ClandesTime 172 – An Alternative History of Al Qaeda: Charlie Wilson’s War
George Crile’s book Charlie Wilson’s War is the most in-depth account of the CIA’s support to the Afghan mujahideen, based on countless interviews with inside sources. It tells the story of how a rogue congressman – Charlie Wilson – and a rogue CIA officer – Gust Avrokotos – joined forces to create an army of ‘techno-holy warriors’ to fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. This week I offer an in-depth review of the book and the operation as a backgrounder to the rise of Al Qaeda. I hone in on the Agency’s relationships with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Jalaluddin Haqqani and Wilson himself, analysing the legacy of these connections in the post-9/11 war on terror.
The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. Many different theories have been postulated as to why this happened, almost all of which are wrong. According to Zbigniew Brzezinski it was because the Soviets needed a warm water port, and Afghanistan presented them with a launching pad for a possible invasion of Pakistan. Of course, this never happened, and documents from the Soviet archives show this was never on their agenda.
According to many commentators and conspiracy theorists, the Soviets were tricked into invading because the US government were funding and arming the mujahideen in an act of provocation. As we will see, this doesn’t add up because the initial funding for the Afghan resistance only ran to a few million dollars – hardly a threat that required a military response.
According to Russian state media, the Soviets invaded because the Afghan government asked for their support in crushing the resistance, like in Syria. Again, this isn’t true. It was the government of Nur Mohammed Taraki who asked the Soviets to send in troops, suggesting they dress them in Afghan military uniforms to disguise their origin. Taraki was overthrown and murdered by his number 2, Hafizullah Amin, who then took charge of the government for months before the Soviets invaded. The excuse that they’d been asked to be there is dishonest – the man who asked them to deploy troops had been dead for months.
Then there is Trump’s recent claim that the Soviets invaded because terrorists were using Afghanistan as a launching pad to attack the Soviet central Asian republics. This also isn’t true – there is no evidence of the mujahideen attacking the Soviet Union directly until the late 1980s, as the war turned against the Soviets. While Trump’s idiotic nonsense has led to predictable calls that he’s advancing a Russian government narrative, this also isn’t true.
The primary reason why the Soviets invaded is that they suspected Amin was going to flip, and join sides with the Americans like Anwar Sadat had done several years earlier. Amin met with a US diplomat in late October, shortly after overthrowing Taraki, and Soviet leadership became agitated at the prospect of US bases on their southern border. Despite their assessment that Communism was unlikely to succeed in the deeply religious, largely illiterate Afghan rural society, they committed to an invasion to topple Amin and reassert their influence in their client government.
Initially the CIA’s response was quite limited. The original budget for anti-Soviet operations in Afghanistan was just 5 million dollars – an ineffective amount given that the Soviets sent in 120,000 troops in tanks and armoured helicopters. The weapons bought with this money were also fairly pathetic – mostly WW1-era rifles that stood no chance against heavy armour. From very humble beginnings, the operation would grow to become the largest the CIA have ever carried out, topping out at over a billion dollars a year and including a dozen other countries in various roles.
While I have talked about the film of Charlie Wilson’s War before, it is important to note that it tells a grossly simplified, historically inaccurate version of events that is only loosely based on the book. Just to take one obvious example – the CIA couldn’t send in American-made weapons because if mujahideen were captured with such weapons the Soviets would know and be able to prove what was going on. So for the first five years of the war the plan was to provide Soviet weapons that, at a glance, could plausibly have been captured from Soviet troops and then turned back against them by the mujahideen.
This meant getting Israel and Egypt on side – Israel because they’d captured large stocks of Soviet weapons during their wars with Soviet-backed Arab nations, and Egypt because until 1973 they were Soviet allies being provided with masses of military hardware. In the film Charlie and Gust had already met by the time Charlie enlisted the help of an Israeli arms dealer named Zvi Rafiah. In reality Charlie had known and been friends with Zvi since 1973, a decade before he met Gust.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves – we should start with the question Who Was Charlie Wilson?
