This account of the intrigue and secrets of the covert effort to make Afghanistan the Soviet Union's Vietnam reads more like a Tom Clancy novel than a thick history tome.
Author George Crile weaves together the actions of belly dancers, beauty queens, rogue CIA agents and rugged Mujahideen warriors to show that truth is, in fact, far stranger than fiction. As Clancey himself once said, the problem with writing fiction is that it has to be believable. There is no such rule governing non-fiction, as is readily apparent in Charlie Wilson's War.
There's something for both the beltway insider and the middle American on vacation. You'll see examples of the clout of the pro-Israel lobby and the close relationship that once existed between the United States government and Saudi Arabia, now largely forgotten in the aftermath of 9/11.
Crile's explanations of the legislative horse trading among Hill veterans like House Speaker Tip O'Neill is just as compelling, as are the insider accounts of the gruff no-nonsense attitude of CIA Director Bill Casey.
Rep. Charlie Wilson, known to many as "Good Time Charlie of East Texas." is the glue holding the disparate parts together. His war moves from the secret hideaways inside the United States Capitol to top secret locations at the CIA headquarters at Langley -- with plenty of international travel and intrigue in between.
Wilson himself has enough character and quirks for two books, but Crile introduces us to CIA agent Gust Avrakotos, who, more than any other person at the CIA, oversaw and managed the dramatic escalation in covert activities.
At one point, half of the CIA budget was funding this insurgency effort.
We find out how Avrakotos acquired the nickname "Dr. Dirty" and become equally awed and shocked by his willingness to push the envelope of CIA rules in the name of promoting America's national security interests.
No one will come away from this book without realizing how critical the Reagan Administration's covert support for Afghan freedom fighters was in bringing about the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. Wilson, a Democrat, used his position on the House Appropriations Committee in the finest and sadly bygone bipartisan tradition to secretly fund this effort -- all the while maintaining his reputation as "the biggest playboy in Congress."
As Wilson travels with different attractive blondes to Egypt, Israel, Turkey and Afghanistan, you'll be mesmerized by the close calls and accounts of how politicians, spies, dictators are intertwined with him in what may have been the greatest battle of the Cold War.
And there's more. In Charlie Wilson's War, you'll meet the CIA's own "Q" -- technology wizard Art Alper -- whose fiendishly creative mind worked to develop weapons capable of amazing levels of lethality to terrorize the Soviet army.
Beautiful women, international jetsetters, and the high life of Texas millionaires are all there and presented for up-close scrutiny alongside great insights into the legislative process, seeing how much of federal spending is on auto-pilot and how much bureaucracies stifle critical administration policies even in the Central Intelligence Agency.
This is a fascinating story. Wilson is a larger than life character and his story would be a great read if it was fiction - the fact that it actually happened makes it all the more incredible.
Step aside Oliver North. Crile shows how one U.S. representative and the a CIA agent could work together to help push Ronald Reagan's policies and, thereby, change the global political infrastructure. In light of his personal travails, you simply won't believe what Charlie Wilson was able to accomplish. He's larger than life and deserves a hero's appreciation.
-- The book at a glance: Charlie Wilson's War -- The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History, by George Crile. Atlantic Monthly Press, $26.00, 560 pages.
-- Horace Cooper is a senior fellow with the Centre for New Black Leadership (CNBL.org), an organization which works to develop market-oriented, community-based solutions to the economic and social problems plaguing black communities in America.
-- "Outside View" commentaries are written for UPI by outside writers who specialize in a variety of important global issues.
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