Jews for/in jehad? Weapons snatched from one set of Muslim warriors, the Palestinians, and supplied to another, the mujahideen? Zia's shifting convictions or conniving hypocrisy? Pakistan and Israel as allies?
As the dictator listened to flamboyant Congressman Charles Wilson sell his plan of the CIA smuggling Israeli arms to Pakistan to rid the world of the "red menace", he smiled and said: "Just don't put any Stars of David on the boxes." Ever the pragmatist, Zia quickly saw Israel as a hook to hang his sherwani on—having been banished from American polite society for the hanging of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. He was a pariah and here was a chance to get back into favour. So began a secret relationship between Zia and Israel which lasted through the war and even after. Wilson, who put the two together, isn't clear if those backchannels still exist. But as Gen Pervez Musharraf prepares his country for formal diplomatic relations with Israel, the clandestine contacts of the 1980s will come in very handy.
The stunning story of these unlikely alliances, undercover deals, dirty tricks and wilful ignorance of the dark side of the holy warriors is also the story of history's biggest covert war. It was launched by the CIA but expanded, honed and transformed into the Soviet Union's Waterloo by a swaggering Wilson who says he "grew up in fear of the Red Army". James Bond pales compared to this real-life protagonist of George Crile's book Charlie Wilson's War. Sure enough, Hollywood has come calling and Crile told Outlook that Tom Hanks will play Wilson in the movie version.
During the 10-year Afghan war in the '80s, Israelis innovated on the large stock of Soviet weapons seized from the plo (Palestine Liberation Organisation) in Lebanon and kept Wilson and Zia in good cheer and armour. "The Congressman was acutely aware of the minefield he was walking through. Publicly, Pakistan and Israel would have to remain foes, he conceded. But as Zia well understood, Pakistan and Israel shared the same deadly foe in the Soviet Union. And the fact was that each could profit mightily by secretly cooperating with the other," Crile writes. Zia believed in Wilson because he had already delivered to him the best US radars for the F-16s, overriding the Pentagon's objections.
The Wilson-Zia pact came about after masterful scheming by another Texan—a beautiful socialite who ultimately bewitched the Pakistani dictator himself. Joanne Herring, an anti-Communist charmer, had a knack for championing causes and enlisting rich men for support. Part Scarlett O'Hara, part Zsa Zsa Gabor, she knew every mover and shaker between oil-rich Texas and power-hungry Washington. She was determined to find money for the mujahideen and rehab for Zia with then president Jimmy Carter's crowd, who would have none of him. Zia became so enamoured with Joanne he would interrupt cabinet meetings to take her call. He even appointed her his honorary consul in Houston and gave her Pakistan's highest civilian award. "She absolutely had his ear, it was terrible," says Yakub Khan, a former foreign minister. But for Zia, it was a decision whose return on investment made diplomatic history.
Joanne Herring "absolutely had the ear" of General Zia
As the war progressed, Zia collected more than his fair share from the flood of dollars flowing from Capitol Hill ($4.2 billion by conservative estimates), thanks to his friend Wilson's machinations. That was overt aid. What came to the ISI in covert money and weapons is not known. Wilson bulldozed his colleagues on Capitol Hill to keep voting in more millions, drowning allegations about the "ISI stealing the CIA blind" with one question: "Do you want to pull the rug from under the mujahideen who are fighting your battle?" No one did. He would then fly over to extract "matching funds" from the Saudis who wrote cheques with ferocious frequency.
The wheeling and dealing was not without fun. The book portrays a handsome Charlie going about his business with a bevy of blondes and endless drinking sprees. After the first "dry" run to Pakistan, he vowed never to go to a Muslim country without a buxom cheerleader and whiskey to ease the fatigue of daytime deal-making. Once he took his personal belly dancer, Carol Shannon, to charm the Egyptians to supply ammunition for the war. Wilson was a Congressional version of the "sex, drugs and rock-and-roll" personality and was even investigated for cocaine use.
Meanwhile, Zia looked the other way as Charlie romped through his Islamic country. He knew the man would deliver. Once Zia even sent his personal plane to fly Wilson and "Sweetums" from Peshawar to Lahore for a party after a rule-bound US colonel sniffed at the misuse of a US government plane. Wilson junketed frenetically, but operated below the radar screen of US ambassadors. His main accomplice in the enterprise was Gust Avrakotos, a thuggish, foul-mouthed, ruthless CIA operative, who constantly broke agency rules and operated outside the system. Gust and Wilson raised the stakes every year with more money and new weapons, ultimately hounding the Soviets out by introducing the Stinger missile into the mix.
So industrious was Wilson in helping his "friends", he even cut the Chinese out of the gravy train telling Zia to engage Israel for upgrading the T-55 tanks. In the end, to honour their friend the Israelis named a ground rocket rigged for the Afghans after Wilson, calling it Charlie Horse. They also supplied loads of 120mm mortars. "But they never furnished for the Afghans what they are giving India now," Wilson told Outlook with a chuckle. The whole idea was to send weapons that couldn't be traced back to any country, least of all the US even though it was an open secret the CIA was running the war through the ISI. The Israelis and Egyptians sold their stockpiles of Soviet weapons, rigged them for use by the ill-trained mujahideen and configured them for transportation by mules.
This is how the Great Game was being played before the mujahideen metamorphosed into the Taliban and opened training schools for terrorists. Charlie, in turn, became Pakistan's lobbyist in 1997 after retiring from Congress.