The Real Charlie Wilson

A hard-partying Texan helped fund a covert CIA war and defeat the Soviets.

ByABC News via via logo
January 08, 2009, 12:06 AM

Dec. 22, 2007 — -- In the 1980s, Charlie Wilson seemed the unlikeliest of crusaders.

He was best known as the hard-drinking, hard-partying Texas Congressman with a penchant for beautiful women.

He is now lionized, however, in the new blockbuster "Charlie Wilson's War" as the one-man wrecking crew who helped defeat the Soviet army in Afghanistan. And the real life Charlie Wilson led a more flamboyant life than the star Tom Hanks who plays him on the screen.

"Charlie may have been the only believer in the United States that the Afghan people could actually expel the Soviets. He had his own personal jihad," said Lawrence Wright, author of "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11."

The real Charlie Wilson, now 74, has retired from both Congress and from his days of drinking. But he's as brazen as ever.

When ABC News' Bob Woodruff spoke with the former congressman on "Weekend Good Morning America" today about those days, decades ago, Wilson was asked about the reports of his cocaine use.

"Nobody knows the answer to that and I ain't telling," Wilson joked.

"How many dates did you have? How many women did you sleep with?" Woodruff followed up.

"Gosh I didn't keep count (Laughs)," Wilson replied.

But among Wilson's bevy of beauties was a tenacious Texas socialite named Joanne Herring -- played by Julia Roberts in the movie -- who opened Wilson's eyes to Soviet brutality in Afghanistan.

Once Wilson met Herring and she told him about the horrors of the Afghan war, he says he got more serious. "Mines that looked like they were toys would blow apart, blow off [children's] hands," Wilson recalls learning from Herring.

"Charlie said this had to stop. Not only does it have to stop, but it has to stop there before it comes here," Herring said.

Although the CIA was funding Afghan Muslims to fight the Soviet Union, Wilson wanted more money and more weapons because he thought the communists could be beaten faster. As the head of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, responsible for funding CIA operations, he was in a position to help do that under the public's radar.

With Wilson's support, nearly a billion dollars was allocated to help the Afghan Mujadhideen's jihad to expel the Soviets, including a key $17 million for stinger missiles to shoot down Soviet attack helicopters.

The Soviet army called it quits in Afghanistan in 1989, striking a major blow to the empire. Within one year the Berlin Wall fell and Wilson remembers that day vividly.

"I believe that was the most electrifying moment of my life," Wilson says. "I watched Peter Jennnings. I had a bottle of champagne I was saving for such an occasion and I broke it open. And gave [the Mujahideen] a little toast."

The U.S. cut back support and money for Afghanistan after the Soviets' withdrawal and civil war broke out. Wilson regrets the pull back and says that if the U.S. had stayed, "We would have had a friend in the Muslim world which we could use."

With the U.S. and Soviets out, foreign terrorists moved in. Osama bin Laden who fought alongside the Mujahideen, returned to Afghanistan and contributed to the rise of the Taliban regime and 9/11.

Wilson doesn't blame 9/11 on the U.S. withdrawal though.

"We would have had something like 9/11 anyways. I think that bin Laden had his course pretty well set... But when you fight a war, you do what you think you need to do at the time. What seems right at the time is what you do," Wilson says.

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