Born in June 1933 in Texas to a middle class family, Wilson attended just one semester of college before getting into the Annapolis Naval Academy to study engineering. Charlie was a born troublemaker and rule breaker, and earned the second most demerits of any student in the history of the academy, beaten only by his roommate. He graduated near the bottom of his class in 1956 and began serving in the Navy. Notoriously, his commanding officer called him the best sailor he’d ever served with at sea, and the worst sailor in port.
In the late 50s Wilson was first inducted into the intelligence world, working for military intelligence assessing the Soviet nuclear capabilities. In 1960 he volunteered for JFK’s presidential campaign, before violating Navy regulations to run for election in his home district as a state representative. He won, entering politics at the age of just 27.
In 1972 he ran and won the seat in congress for Texas’ second congressional district, the first of 12 terms. Wilson was something of an oddball, very liberal on social issues such as abortion, equal rights, regulation and Medicaid, but a hawk on foreign policy. He proudly admitted to being one of Israel’s guys on the Hill, and when he was appointed to the House Committee on Appropriations he increased US aid to Israel. He was later appointed to the Defense Appropriations Sub-Committee, which oversees the budget for covert operations.
Charlie Wilson was an alcoholic and a womaniser, who employed an almost exclusively female staff of aides and assistants, known as ‘Charlie’s Angels’. Despite hardly being seen twice with the same woman and being widely known as a drunk, he was appointed to the House Committee on Ethics in order to protect representative John Murtha. In exchange for accepting the position, Wilson got himself put on the board of the Kennedy Center, which enabled him to take various women on dates there.
In 1980, having read a report on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan he made a few phonecalls and got the budget for supporting the mujahideen increased from five to ten million – still a drop in the ocean, but an early omen of what was to come. Charlie was a news addict, and was very interested in foreign affairs. His office had a huge map of the world covering an entire wall, and for all his liberal credentials on domestic policy he was practically a neocon when it came to foreign policy.
What drew Wilson into the Afghan situation was not simply that the Soviets invaded. After he doubled the budget for covert ops it was another two years before he got both feet in the fire. The woman who turned him onto the Afghan cause was, ironically, an ultra right-wing Christian fundamentalist called Joanne Herring, one of the wealthiest women in Texas and a part-time girlfriend of Charlie’s.
Herring was good friends with Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, the military dictator of Pakistan. They’d grown so close that Zia made Herring Pakistan’s honorary consul in Texas, and later she became an honorary man and Pakistan’s unofficial roving ambassador to the world. The US State Department also enlisted her help, having her host lavish parties for foreign dignitaries and heads of state. A product of the John Birch Society, Herring was fanatically anti-Communist, claiming to have spent her life fighting for the free enterprise system. Curiously, this extended to making a pact with a military dictator of a country where most of the economy was run by the military and the government and where women were second-class citizens at best.
One of Herring’s friends, Charles Fawcett, had taken her to Afghanistan and together they had made a documentary about the struggle of the mujahideen called Courage is our Weapon. Herring arranged screenings of the film, which was even shown at CIA headquarters in the early 80s. After showing the film to Charlie, and pestering him for months to take up the cause of the Afghans, Wilson gave in to Herring and agreed to visit the Pakistan border region and meet with Zia to discuss the war.
In October 1982 Wilson made his trip, saw the refugee camps, met with Afghans who wanted to go back to Afghanistan and fight the Soviets, and met with Zia too. Zia outlined his terms – all weapons provided by the US had to go through Pakistan, either by boat at Karachi or by plane through Islamabad. The ‘Afghan Cell’ of the Pakistani ISI would then provide them to the mujahideen factions that they favoured, who would then use them to strike at the Russians.
One of the fears throughout the Soviet-Afghan War was that if the Soviets felt that Pakistan’s support for the resistance was too obvious, they might invade Pakistan and thus have access to the Indian ocean. This was largely predicated on the notion that it was a long-time Soviet ambition to have a ‘warm water port’. In reality that had been a more general Russian policy since Peter the Great founded St Petersburg, prior to which the only major Russian port was at Archangel, in the arctic circle. Given the fifty years of Soviet foreign policy had not got them any closer to that objective, if it was one of their aims then they pursued it incompetently.
