Charlie Wilson worked tenaciously to funnel millions of dollars in weapons to the Afghan mujahideen who fought off the Soviet Union.
The current state of Afghanistan greatly saddened the rakish Texas congressman, who died Wednesday at age 76, and he believed it could have been avoided had the U.S. committed to rebuilding Afghanistan years ago.
“He tried to get a lot of dollars appropriated to rebuild the infrastructure,” longtime friend Buddy Temple said Wednesday. “What he told me was the members of Congress, they were tired of hearing about it by then.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wilson’s “efforts and exploits helped repel an invader, liberate a people, and bring the Cold War to a close.”
“After the Soviets left, Charlie kept fighting for the Afghan people and warned against abandoning that traumatized country to its fate — a warning we should have heeded then, and should remember today,” Gates said in a statement.
Wilson died at Memorial Medical Center-Lufkin after having difficulty breathing following a meeting in the eastern Texas town where he lived, said hospital spokeswoman Yana Ogletree. Wilson was pronounced dead on arrival, and the preliminary cause of death was cardiopulmonary arrest, she said.
As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, Wilson helped secure money for weapons and worked with then-CIA agents Gust L. Avrakotos and Mike Vickers to get them to the mujahedeen.
“Charlie Wilson gave power to it, gave emotion to it. He could push,” said Abraham D. Sofaer, a senior fellow in foreign policy and national security affairs at the Hoover Institution, and former legal adviser to two secretaries of state. “I don’t think he was influential in terms of ideas, he was influential in terms of power.”
The Soviets spent a decade battling the mujahideen before pulling the Red Army from Afghanistan in 1989. Two years later, its economy in ruins, the Soviet Union fell apart.
Vickers, now assistant secretary of defense for special operations, called Wilson a “great American patriot who played a pivotal role in a world-changing event — the defeat of the Red Army in Afghanistan, which led to the collapse of communism and the Soviet empire.”
Wilson, a Democrat, was considered both a progressive and a defense hawk. While his efforts to arm the mujahedeen in the 1980s were a success — spurring a victory that helped speed the Soviet Union’s downfall — he was unable to keep the money flowing after the Soviets left.
After the Sept. 11 attacks the U.S. ended up invading the country it had once helped liberate.
“People like me didn’t fulfil our responsibilities once the war was over,” Wilson said in a September 2001 interview with The Associated Press. “We allowed this vacuum to occur in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which enraged a lot of people. That was as much my fault as it was a lot of others.”
His efforts to help the Afghan mujahideen — as well as his partying ways — were portrayed in the movie and book “Charlie Wilson’s War.”