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Jack Zaleski, Published November 29 2009

Zaleski: Good movie, but book is much better

Lest you forget, the United States has been at war in Afghanistan for nine years. That’s nearly as long as the nation’s nightmare entanglement in Vietnam. This week President Barack Obama will reveal his plans for sending more troops to Afghanistan. Smart money says he’ll go with 25,000 to 35,000, something short of the 40,000 his top military commander, Gen. Stanley McCrystal, wants.

How did the U.S. get into this mess? Why is the emboldened Taliban killing Americans when just a few years ago they were U.S. allies in the struggle to push the Soviet Union’s Red Army out of the country?

The movie “Charlie Wilson’s War” provides entertaining but incomplete answers. Starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, the film is only a cursory history of the largest covert operation in the history of the CIA. Rep. Charlie Wilson (Hanks) is the focus of the story. The Texas Democrat teamed up with a CIA black sheep, Gust Avrakotos (played wonderfully by Phillip Seymour Hoffman), to develop a clandestine arms pipeline and fund it with billions of dollars from a Congress that wasn’t paying attention. Wilson was a larger-than-life congressman whose affinity for women and booze was matched by his determination to help the Afghans drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan.

The movie is fun, but the book of the same name by “60 Minutes” TV producer George Crile is more than fun: It’s a jaw-dropping, head-shaking, edge-of-the-seat saga that is all the more incredible because it’s true. The book reads like an Ian Fleming James Bond page-turner, complete with ruthless CIA spooks, beautiful women, religious fervor and driven politicians who were willing to employ corrupt means to achieve what they believed were noble ends.

Crile’s account of the 1980s covert campaign is brilliantly researched and reported, and eminently readable. Completed in 2003, the book ends with an epilogue about the unintended consequences of Wilson’s war: the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the current Afghan war in which the “freedom fighters,” who were armed by the U.S. to kill Soviets, are killing Americans.

In light of the president’s apparent decision to expand U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, “Charlie Wilson’s War” is a must-read.

Contact Forum Editorial Page Editor Zaleski at (701) 241-5521.