Inspiration for Charlie Wilson's War dies

Charlie Wilson, whose life was brought to the big screen by Tom Hanks, implored his country to rebuild Afghanistan in the 1990s.

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Charlie Wilson, the Texas congressman whose efforts to secure funding for the Afghan resistance to the Soviet army brought on a turning point in the Cold War, died Wednesday in a Texas hospital at the age of 76.

The 12-term Democrat, whose partying and womanising earned him the nickname "Good Time Charlie", became widely known in recent years thanks to a book about his life and a movie, Charlie Wilson's War, starring Tom Hanks. In the 1980s, Wilson, who sat on the powerful House appropriations committee, steered more than US$1 billion in funding to a covert CIA operation to arm the Afghan mujahideen with anti-aircraft weapons, including shoulder-fired "stinger" missiles that could take down Soviet helicopters.

The campaign, known as "Operation Cyclone", inflicted heavy losses and led to the Red Army's withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. The pullback was a major blow to the communist empire, which crumbled a year later. Wilson urged his colleagues to maintain the US presence and rebuild Afghanistan, but, despite his pleading, the United States abruptly wound down its involvement, leaving a power vacuum that ultimately was filled by the Taliban. Many of those who benefited from the US funding secured by Wilson later became supporters of the Taliban and al Qa'eda.

Still, Wilson made no apologies. "We were fighting the evil empire. It would have been like not supplying the Soviets against Hitler in World War II," he told Time magazine in 2007. "Anyway, who the hell had ever heard of the Taliban then?" Robert Gates, the US defence secretary who said he knew Wilson while at the CIA, praised the former congressman on Wednesday as a "patriot" whose work on behalf of the Afghan resistance proved that "one brave and determined person can alter the course of history".

"As the world now knows, his efforts and exploits helped repel an invader, liberate a people, and bring the Cold War to a close," he said in a written statement. "After the Soviets left, Charlie kept fighting for the Afghan people and warned against abandoning that traumatised country to its fate - a warning we should have heeded then, and should remember today." Wilson also was unapologetic about his frequent partying, hard-drinking, and fondness for women, which led to a 1980 justice department investigation into allegations that the he snorted cocaine while in a hot tub with two Las Vegas showgirls. The probe, led by then justice department attorney Rudolph Giuliani, went nowhere and the charges were dropped in 1983.

Asked in 2007 about the alleged drug use on ABC's Good Morning America, Wilson said: "Nobody knows the answer to that and I ain't telling." Wilson was born in 1933 in the small city of Trinity, Texas. He earned his bachelor's degree from the US Naval Academy in 1956 and served as a Naval lieutenant until 1960. After volunteering for John F Kennedy's presidential campaign that year, the 27-year-old Wilson entered politics, winning a seat in the state House and later in the Texas Senate. Wilson was elected to Congress in 1972 and served until his retirement in 1996.

Wilson died after having difficulty breathing, Yana Ogletree, a spokeswoman for Memorial Medical Center-Lufkin, told the Associated Press. The preliminary cause of death was cardiopulmonary arrest, she said. "Charlie Wilson led a life that was oversized even by Hollywood's standards," said Rick Perry, the Texas governor, in a statement. "Congressman Wilson was fiercely devoted to serving his country and his fellow Texans."

"Charlie was a man of courage and conviction who worked hard, loved his country, and lived life to the fullest," said David Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat and chairman of the house appropriations committee. "We will miss him."