At the time of Wilson’s visit to Pakistan the budget for covert ops had grown to $30 million a year, still quite small given the task at hand. Charlie’s visit convinced him that he needed to get involved, and in particular of the lethality of the Soviet Hind helicopters which were strafing the Afghan countryside with impunity. The low-powered rifles being supplied to the mujahideen had no hope of taking them down, and Charlie made it his personal mission to find a way to help the resistance shoot down the helicopters, and ultimately defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan.
It would be another 18 months – April 1984 – before he met the man with whom he would change the world.
CIA officer Gust Avrokotos was a veteran of the directorate of operations. The son of Greek immigrants, he grew up in Pennsylvania and joined the CIA in 1962. As a native Greek speaker he primarily worked on Greek affairs, and according to Charlie Wilson’s War he directed the military junta to kidnap the socialist politician Andreas Papandreou.
This is especially interesting because Daniele Ganser identifies the 1967 coup as involving the Gladio stay-behind network. That would make Gust a Gladio operative, though the book never mentions Gladio. That someone with experience in covert anti-communist operations would end up on the Afghan desk in the 1980s isn’t all that surprising, but that a Gladio operative was effectively in charge of Operation Cyclone suggests a kind of deep state continuity to affairs.
However, the way George Crile tells it Gust was something of a rebel, who was passed over for the job of head of station in Helsinki because of his lack of diplomatic skills and a tendency to talk in a very coarse, street-level way. Gust responded by telling his boss to go fuck himself. His boss’s boss, Clair George, arranged for him to go back and apologise, whereupon Gust told his boss to go fuck himself.
And so during the early 80s he was on the fringes at the Agency, and for a while wasn’t even assigned any specific job and looked like he was going to quit. Then John McGaffin invited him to join the Afghan desk, and Gust agreed, eventually taking over McGaffin’s job as head of operations in a region including Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Gust would later make it very clear that he considered the Iran-Contra affair extremely risky and stupid, as it involved teaming up with the anti-American Iranians.
Who is John McGaffin? He was another veteran of the CIA’s directorate of operations, and would eventually rise to become the number 2 spymaster at the Agency. These days he works for the Center for Strategic and International Studies and is the series consultant on Homeland. His invitation to Gust didn’t just save Gust’s career, it put in motion a series of events that would eventually make Operation Cyclone the biggest thing the CIA have ever done.
Between 1982 and 1984 Charlie spent much of his time getting a bill approved that increased the budget for Cyclone by another $40 million, including around $20 million to buy the Swiss-made Oerlikon anti-aircraft cannon in the hope of shooting down some of the Soviet helicopters. He also got into something of a war with the CIA bureaucracy, who didn’t want to escalate the war but merely sought to bleed the Soviets for as long as possible. They also didn’t like that a congressman, especially one with a degree of power over their budget, was sticking his nose into covert operations.
In April 1984 Gust Avrokotos solved this problem in a typically counter-intuitive way – he recruited Charlie Wilson as an asset. The book described this quite explicitly, though it notes that Gust did not go through the usual protocols, and did not have the CIA’s legislative liaison present when he first approached Wilson. When CIA officers give briefings or otherwise talk to politicians they are supposed to have someone along to hear what is being said and to try to prevent any secrets being leaked. There was none of that in the Gust-Charlie relationship, which Crile describes as nothing short of a ‘conspiracy’.
Gust and Charlie shared a passion for trying to hurt the Soviets, and the ambition to see the mujahideen win the war. Most people in the CIA, the White House and the State Department merely wanted to embarrass and frustrate the Soviets, the idea of actually winning the war wasn’t on the table. So Gust and Charlie set about massively increasing the support to the mujahideen, including getting a commitment from Prince Bandar that the Saudi government would provide matching funds for whatever the CIA committed to Afghanistan.
This money came with no strings attached – it was paid into a Swiss bank account and the CIA could use it however they wished. While the payments often came in late, they were effectively a free black operations budget with no limits on when or how the money had to be spent. Unlike congressionally-approved funding, which has to be spent by the end of the year and if not it has to be returned to the treasury, the Saudi money could sit in the CIA’s private accounts and be spent whenever, wherever and however they liked as part of the effort to defeat the Soviets.
