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Obituary: US Congressman Charlie Wilson

Charlie Wilson (on white horse) in Afghanistan in July 1987
Charlie Wilson remained proud of his role helping Afghan fighters

Charlie Wilson, the former member of the US House of Representatives, who has died at the age of 76 from a heart attack, played a key role in channelling US funds to the Afghan mujahideen when it fought Soviet forces in the 1980s.

In the popular mind, however, the Texan politician was equally famous for his drinking and womanising.

This was brought to the screen memorably in the 2007 Hollywood film Charlie Wilson's War, which opens with Tom Hanks portraying him in a hot tub flanked by two Las Vegas strippers.

A diehard anti-communist, Wilson was nonetheless a Democrat known for his liberal voting record on social issues, earning himself the nickname the "Liberal from Lufkin" - the town in mostly conservative east Texas where he lived, and died on 10 February.

'By the throat'

Born in Trinity, Texas, on 1 June 1933, Wilson attended state schools and university at Huntsville, from which he moved on to the US Naval Academy.

After four years in the navy as a lieutenant, he moved into the lumber business, according to his official biography at the US Congress.

Charlie Wilson holds up an old rifle in his office in Congress, 1988
He saw Afghanistan as a way to exact a pound of flesh from the Soviets for [the US defeat in] Vietnam
Michael F Scheuer
Retired CIA officer

Elected to the Texan state house of representatives in 1960, he entered Congress in 1973, where he served a total of 12 consecutive terms.

His interest in Afghanistan was reportedly aroused in 1980, the year after the Soviet invasion, when he read about refugees from the conflict.

As a member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, the body responsible for funding CIA operations, he asked for massive increases to its Afghan budget.

Tens of millions of dollars are believed to have been spent on supporting Afghan militants, equipping them with Stinger missiles they could use to shoot down Soviet helicopter gunships.

Retired CIA officer Michael F Scheuer encountered Wilson at meetings in the 1980s.

"He saw Afghanistan as a way to exact a pound of flesh from the Soviets for [the US defeat in] Vietnam," Mr Scheuer told BBC World Service.

Wilson himself told the Dallas Morning News in a 2007 interview: "I just saw the opportunity to grab the sons o' bitches by the throat."

It seems the bitterness was mutual: an obituary published by one of Russia's leading news websites, lenta.ru, described Wilson as "one of the most odious figures in the history of Congress", while the film bearing his name was pointedly not shown in Russian cinemas, otherwise hungry for Hollywood blockbusters.

After the Soviets left in 1989, Wilson expressed concern about the reduction in US Congressional funding for Afghanistan.

Some of the warlords he helped arm are today fighting US and other foreign troops in Afghanistan, but Wilson showed no regret for his actions in the 1980s.

"Who the hell had ever heard of the Taliban then?" he said in a Time magazine interview in 2007.

'Oversized life'

"Charlie Wilson led a life that was oversized even by Hollywood's standards," Texas Governor Rick Perry said on news of his death.

Wilson's biographer, George Crile, recounts how the congressman would recruit beautiful women to work in his Washington office, nicknaming them Charlie's Angels after the TV show.

Wilson would reportedly bring glamorous girlfriends on trips to Pakistan and the Middle East, and once called former Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder "Babycakes".

FROM BBC WORLD SERVICE

A lover of whisky, Wilson was dogged by allegations that he snorted cocaine though he was never prosecuted.

Speaking to the Associated Press news agency after his biography was published in 2003, he said he did not mind being portrayed as someone with a wild side.

"I would remind you that I was not married at the time," he said. "I'm in a different place than I was in at the time and I don't apologise about that."

Mr Scheuer believes that there are "very few creatures in Congress like Mr Wilson".

"He was utterly confident that what he was doing was the right thing for America and he was willing to take risks and put his reputation on the line," he said.

"The people in Congress today are meek and milquetoast compared to what Mr Wilson was."

Charlie Wilson is survived by his second wife, Barbara, whom he married in 1999, and a sister.



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SEE ALSO
Charlie Wilson dies in hospital
11 Feb 10 |  Americas
Hanks graces London film premiere
10 Jan 08 |  Entertainment

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