dollars that were given to the mujahideen to fight the godless Commie invaders. While we know that CIA entertainment liaison Chase Brandon worked on the film, along with former CIA officer Milt Bearden, there is no documentation on exactly what influence they had. A close analysis of the draft scripts for Charlie Wilson’s War, compared to the finished film, suggest that it was heavily rewritten to suit the Agency’s agenda.
‘Good Time Charlie’ Wilson
The screenplay is based on George Crile’s 2003 book of the same name, but at with all book-to-film adaptations a lot of material was left out. Among the most important facts not to make it into the screenplay is that Charlie Wilson was a CIA asset and that Gust Avrakotos was his handler. The film likes to portray Wilson as a good-time congressman who got involved due to his own conscience and the encouragement of his friend Joanne Herring. In reality he was being handled by the CIA who used him because of his unique position not just on the appropriations committee who doled out the funds for Operation Cyclone, but also as a man who was owed a lot of favours by others on the Hill. According to Crile’s book in 1984 Gust approached Charlie to get him to increase the funds for arming the mujahideen, in violation of laws preventing the CIA from lobbying congress directly. Clearly they had a close and mutually trusting relationship.
As such, we have to look at the scandals around Wilson and wonder why they went away so easily. ‘Good time Charlie’ was frequently drunk and chased women almost non-stop and eventually his party boy antics got him into trouble with Rudolph Giuliani’s Justice Department investigation. Ultimately this came to nothing because Rudy couldn’t find any solid evidence of wrongdoing but Wilson himself said:
The girls had cocaine, and the music was loud. It was total happiness. And both of them had ten long, red fingernails with an endless supply of beautiful white powder…. The feds spent a million bucks trying to figure out whether, when those fingernails passed under my nose, did I inhale or exhale, and I ain’t telling.
When asked about it around the time of the film’s release in 2007 he was asked about his supposed use of cocaine and reiterated:
Nobody knows the answer to that and I ain’t telling
If Wilson was innocent then he would be able to say ‘no, the allegations are false’. The only reasons to smudge them over are because he is guilty, or because he’s such an egotist that he loves the extra attention. Or both.
However, the more serious issue than whether Charlie sniffed some coke from a stripper’s fingernail in a Vegas hot tub is the hit and run incident that was covered up. In 1980, apparently the night before his first trip to Pakistan, Wilson was driving drunk and while crossing the Key Bridge crashed his Lincoln Continental into a Mazda RX7 belonging to a young computer programmer. Wilson was so inebriated that he thought he had just hit the railing of the bridge, and sped off into the night. While the Washington Post’s report says that Wilson did not even stop to check if the occupants of the car he hit were OK, the version of the event that appears in a May 2005 draft script of Charlie Wilson’s War downplays his reckless irresponsibility:
EXT. CHARLIE’S CAR – NIGHT
It’s a large Lincoln and CHARLIE turns on to the Key Bridge to cross from D.C. into Virginia. The news is on the radio and after a report of record rainfall in the planes states is a report on a Soviet victory in some village in Afghanistan. Estimates of the number of Afghans killed in the attack.
CHARLIE (to the radio)
Hang on, boys, the Yanks are comin’.
CHARLIE rear-ends a Honda, sending it into the railing of the bridge. He SCREECHES on his breaks.
CHARLIE looks behind him and throws the car in reverse, backing himself up to the disabled Honda. He rolls down the window.
Are you guys all right?
MAN IN CAR
What the hell were you doing?!
Is anybody hurt?
MAN IN CAR
No thank God, but what the hell were you–
CHARLIE (to himself)
He thinks for a quick moment…then hits the gas and peels out.
Even this modified version was removed from the screenplay, though this edit was likely made at the request of Wilson himself, who consulted on the film. Nonetheless we’re left with the question of why Wilson was never prosecuted given the presence of eyewitnesses who identified his car as the offending vehicle. Apparently he was charged but never indicted, hinting at the possibility that his burgeoning involvement in Operation Cyclone led to him being protected.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Al Qaeda
At the other end of the story, in Afghanistan, the questions arise ‘where did the billions of dollars go?’ and ‘who did the CIA give it to?’. One of the major beneficiaries was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a narco-trafficking psychopath who was close friends with Osama Bin Laden and liked to skin people alive. Hekmatyar was as radical and fundamentalist as Muslims get, and spent most of his time during the Soviet-Afghan War fighting other, more moderate groups within Afghanistan than he did fighting against the Soviet invaders. After the war was over he helped stoke the fires of the Afghan Civil War and even served as Afghanistan’s Prime Minister on two occasions. When the Taliban rose to power he fled the country and it is only recently that he has negotiated a peace deal that allowed him to return.
