Fulsome tributes poured in for Charlie Wilson, who despite a playboy image, became an influential player in the Cold War, funnelling billions of dollars in weapons to the Afghan mujahideen through a secret CIA programme.
His exploits became the subject of the 2007 movie adaptation of a book chronicling his efforts, starring Tom Hanks as Wilson and Julia Roberts as the Houston socialite Joanne Herring who inspired him to help the Afghans.
“Charlie Wilson led a life that was oversized even by Hollywood’s standards,” said a statement from the governor of Texas, Rick Perry.
Wilson, dubbed by Texas newspapers as “Goodtime Charlie” because of his hard-partying, scandal-prone ways, succumbed to a heart attack on Wednesday, said Memorial Health System of East Texas spokeswoman, Yana Ogletree.
As the head of the House of Representatives Defence Appropriations Subcommittee, Wilson quietly oversaw vast funding increases for the CIA’s campaign against Soviet forces in Afghanistan, with Pakistan playing a prominent role.
But arming the Afghan fighters — seen as a triumph in Washington after the Soviets withdrew — turned out to have unintended consequences that have since haunted the US.
Some of the Afghan warlords that Wilson championed and who received millions from the CIA are now viewed as dangerous Islamist extremists with ties to al-Qaida, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani.
“As the world now knows, his efforts and exploits helped repel an invader, liberate a people, and bring the Cold War to a close,” said defence secretary Robert Gates, who worked with Wilson during his years at the CIA.
“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,” Gates said.
Even after the attacks of September 11, Wilson never expressed regret about arming the Afghan warriors.
“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?”
The Central Intelligence Agency broke with tradition and eventually gave Wilson the Honoured Colleague Award for his efforts in Afghanistan, the first civilian to receive the award.
“It is the rare congressman who by dint of personality, persistence and country smarts did something that literally altered history on the global stage,” said Dan Rather, the former CBS television journalist.
Wilson was known to recruit beautiful women to work in his Washington office, who were nicknamed “Charlie’s Angels” after the television show, and he often brought along his latest glamorous girlfriend on trips to Pakistan and the Middle East.
Wilson endured a harrowing Justice Department investigation into allegations he had snorted cocaine in Las Vegas.
Prosecutors never filed charges, as one key witness could only recall Wilson partaking of cocaine in the Cayman Islands — outside the reach of US authorities.
Asked years later in an ABC television interview if the allegations were true, Wilson joked: “Nobody knows the answer to that and I ain’t telling.”