February 11th, 2010, 07:21
DALLAS — The late Rep. Charlie Wilson worked tenaciously to funnel millions of dollars in weapons to Afghan rebels who fought off the Soviet Union, only to watch Afghanistan plunge into chaos and eventually harbor al-Qaida terrorists.The course of events greatly saddened the rakish Texan, 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.”Wilson represented Texas’ 2nd Congressional District from 1973 to 1996, and was known in Washington as “Good Time Charlie” for his reputation as a hard-drinking womanizer. He once called former Rep. Patricia Schroeder “Babycakes,” and tried to take a beauty queen with him on a government trip to Afghanistan.“He was larger than life. He was everything he was portrayed to be,” said Marvin Weinbaum, a scholar in residence at Middle East Institute in Washington and a former State Department intelligence analyst on Pakistan and Afghanistan.Weinbaum said Wilson’s legacy should not be overshadowed by Afghanistan’s post-Soviet turmoil.“In those days, it was the Cold War and we had a singular determination,” he said. “You have to see it in the context.”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 rebels 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. The ensuing tumult created an opening eventually filled by the Taliban, which provided a safe haven for al-Qaida.After the Sept. 11 attacks — carried out by al-Qaida terrorists trained in Afghanistan — the U.S. ended up invading the country it had once helped liberate.“People like me didn’t fulfill 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 rebels — as well as his partying ways — were portrayed in the movie and book “Charlie Wilson’s War.” In an interview with The Associated Press after the book was published in 2003, he said he wasn’t worried about the depiction of a wild side.“I would remind you that I was not married at the time. I’m in a different place than I was in at the time and I don’t apologize about that,” Wilson said.Charles Nesbitt Wilson was born June 1, 1933, in Trinity. He attended Sam Houston State University in Huntsville before earning his bachelor’s degree from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1956.Wilson served as a Navy lieutenant between 1956-60, then entered politics by volunteering for John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. He served in the Texas House and then in the Texas Senate before being elected to the U.S. House in 1972.“Charlie was perfect as a congressman, perfect as a state representative, perfect as a state senator. He was a perfect reflection of the people he represented,” said Charles Schnabel Jr., who served for seven years as Wilson’s chief of staff in Washington and worked with Wilson when he served in the Texas Senate.Temple, who was with Wilson when he collapsed Wednesday, said that despite Wilson’s reputation as a playboy, he was serious about representing east Texas, including helping to create the Big Thicket National Preserve — almost 100,000 acres of swamps, bogs and forests.Wilson left politics in 1996, after he no longer found it fun. He lobbied for a number of years before returning to Texas. In 2007, he had a heart transplant after being diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a disease that causes an enlarged and weakened heart.Schnabel said he had just been with Wilson a few weeks ago for the dedication of the Charlie Wilson chair for Pakistan studies at the University of Texas, Austin, a $1 million endowment. He said Wilson had been doing “very good” and said his former boss described himself as “a poster boy” for heart transplants.Wilson is survived by his second wife, Barbara, whom he married in 1999, and a sister.——Associated Press writers Terry Wallace in Dallas and Lolita C. Baldor and Suzanne Gamboa in Washington contributed to this report.