The CIA are somewhat embarrassed by their relationship with Hekmatyar, given that he one of the worst human beings alive today. In May 2002 they tried to assassinate him in a drone strike, but failed. The following year he was designated a global terrorist. However, one amusing piece of the puzzle is that Hekmatyar featured in a documentary produced by Joanne Herring in the early days of the war. Herring travelled to Pakistan and Afghanistan and met Hekmatyar and she was so charmed by this Gucci-wearing terrorist warlord that she made him a central part of the film she was producing. While this film is briefly referred to in the final screenplay, Heymatyar’s name is not.
However, he is referenced in the 2005 version of the screenplay in a piece of dialogue that was deleted as work on the film progressed.
There’s also another group we like that’s gaining momentum. They’re just a couple of years old, they’re funded by a wealthy Saudi aristocrat. They observe a fairly radical brand of fundamentalism but they’re doing a heck of a job wreaking havoc on the Russians. We’d like to earmark 10 million for them and another 10-15 CIA advisors.
What’s their name?
They call themselves The Base. In Arabic that translates to Al Qaeda. All right, this next slide is of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, also a man to watch…
The Stinger Missiles
Another dimension to the CIA’s support for the mujahideen that the Charlie Wilson’s War screenplay took considerable dramatic license with is the stinger missiles. According to most histories the decision to provide stingers to the rebels did not take place until the mid-80s and the 2005 script echoes this. A lengthy sequence details the CIA discussing introducing the stinger to try to turn the odds in the mujahideen’s favour and then Gust goes to Charlie to pitch the idea. Wilson responds ‘Can the Afghans win without it?’ and Gust replies ‘no’ to which Charlie says ‘End of discussion’. Charlie then goes to the committee to ask for more money to buy the stingers and we see a montage of the weapons being shipped in through Pakistan while news reports describe their impact on the Soviet military. Finally there is a scene where Gust helps two other CIA agents directly train rebel fighters in how to use the weapon.
The 2006 script is quite different. Charlie is shown trying to buy some Stingers very early on during the belly dancing scene with officials from Israel and Egypt. Gust points out:
It’s what’s called a “Fire and Forget”weapon, that means anybody with a shoulder can operate it, are we okay with that?
This objection falls on deaf ears, and Charlie secures the deal. In the original script Gust makes this point during the CIA discussion meeting, which does not appear in the 2006 script. The later version cuts out all the scenes of the weapons being smuggled into the country and the exchange between Gust and Charlie over ‘can the Afghans win without it’ is switched from the Stingers to the Milan anti-tank weapon. However, the later script does include the scene of Gust helping to train the mujahideen in using the Stingers, though instead of two CIA agents running the class it is now two Pakistani agents. The 2006 version also includes a sequence where the rebels shoot down two Soviet helicopters using Stingers, which did make it into the final film. There is also a committee meeting scene where Charlie talks about the effectiveness of the missiles and asks to double the budget to $500 million.
The ultimate version, which appears in the film, doesn’t include Gust’s reservations or Charlie being involved in the decision to equip the mujahideen with Stingers. Also excised is the scene where Gust directly helps to train the rebels in using the weapon, and a section where Charlie shows off a trophy – the remnants of the first missile that successfully shot down a Soviet Hind helicopter.
Charlie Wilson’s War and 9/11
While this consistent downplaying of the CIA’s role, both in terms of scale and their direct involvement in the operation, may have been removed at the request of the Agency there is another element that does not appear in the final movie. In the 2005 script there is a lengthy scene at the end of the film after the Soviets have begun to withdraw. Gust warns Charlie about the probable consequences of their actions, explaining that they are getting reports that the radicals are starting to turn against America. Gust says:
We whipped them into a religious frenzy and taught ’em how to fuck with the army of a superpower.
That’s what we did.
(showing the paper again)
So I’m just saying we should be a little more careful.
At one point in their disagreement Charlie responds:
What’s more important to the history of the world? Some stirred up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?
Gust tells him:
There’s such a thing as unintended consequences, especially when you’ve been as reckless as we have.
The line of Charlie’s comes directly from an interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski (an interview he later refuted) where he defended the decision to arm and train the mujahideen just as Charlie does here. This scene is followed by one several years later where Charlie is at home when the Pentagon is struck on 9/11, the explosion reverberating through his house. In the 2006 script Gust’s predictions of dire consequences were toned down into the dialogue we see in the movie. However the 9/11 scene remained in the script at this point, though it was not included in the final film. While there are reasons for the CIA to be happy that these scenes were changed or deleted, media reports have documented how Charlie Wilson himself, along with Joanne Herring, put pressure on the producers to dilute and change the ending to not draw a direct line between Operation Cyclone and 9/11 and the rise of Al Qaeda.