Charlie Wilson, 76

Former Rep. Charlie Wilson dies; led U.S. support of Afghans against Soviets

Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-Tex.) pushed arms and funding for the Afghan fight against the Soviets.
Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-Tex.) pushed arms and funding for the Afghan fight against the Soviets. (Marcy Nighswander/associated Press)
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By Emily Langer and T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 11, 2010

Former U.S. representative Charlie Wilson, a flamboyant 12-term East Texas Democrat who used his control of CIA purse strings to finance and arm an Afghan insurgency that drove out the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, died Feb. 10 at a hospital in Lufkin, Tex. He was 76 and had a history of heart ailments.

Mr. Wilson's epic overseas engagements outlive him. The power vacuum left in Afghanistan when the Soviets exited in 1989 contributed to the rise of the Taliban, and the weapons that Mr. Wilson helped bring to that country were probably in use when the United States went to war there in 2001.

"We were fighting the evil empire," he told Time magazine in 2007. "It would have been like not supplying the Soviets against Hitler in World War II. . . . Anyway, who the hell had ever heard of the Taliban then?"

If Gust Avrakotos was the CIA agent who got the mules that carried automatic weapons, antitank guns and satellite maps from Pakistan to the Afghan mujaheddin, Mr. Wilson was the congressman who used his position on the Appropriations Committee to supply the cash to make it all happen. Beginning in the early 1980s, he orchestrated the secret effort to funnel billions of dollars to the Afghan battles that would later take his name: Charlie Wilson's War.

Published in 2003, investigative journalist George Crile's book of that title told what was then the largely unknown story of Mr. Wilson's key role in a decisive Cold War battle zone. In the 2007 film adaptation, Tom Hanks portrayed Mr. Wilson and Philip Seymour Hoffman played Avrakotos.

Mr. Wilson, who served in the House from 1973 until declining to seek reelection in 1996, was not a particularly prominent legislator. Nicknamed "Good Time Charlie," he was better known for his penchant for wild parties and wilder women. Tall, sinewy and with matinee idol looks, he frolicked in hot tubs with Vegas showgirls and staffed his office with a parade of young female assistants of dubious qualifications, who were dubbed "Charlie's angels."

Mr. Wilson embraced his reputation as a liquor-soaked party animal, telling an interviewer that his constituents "don't care so much if I am a single man and have dinner with a pretty lady every now and then, although as you get to be 61, that becomes less of a concern."

The most important woman in his life, at least as far as Afghanistan was concerned, was Joanne Herring, a Houston socialite who persuaded him to stop in Pakistan at the end of a fact-finding trip to the Middle East in 1982. In Herring's view, Pakistan, run by military leader Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, was the outpost from which to fight the communists in Afghanistan.

The military officials there told Mr. Wilson what they needed: aid for the refugees fleeing the Soviet occupation of their neighbor to the west and, most of all, firepower. Mr. Wilson, long hawkish on defense matters, turned even fiercer when it came the communist threat in that part of Asia. He said he wanted to make sure Afghans could do "everything possible to kill Russians, as painfully as possible."

In 1989, the Soviets backed out of Afghanistan after a decade of fighting. Interviewed on "60 Minutes," Zia said, "Charlie did it."

Introduction to politics

Charles Nesbitt Wilson was born June 1, 1933, in Trinity, Tex., where as a boy he got his first taste of the power of politics.

Mr. Wilson's dog, Teddy, often ventured into his neighbor's yard and soiled the flower beds. As Mr. Wilson explained in Crile's book, the frustrated neighbor, Charles Hazard, who was an elected city official, grew tired of the nuisance and conspired to kill the dog.

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