Once Gust took over the Afghan desk he set about recruiting the best officers he could find to work the operation. He needed people to run the bank accounts, set up front companies to ship the weapons around the world, develop logistics and supply lines to help the ISI get the weapons into the hands of the mujahideen. Gust relied on an old network of informers he had developed within Langley – the secretaries. Secretaries know a lot of things – they overhear conversations, they read a lot of paperwork, they have to draft responses for their bosses to sign, they gossip about new employees, who is rumoured to be good at their job and who is fucking things up.
Gust tapped this network, which he’d cultivated over the previous two decades, to pull together an elite team of specialists to run Operation Cyclone. But remarkably, they were only 14 of them, responsible for what would eventually become 57% of the CIA’s entire budget for operations. Crile’s book makes clear that while this tiny, heavily compartmentalised unit were running things they tapped hundreds of others, from language specialists to the spy satellite division and eventually paramilitary trainers to perform the various tasks they needed.
But the man who made the biggest difference of all was not Charlie Wilson or Gust Avrokotos, it was a low-grade CIA weapons specialist named Mike Vickers.
Michael Vickers was born in California and from 1973 to 1986 served in the US Army, primarily in the Special Forces. He cross trained with both the SAS and the Navy SEALs, and at one point even volunteered to parachute behind enemy lines in the case of all-out war with the Soviet Union, carrying a tactical nuke to be used to collapse a mountain pass and block troop movements.
Vickers studied unconventional warfare, paramilitary tactics and became a weapons specialist and in the autumn of 1984 Gust recruited him for the South Asia Operations Group. At this point Vickers had only been with the Agency for about a year and a half, and was a low-level officer in the Special Activities Division. Gust didn’t trust the paramilitary division to provide him with someone suitable, so he used the secretaries network to draw up a list of possibles, with Vickers top of that list.
Vickers somewhat nerdy and unassuming appearance belies the fact that he is a genius when it comes to unconventional warfare and strategy. While Charlie Wilson was obsessed with the Oerlikon, it was Vickers who realised that no one single weapon was going to make the difference against the Soviet army. He also abandoned the CIA’s policy of simply mass-supporting the mujahideen, which numbered close to half a million fighters, instead focusing on 150,000 of the best-organised forces.
Mike drew up a plan involving a wide range of weapons ranging from AK-47s to bicycle bombs and anti-aircraft cannons. As he explained to Gust, the new strategy was to provide the mujahideen with a variety of ways to hit the Soviets, so they would never know what to expect or what kind of tactics to use to try to evade the resistance’s strikes. The plan also included advanced communications equipment and targeting technology, and the book repeatedly emphasises Vickers’ concept of the technoguerilla.
He also developed a training program to teach the mujahideen how to use all this equipment, but in practice this meant training ISI officers who would then train the Afghans. This led Vickers to suggest that the CIA’s own people go into Afghanistan themselves, undercover, to carry out the training and help direct operations.
This massive escalation of what was, in late 1984, still quite a modest operation met with resistance. The fears ranged from the Soviets figuring out what the CIA were doing, through to them invading Pakistan in retaliation. They had already started raiding the border region, and were laying waste to miles of land in between the border and the areas where the fighting took place, to try to isolate the mujahideen within Afghanistan.
But Gust and Charlie didn’t care, and pushed through a massively expanded budget now running into the hundreds of millions of dollars – backed dollar-for-dollar by the Saudis. By 1985 over half of the CIA’s entire budget for covert ops was going to Afghanistan, to buy everything from weapons to radios to trucks and mules to ship all this through the Khyber Pass into the country. Despite reports that some mujahideen were copulating with the mules they continued using this very low-tech means of transport for several years.
One of the reasons for bureaucratic resistance to this expansion was the CIA’s fear of being caught doing things they shouldn’t be doing, again. The 1970s had seen a number of investigations into CIA activities with numerous embarrassing secrets being revealed. This led to a congressional ban on the CIA using assassination as a tactic, so while they were able to send in hundreds of thousands of rifles and machine guns and millions of rounds of ammunition, they couldn’t send in sniper scopes.
