The True Story Behind the Events of ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’

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Charlie Wilson’s War premiered in 2007. The film boasted such A-list talent as Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, and was a critical success, earning five Golden Globe nominations. The relatively unknown story is important to American history, as the operation that Texas Rep. Charlie Wilson helped create had consequences that still reverberate today.

Charlie Wilson’s background in politics

Charlie Wilson was a brilliant man who also enjoyed his vices. He graduated from the United States Naval Academy, but while attending received the second most demerits in the school’s history. He served in the US Navy from 1956-60, reaching the rank of lieutenant and serving as a Gunnery Officer onboard the USS John W. Weeks (DD-701).

While growing up, Wilson became interested in politics. While working at the Pentagon during his time with the Navy, he volunteered to help John F. Kennedy‘s presidential campaign, prompting him to enter his own name into the race to become the state representative for his home district. In 1961, after leaving the Navy, he was sworn into the Texas House of Representatives.

Charlie Wilson smiling
Rep. Charlie Wilson was the subject of the 2007 biopic, Charlie Wilson’s War. (Photo Credit: Jason Merritt / FilmMagic / Getty Images)

The Texan enjoyed a good time. He staffed his office with attractive young females and regularly held parties. He also allegedly partook in cocaine use, which was investigated by then-US Associate Attorney General Rudy Giuliani.

Politically, Wilson was a progressive Liberal. He supported equal rights for women and the expansion of Medicare to help the elderly. He was also known for the way he backed civil rights. There was one area, however, where the Texan held a Conservative view: he was quite hawkish when it came to foreign policy.

Joanne Herring’s role

Joanne Herring was a prominent socialite in the Houston, Texas area. Herring developed a close relationship with Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who eventually became the President of Pakistan, becoming an adviser to him and lobbying the US government on his behalf.

Joanne Herring looking over her shoulder
Joanne Herring was portrayed by Julia Roberts in Charlie Wilson’s War, 2007. (Photo Credit: Roy Rochlin / Getty Images)

Herring was also acquainted with Charlie Wilson. He was a friend of the socialite and may have aimed to make the relationship a romantic one. Herring lobbied Wilson, who sat on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, to meet with Pakistani leaders and provide Afghan resistance fighters with anti-aircraft weapons, so they could shoot down Soviet-made helicopters.

The United States gets behind the idea of helping the Afghanis

The call to help the Afghan’s were coming from Pakistan, which shared a border with the country and was hoping to keep the Soviets out. President Jimmy Carter had his concerns about Zia-ul-Haq, and was upset Pakistan had begun a nuclear program and that former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had been executed.

With Iran becoming a major problem in the Middle East, however, Carter decided relations with Pakistan should be repaired.

Jimmy Carter speaking at a podium
President Jimmy Carter determined it was worth it to aid Pakistan, despite his reservations. (Photo Credit: Central Press / Getty Images)

A program was developed, where the US, via Pakistan, would provide the Afghani Mujahideen with weapons. Saudi Arabia pledged to match the funding. Charlie Wilson, however, wanted more than just weapons and lobbied the US to offer logistical aid. Given his position, the request went through.

Ronald Reagan takes over and the operation bears fruit

After Carter left office, Ronald Reagan chose to continue the CIA program, codenamed Operation Cyclone. Under Reagan, funding became much more significant, with billions of dollars spent on aiding the Mujahideen. All told, the estimated funds spent by the US, China and Saudi Arabia are estimated to be between $6-12 billion.

Close-up of Ronald Reagan's face
President Ronald Reagan continued Operation Cyclone, but with significantly more funding. (Photo Credit: Wally McNamee / CORBIS / Getty Images)

The operation was successful. The most important weapon the rebels received was the FIM-92 Stinger surface-to-air missile, which was used to shoot down Soviet helicopters. By 1989, the USSR felt things had gotten too expensive, both in dollars and manpower, and pulled its troops out.

During the 1989-92 Afghan Civil War, the US continued to fund the Mujahideen, but at a much lower monetary amount.

There were unexpected consequences of Charlie Wilson’s lobbying

In getting the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan, the US had achieved its directive – and spent a lot of money doing so. According to reports, it was both the longest and most expensive covert operation the CIA had ever ran, running from 1979-92. However, it came with its consequences.

Zia-ul-Haq had directed much of the funding toward Mujahideen Leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Hekmatyar was criticized for extremist actions and murdering rival Mujahideen, and later in his career admitted to helping Osama Bin Laden avoid detection by US forces. An expert in Middle Eastern politics told The Washington Post in 1992, “I’d like to see the looks on their faces now over at Langley. They backed the wrong pony. They helped create Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.”

Much of the US's funds went to Afghani leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar
Much of Operation Cyclone’s funds went to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. (Photo Credit: Mohammad Sharif Shayeq / NurPhoto / Getty Images)

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Charlie Wilson continued to serve in Congress until 1996. Following his political career, he acted as a lobbyist for Pakistan. When asked for his thoughts on the film Charlie Wilson’s War, he shared his pleasure with Tom Hanks’ portrayal of him, feeling it did him justice.

Wilson passed away in 2010, at the age of 76.