Charismatic US politician who helped fund Afghan rebels and who enjoyed hopping into hot tubs with showgirls
Published 14/02/2010 | 05:00
Charlie Wilson, who died on February 10 aged 76, was a buccaneering American politician whose covert campaign to funnel billions of dollars to the Mujahideen fighting the Soviet army in Afghanistan was portrayed in a Hollywood film.
Wilson's favourite reading was the Flashman series, and with his good looks,his bad behaviour and his womanising ways, he resembled George MacDonald Fraser's roguish anti-hero in any number of respects.
Like Flashman, Wilson seemed to prove that a winning smile and a taste for the high life could have a unexpectedly significant impact on international affairs. 'Good Time Charlie' may have been a lowly Texas congressman, but he was at various times credited with ensuring the defeat of the Red Army in Afghanistan; the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union; and glorious victory for the West in the Cold War.
The tag-line for the film of his adventures, Charlie Wilson's War (2007), in which he was played by Tom Hanks and which also starred Julia Roberts, summed up the incredulity that accompanied such an assessment: "Based on a true story. You think we could make all this up?"
Fewer of the accounts of his life went on to relate that many of the same Mujahideen whom Wilson had helped to fund, including Osama bin Laden, eventually used Afghanistan as a base for terrorism that would quickly bite the hand that had fed it. Twelve years after the withdrawal from Afghanistan of Soviet troops, their place had been taken by American soldiers responding to the attacks of 9/11.
Though that coda did not always sit well with the emerging 'Good Time Charlie' legend, whether in book or film form, Wilson himself was keenly aware of charges that he had helped open a Pandora's box in central Asia.
"People like me didn't fulfil our responsibilities once the [Soviet] war was over," he admitted. "We allowed this vacuum to occur in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which enraged a lot of people. That was as much my fault as it was a lot of others."
At other times, he appeared less conciliatory: "We were fighting the evil empire," he said in 2007. "It would have been like not supplying the Soviets against Hitler in World War Two. Anyway, who the hell had ever heard of the Taliban then?"
That attitude certainly rubbed off on many of Wilson's peers.
"As the world now knows, his efforts and exploits helped repel an invader, liberate a people, and bring the Cold War to a close," noted the current US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, who was in the CIA when Wilson was using the agency to get weapons to the Mujahideen.
Whatever its influence on world events, the effects of Charlie Wilson's charismatic persona were not in doubt at a personal level. He was unapologetic about spending time in hot tubs with Las Vegas showgirls whose "long, red fingernails" came loaded with "an endless supply of beautiful white powder".
Nor did he seem bashful about loading his Washington office with female assistants whose most obvious qualifications might have been best displayed at swimsuit competitions. Inevitably, they came to be known as "Charlie's Angels".
The fact that he once tried (and failed) to take a beauty queen with him on a trip to Afghanistan, or tried (and succeeded) to take a belly dancer from Texas to Cairo to perform for the Egyptian defence minister, seemed only to endear him further to his fans.
Charles Nesbitt Wilson was born on June 1, 1933 in Trinity, Texas, and quickly demonstrated the independent, calculating streak that was to serve him so well in politics.
After his dog, Teddy, ventured once too often into the flower beds of his neighbour Charles Hazard, an elected city official, he found the beloved pet poisoned. Initial revenge took the form of floral arson, with the prized blooms reduced to cinders.
But this was not satisfactory to the boy, who decided to exact further retribution at the ballot box. Using his learner's licence, he ferried almost 100, mostly black, voters to the polls, dropping each one off with the phrase: "I don't want to influence your vote, but I'd like you to know that Charles Hazard poisoned my dog." Hazard lost by 16 votes.
An unsuccessful stint at the US Naval Academy followed before Wilson, inspired by the presidential run of John F Kennedy, decided to take 30 days' leave and run as a Texas state representative.
He was elected in 1961, aged 27, and would serve 12 years in the state's House and Senate. In 1973 he was elected to the US House of Representatives, where he appeared set to serve a backbench role of little note. By the time of the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan, however, Wilson had seats on two influential committees, one of which decided military appropriations.
Affected by a trip to Pakistan in which he had seen the conditions in which refugees from Afghanistan were living, as well as the wounded from the conflict, Wilson decided to turn his personal skills to concrete effect back in Washington.
By offering his support for military contracts that would benefit the home states of his fellow committee members, Wilson won their backing for his own campaign. Teaming up with CIA agents, he was soon at the centre of the biggest US covert operation ever, sending up to $750m worth of aid and weapons to the Mujahideen each year.
In retrospect the plan, which effectively pitted superpower against superpower, seems extremely risky, if not foolhardy. But Wilson's adopted cause-- allowing Afghans to, in his own words, "kill Russians, as painfully as possible" -- was secretly popular with many fellow politicians, and the funds kept flowing.
His own "can-do" attitude also helped. When the Soviet army targeted packhorses and camels to destroy their enemy's supply lines, Wilson flew in Tennessee mules. When the CIA refused to supply the Mujahideen with field radios, he bought $12,000 worth of equipment from a local electronics store.
It was the sort of behaviour that saw him re-elected a dozen times. But eventually he grew tired of politics, saying it wasn't as much "fun" as it had been. He retired in 1996 and became a lobbyist.
In recent years his health declined, and his heart, swollen and weakened, required transplantation in 2007. The operation seemed successful, and a few weeks ago, at the dedication of the Charlie Wilson chair for Pakistan Studies at the University of Texas, he described himself as "a poster boy" for transplant patients.
An early marriage ended in divorce. Charlie Wilson is survived by his wife of 10 years, Barbara.