A few days after the Soviet invasion, right at the end of 1979, one of Brzezinski’s staffers drew up a menu of possible responses for Zbig to send to president Carter. One of the suggestions included lifting all restrictions on CIA activities and operations, giving them a free hand to do whatever was deemed necessary. This option wasn’t taken up at the time, and instead the CIA wrote four findings for the president to sign, authorising support to the mujahideen.
Years later, as Vickers developed his masterplan for defeating the Soviets the Afghan group realised that what he was proposing went far beyond the language in these presidential findings. The White House also started asking questions about possible corruption in the delivery of all of these weapons, and about the purpose of the operation.
The task of responding to the White House fell to Vickers, who explained that the CIA had put measures in place to ensure that the weapons were delivered to the right places. They put tracking chips in some shipments and followed them via satellite, recruited spies among the mujahideen and the Pakistani military, and sent in some of their own spies under cover as journalists and documentary film-makers.
Vickers also saw this as an opportunity not simply to allay the White House’s fears and keep the operation going, but to get them on board. So he explicitly changed the strategy from merely bleeding the Soviets, to actually winning the war. The language in Vickers’ response made it into the highly classified National Security Decision Directive 166, signed by Reagan. It said that they should try to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan ‘by any means available’. In effect, Reagan had overturned the bans and restrictions on CIA activities, and Vickers was instrumental in making this happen.
In order to produce all these extra weapons Gust, Charlie and Mike tapped into not just Israel and Egypt but also China. The Chinese have long been allies of Pakistan and had been involved in supporting the mujahideen on a small scale from the beginning. Now, Gust persuaded them to mass-manufacture weapons and ammunition to be sold to the CIA who would then ship it to the rebels. While Gust was deeply suspicious of Iran-Contra and didn’t like the CIA getting into bed with the anti-American Iranians, he had no problem teaming up with the Communist Chinese. Who in turn had no problem selling weapons and ammunition to support the mujahideen in their fight against the Communist Soviet Union.
As the operation grew, Charlie got even bolder in his efforts to maximise funding. He discovered that the Pentagon had $300 million in funds that had been approved by congress, but which they hadn’t spent. If they didn’t spend it by the end of the year then it would have to be returned to the treasury, so despite having only a few days to make things happen Wilson put the wheels in motion and managed to shark the whole $300 million for his Afghan project.
In 1985 more help for Operation Cyclone came from the Agency for International Development or AID’s Cross Border program. This was a program to provide medical and other non-military support to the mujahideen and in ‘85 it was taken over by Larry Crandall. Crandall had worked for AID for years – his first big job was in Vietnam where he helped provide cover for the CIA’s Phoenix Program, so he was used to working with the Agency.
Initially armed with a few million dollars he moved to Peshawar in September 1985 and rather than throwing the money into medical supplies or refugee assistance he bought a bunch of 4x4s and trucks to give to the mujahideen leadership. With Charlie’s help, the Cross Border program would eventually grow to $100 million a year, doing everything from building roads to help the CIA’s weapons shipments through to smuggling sniper scopes into the country via the International Medical Corps clinics. In effect, AID functioned as an extension of the CIA, indeed Wilson sometimes suspected that Crandall was CIA.
Around the same time Crandall first moved into Peshawar, Vickers left the Agency. With the budget and plan in place and the first of the new range of weapons arriving in the field, his work was done. Even though he was offered his pick of foreign assignments once he’d finished in the South Asia Operations Group, Vickers felt that the highlight of his CIA career had already happened, it was all downhill from there.
In the 1990s Vickers left government life behind and worked in the private sector, but in 2007 he was back, appointed as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict. Under Obama he would become the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence – the highest ranking civilian military intelligence officer. Due to his role in overseeing the 2011 Abbottabad raid he was interviewed by the film-makers behind Zero Dark Thirty, effectively consulting on the script. This led to a DOD Inspector General investigation into whether he had leaked classified information, which eventually exonerated him.
Was Charlie Wilson a CIA Asset?
One of the questions provoked by Operation Cyclone is whether Charlie Wilson was a CIA asset. Crile’s book says yes – it describes his recruitment by Gust, and eventually calls him the CIA’s ‘Station Chief on the Hill’, there to deal with any CIA issue in congress. Thanks to the CIA’s CREST database, we can now verify and expand on this.
