Earlier this week, Texas Democrat Charlie Wilson died after suffering a heart attack at age 76. In April 2008 when Charlie Wilson’s War arrived on DVD, Rolling Stone‘s Sean Woods chatted with the congressman who after the Russians invaded Afghanistan became the unlikely architect of the United States’ covert support of the Afghan freedom fighters. Here’s their full conversation:
How do the Afghan people view you today?
I don’t know. I think warmly. There were some Navy SEALS that located some houses that had my picture up in them, so I’m going to assume that that means that they’ll just love to see me if I go back.
What don’t Americans understand about the Soviet/Afghan war?
The one thing that some people don’t understand and this is because of Iraq, where there are a lot of different groups pushing at each other in different ways. But when they were fighting the Soviets, there were only two sides — the right side and the wrong side — and they were all on the right side. They were all passionately involved in expelling the Soviet Union from their country.
But isn’t the start of our current problems with Afghanistan due to that war’s aftermath; when the United States had basic a lack of interest in Afghanistan after the Russian left?
There’s no question about it. It’s understandable. I had been pushing and pushing and pushing on Afghanistan for ten years — they were a little bit tired of hearing about it. And the main thing was that Eastern Europe was throwing off the Soviet shackles and trying to get us to help them with their formation of democracy. And that was just a hell of a lot more exciting than something going on in Afghanistan.
You often hear that the CIA trained Osama Bin Laden when he was part of the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Is this true?
I am so glad you asked that question. The CIA never trained a single Arab. Nor did it ever recruit a single Arab. And the Arabs as a matter of fact — there were a few rich ones that were kind of drifting around the fringes of the Afghan war to get their ticket punched as having been warriors, which they were not. But the idea that we trained him is absolutely 100% false. And also the idea that they’re using arms that we furnished is also false.
During the Afghan war when the call for Jihad went out and Arabs started to arrive did the fundamentalist element in the Jihadist movement raise any red flags for you?
I hadn’t paid that much attention. I was very disturbed about the rise of the Taliban, but to be honest, I wasn’t really tuned in. I was out of Congress by that time and I wasn’t really tuned in to Bin Laden’s rise in Afghanistan.
Do you think its fair when 9/11 is categorized as “blow-back”?
Not really. But I certainly understand it.
So would you have done anything different?
9/11 came eleven years after the Russians left Afghanistan. There was no way that any of that could be foreseen. And in addition to that, you have to remember that this war was a right and wrong war, black and white. It was the great, big, powerful Soviet Union had invaded this small country. The small country was fighting back. We obviously had to help them. So I don’t know of anything we could have done differently. What we could have done differently is what some of us tried to do, and that was to try to provide hope in Afghanistan after the war was over and we were totally unsuccessful with that. But it wasn’t because we didn’t try.
Did you ever take a look at your own CIA file?
No. (laughs) I think the only thing that they would have said in that file is that I was crazy, reckless and rude. Those would have been their judgments, you understand.
Was Congress more fun back in the ’70s and ’80s?
Oh, it was great. For instance, the original Afghan war could have never been fought in today’s environment because there would have been leaks to the press every day and both sides would’ve tried to take credit for the successes and both sides would have tried to place blame on the other side for the failures. Today it would become a partisan thing.
When Rudy Giuliani was federal prosecutor he had you investigated. So were you sad to see Giuliani’s presidential campaign flame out so spectacularly?
No I wasn’t. But again, it wasn’t about a grudge. I just never did understand his qualifications, or what he brought to the idea of the presidency.
Who are you supporting for President?
I believe Obama will take the primary. And I think he’s the most likely winner in the national election. I like Hillary very much, personally. I really do. And it was a very hard choice for me. My wife is very passionately anti-war so it was a very easy choice for her.
Would you have supported the Iraq war in Congress?
No. I think it weakens us abroad, I think its put a terrible strain on our armed forces, been very divisive and the country would have been a lot better off without it. We were far better off with Saddam in power than any reasonable outcome the war will give us. Because whatever happens, we’re going to have a dictator over there, unless we stay there a hundred years. And with Saddam, the country was unified, it was functioning, they had electricity, certainly the quality of life was better and it also served as a counterweight to Iran, and that was important. That was the reason that Saddam tried to pretend that he had weapons of mass destruction — because he was trying to keep a bluff in on Iran.
You also spent a lot of time in Pakistan, which is an increasingly volatile situation. How dangerous is the country?
It’s hard to judge. The new government is barely in place. It certainly is not settled in, and I don’t know what it’s going to be like. I do think that the Baker-Hamilton Commission was right when they said that the countries most likely to provide havens for terrorists are Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Also I don’t know how we’re going to deal the tribal areas, but we have to. That’s one area that I’m really hawkish about. It’s a proven safe haven for Al-Qaeda, and we simply cannot let them function that way. And I honestly believe with all of my heart that Bin Laden is there.
In the movie your congressional staff is made up of nothing but very attractive young women. Did you really have nothing but hotties working in your office or is that a bit of Hollywood fiction?
Well¦.(laughing) I’m trying to think of a way to answer that…
They were all attractive.
Could a Congressman get away with that today?
I don’t think there’s any ethics violation in having attractive women in your office.
The morality police might come knocking at your door…
Well I would say to hell with them! (laughing) And perhaps I would be defeated in the next election, but I don’t think so. One rule in Congress: if you’re gonna be a little different and march to your own tune, you have to entertain your constituents as well as represent them.
Is entertainment the lost art in politics today?
It is very much a missing art in politics today. There’s no more entertainment value at all. Everybody looks like they’re running for President of the Rotary Club, you know?