Charlie Wilson, Former Congressman From Texas, Dies at 76

Rep. Charlie Wilson helped arm Afghans during war against Soviets.

February 10, 2010, 4:06 PM

WASHINGTON, Feb. 10, 2010— -- Charlie Wilson, the congressman from East Texas who became immortalized by Hollywood for his efforts in leading U.S. support to Afghanistan during the Afghan-Soviet war, died today at the age of 76.

A spokesman for Lufkin Memorial Hospital in East Texas told The Associated Press Wilson died of cardiopulmonary arrest.

In the 1980s, the young Wilson seemed the unlikeliest of crusaders.

At the time, he was best known as the hard-drinking, hard-partying Texas congressman with a penchant for beautiful women. His wild lifestyle earned him the nickname Good Time Charlie.

But Wilson was lionized in "Charlie Wilson's War," the book by George Crile and the Mike Nichols blockbuster film as the one-man wrecking crew who helped defeat the Soviet army in Afghanistan. But the real life Wilson led a more flamboyant life than Tom Hanks, who played him on the big 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."

Whether Wilson, who represented the 2nd district in east Texas in the U.S. House from 1973 to 1996, was as crucial to the Afghan war against the Soviets as Crile's book and Nichols' film suggests is somewhat controversial among historians.

But people in Pakistan certainly remember him as the face of the U.S. support for the Afghan mujahideen.

And, as Crile wrote, that feeling (and pride) extended all the way to Washington, D.C.

When describing the moment Wilson returned to Washington after his first trip to Afghanistan, Crile wrote: "He was no longer just responsible for funding an exotic, important foreign policy. Now, in the minds of his colleagues, it really was becoming Charlie Wilson's war. Charlie was personally fighting the Russians."

Charlie Wilson, Immortalized in Hollywood Film, Dies

When ABC News' Bob Woodruff spoke with the former congressman on "Good Morning America" in 2007 about those days, Wilson was asked about the reports of his cocaine use, for which he was under investigation.

"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," Wilson replied.

Among Wilson's supposed 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 said he got more serious.

"Mines that looked like they were toys would blow apart, blow off [children's] hands," Wilson recalled learning from Herring.

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 said. "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 United States cut back support and money for Afghanistan after the Soviets' withdrawal and civil war broke out. Wilson regretted the pullback and said that if the United States had stayed, "We would have had a friend in the Muslim world, which we could use."

With the United States 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 the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

However, Wilson didn't blame 9/11 on the U.S. withdrawal.

"We would have had something like 9/11 anyways. I think that bin Laden had his course pretty well set," he said. "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."

Asked by Woodruff if he would do it all over again, Wilson responded, "Just about, precisely."

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