It appears the CIA kept a file on Wilson, because one document includes a congressional Who’s Who entry on him but all the other pages (presumably CIA memos and such) were deleted before it was posted on CREST. What we can confirm is that throughout the 80s Wilson didn’t just meet with Gust, he met with CIA director Bill Casey and his deputy directors, on multiple occasions. They also provided him with classified briefings, and even monitored news coverage about him. One Washington Post story criticised Wilson for his role in pushing through the budget increases, leading to the CIA drafting a letter in response.
When Casey died Wilson met with his replacement, William Webster, necessitating an extensive background briefing for the new director on the congressman. One memo says, ‘As far as the Agency is concerned Mr. Wilson is a one issue man, Afghanistan.’ It goes on, ‘As an active Democratic Member of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, and now the House Intelligence Committee, he is an important Oversight Member. He will be very pleased with the invitation and the opportunity to share his views with you and the Deputy Directors.’
Indeed, during the 1980s Charlie got onto other influential committees, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Foreign Affairs Committee. The Intelligence committee is responsible for oversight of the intelligence services, including the CIA. One of their leaders, Louis Stokes, introduced a bill demanding greater oversight of the CIA, requiring that all findings be turned over the committee as soon as they were signed. As a CIA memo notes, it was Charlie Wilson who stood out as the only Democrat on the committee who didn’t co-sponsor the bill, and he later helped kill it entirely.
As Crile’s book notes, when Charlie rose to prominence on the intelligence committee he announced to his CIA friends that the ‘fox has now entered the hen house’ and told them to ‘do what you want’. If all that wasn’t enough, Charlie was given a medal by the CIA at a ceremony in Langley, to thank him for his service.
This poses some serious questions. The CIA are not allowed, legally, to lobby congress for more money. But Gust ignored this and recruited Wilson as an asset to do exactly that – be a breadwinner for the Afghan campaign. What these documents show is that Wilson was more than that, he was the CIA’s man not just inside congress, but inside the appropriations and oversight committees who determine what the CIA can and cannot do and how much money they get. The fact that he killed a bill seeking greater CIA oversight, and the CIA picked up on this (and other key votes) suggests he did so on their behalf.
This goes way beyond merely spying on congress, which the CIA was caught doing a few years back and it was quite a scandal. This is the CIA effectively bypassing any notion of a democratic, accountable society and recruiting politicians to protect them, rather than oversee them. This is completely illegal and probably unconstitutional but I’ve never seen anyone criticise Wilson for this, let alone seek to prosecute him for it.
One other CIA document is worth mentioning here. In April 1988 a huge series of explosions hit Ojiri, a town between Islamabad and Rawalpindi. They killed over 100 people, wounded over 1000 and were initially interpreted as the Soviet Union’s revenge on Pakistan for their role in Operation Cyclone.
In reality the town was being used as a massive depot to store weapons and munitions from the CIA, on their way to Afghanistan. Amid rumours that the Pakistanis were siphening off some of the weapons and selling them on the side the US demanded a full audit. A few weeks before the inspectors were due to arrive, the depot blew up and an investigation by ISI chief Hamid Gul determined that it was sabotage to cover up the massive theft. More recent investigations say that the money used from selling the stolen weapons was used to fund AQ Khan’s network and help build Pakistan’s first nuclear bomb.
Shortly after the explosion Charlie did two things. First, he arranged for a replacement shipment so that the supplies to the mujahideen could be maintained. Second, he asked the CIA to brief the Intelligence Committee on what had happened. Most of the memos on this are redacted so I’m not entirely sure what was said at the briefing, but there’s no indication that the Committee knew the real story.
Changing angles a bit, it is odd how many of the people involved in this operation have since worked in the entertainment industry. Mike Vickers, Charlie Wilson, John McGaffin, and the Islamabad station chief in the late 80s, Milt Bearden. By the time Bearden arrived the stinger missile supply had begun and things were turning in favour of the mujahideen. Bearden and Wilson got along well – two Texans, out in the frontier, fighting the Commies.
