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Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History

by George Crile

Atlantic Monthly Press

560, April

Hardcover, 26.00

ISBN: 0871138549

From an award-winning 60 Minutes reporter comes the extraordinary story of the largest and most successful CIA operation in history—the arming of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan.

“In little over a decade, two events have transformed the world we live in: the collapse of our Cold War nuclear foe, the Soviet Union; and the discovery, after 9/11, that we face a new global enemy in the form of militant Islam,” writes author and 60 Minutes producer George Crile in the enclosed Author’s Note to Charlie Wilson’s War. Here, we see the “missing chapter”—that connects the two events—in the politics of our time.

Charlie Wilson’s War is the untold story of how the Central Intelligence Agency armed the Afghan Mujahideen in what became the CIA’s largest and most successful campaign in history. It profiles the men who conceived it and the journey they took to see it through. At its core, it tells of an unorthodox alliance—of a scandal-prone Texas Congressman named Charlie Wilson and an out-of-favor CIA operative named Gust Avrakotos—that armed and sustained the Afghan jihad and turned Afghanistan into the Soviet Union’s Vietnam.

As incredible as anything in the pages of Tom Clancy or John le Carré, Charlie Wilson’s War is a gripping story of international intrigue, booze, drugs, sex, high society and arms deals. It is indeed one of the most detailed and compulsively readable accounts of the inside workings of the CIA ever written.

Along the way, we meet:

  • The charismatic Congressman Charlie Wilson. While Ronald Reagan and William Casey were unable to persuade Congress to give them a mere $19 million to fund the Nicaraguan Contras, Wilson was procuring hundreds of millions of dollars to support his Afghan “freedom fighters” through back-room machinations that would have made even LBJ blush. A colorful man of many contradictions, he worked hard and played hard, earning the reputation as the “wildest man in Congress” while representing an archconservative Bible-belt district in Texas.
  • The out-of-favor CIA operative, Gust Avrakotos, whose working-class Greek-American background made him an anomaly in the patrician world of American spies. Nicknamed “Dr. Dirty”, this blue collar James Bond was an aggressive agent who served on the front lines of the Cold War where he learned how to stretch the Agency’s rules to the breaking point.
  • The eccentric staff of CIA outcasts hand-picked by Avrakotos to run the operation. Among them were “Hilly Billy”, the logistics wizard who could open an un-numbered Swiss bank account for the U.S. government in 12 hours when others took months; Art Alper, the “devilish” tinkerer from the Technical Services division who roamed the world creating such novelties as exploding typewriters and developed portable amplifiers that spread propaganda among the Soviet troops; and especially Mike Vickers, the former Green Beret so junior in status that he couldn’t send his own cables. His military genius allowed him to single-handedly redesign the CIA’s war plan. Through his highly specific blueprint, he created a systematic plan that turned a rabble of shepherds and tribesmen into an army of techno Holy warriors who gave the legendary Red Army their greatest defeat. Today, Mike Vickers is consulting for the Pentagon on the War on Terrorism and war planning for Iraq.
  • The many women who shared the Congressman’s jihad. It all began with a Houston socialite, Joanne Herring who enlisted Wilson to the Afghan cause via her deep-seated hatred of Communism and her influence in Pakistan. Carol Shannon, Wilson’s personal belly dancer who he took with him to the jihad. Charlie’s Angels, Wilson’s female staffers so strikingly beautiful that they became a legend on Capitol Hill. And finally, Annelise Illschenko, aka “Sweetums”, the former U.S. representative in the Miss World competition who traveled with Wilson deep into the Islamic world in outfits that were not the most appropriate attire in the eyes of Muslim men
  • The Pakistani dictator Zia ul Haq, who early on realized that the way to millions of dollars in American aid was through Charlie Wilson and his covert war in Afghanistan. A dictator whom many held personally responsible for the execution of his democratically elected predecessor, Zia used his favorable status as an ally of the U.S. against the Soviets to divert attention from his own nuclear weapons program while providing the all-important safe haven and operations center for the CIA’s Afghan operations.

Charlie Wilson’s War is the CIA and Congress as you have never seen them before, engaged in the last great battle of the Cold War. Along with its page-turning pace, this is an important book that has direct implications for today’s world situation.

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