Indeed, while Bearden was station chief Wilson actually paid a visit to Afghanistan to meet with some of the mujahideen leaders and at one point even firing off a volley of rockets at a Soviet garrison. Given that the US was officially not involved in the war, for a US congressman to take such a ludicrous risk is absurd, and I might not believe the story except I’ve seen video footage of the incident.
When CBS decided to do a 60 Minutes special on Charlie Wilson and the Afghan war, produced by George Crile, Bearden essentially set up the whole thing. He arranged for Charlie to go and meet with the mujahideen, who met him with an honor guard on horseback. They took him to one of their camps, where they had laid out a selection of the CIA-supplied weapons in a semi-circle for him to examine. Charlie fired off a few shots at the nearby hillsides, before being pictured atop a large white horse. He also joined the mujahideen in chanting Allahu Akbar.
This sequence of events, along with shots of an abandoned Soviet cabin complete with half-empty bottle of Russian vodka, had been set up by Bearden, shot for shot. While all of this was taking place Bearden was monitoring things via walkie-talkie from just over the horizon, along with his boss, Frank Anderson. They weren’t just using Charlie to win them money and fend off attempts at congressional oversight, they were now acting as his media management.
The Legacy of Charlie Wilson’s War
The legacy of Operation Cyclone is complex and lengthy, but I think it can be illustrated by the tales of two of the men who received large proportions of the CIA support: Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
Hekmatyar is one of the worst people who has ever lived. A narco-trafficking psychopath and religious fundamentalist, he spent much of the war fighting with other factions inside Afghanistan, rather than targeting the Soviet forces. He even tried to assassinate Ahmed Shah Massoud, a Tajik leader in the North who was particularly adept at hitting the Soviets where it hurts, and an MI6 asset.
Despite this it was Hekmatyar’s group who received the biggest proportion of CIA support. Money, weapons, medical supplies, equipment, even wheat and grain which they sold on the black market alongside that staple Afghan crop, heroin. And the CIA knew all of this – one memo about a delegation of the Afghan resistance to the UN notes that Hekmatyar – who led the delegation – was known for his fundamentalist and anti-Western views and would therefore be ‘less likely to be viewed as a tool of the United States’. Other memos show that through the 80s the CIA knew exactly who they were dealing with.
Following the Soviet withdrawal in 1988, Charlie Wilson continued pushing for large scale support from the US to the mujahideen. The Communist government in Kabul remained in place, so Charlie thought the job wasn’t finished. Three years after the Soviet forces left the US were still spending $200 million to support the rebels. When the government fell, Hekmatyar briefly became Prime Minister and fought a very bloody civil war against the other mujahideen factions for control of the country.
In 1996, following the rise of the Taliban, he fled the country and took up residence in Iran. Following the 2001 invasion he relocated to Pakistan, where he attempted to lead an armed insurgency against the new, Western-backed government in Kabul. The CIA tried to assassinate him in a missile strike but failed. More recently, in 2016, he signed a peace deal with the Afghan government and is now trying to reinvent himself as a statesman.
Along similar lines is Jalaluddin Haqqani, who created the Haqqani network. He also received large amounts of CIA support, and was one of those who met with Wilson when he visited Afghanistan. Charlie described Haqqani as ‘goodness personified’, and stayed in his camp. When the US launched Cruise missile strikes against Osama bin Laden’s camps in the wake of the embassy bombings, one of them landed pretty much on the same spot where Charlie had slept.
While Haqqani largely avoided taking sides in the Afghan Civil War, he did sign up with the Taliban in the mid 90s and served in their government in several roles.
Following the 2001 invasion the US did make overtures and tried to woo him back to their side, but he rejected them. Hamid Karzai also tried offering him a position in his government, but was also rejected. So in 2008 the US designated him a global terrorist and tried to assassinate him via an airstrike in Dandi Darpa Khail in North Waziristan. Like the Hekmatyar strike, this failed.
Years later he would be immortalised in season four of Homeland, in the character of Haissam Haqqani, who also survives a US airstrike in Dandi Darpa Khail. The primary CIA consultant on the series was, of course, John McGaffin – the man who had recruited Gust Avrokotos to the Afghan team in the first place.
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