Swashbuckler, womanizer, playboy -- all are appropriate words to describe Charlie Wilson, the larger-than-life former U.S. congressman who has died of heart failure at the age of 76.
At the same time, "Good-Time Charlie," as his colleagues called him, has a secure place in U.S. and Afghan history. He's the individual who inspired the massive and successful undercover operation that helped Afghan fighters send the Soviet Red Army packing in defeat.
Motivated by personal conviction about the evils of communism, he tirelessly supported the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in its efforts to channel hi-tech weapons to the Afghan mujahedin.
"I despise the Soviet Union, and I despise communism, and I despise bullies," Wilson said in a 2008 interview on U.S. public television. "And when the Soviet Union hurled the 40th Army on what they thought were helpless [Afghan] people -- they hadn't read too much history -- but what they thought were helpless people, it just totally outraged me, and I dedicated 10 years of my life to it."
And he was effective. As chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, he quietly oversaw vast funding increases for the CIA campaign in Afghanistan.
The present Defense Secretary Robert Gates issued a statement on Wilson's death, saying that "as the world now knows, his efforts and exploits helped repel an invader, liberate a people, and bring the Cold War to a close."
The head of the House of Representatives Appropriations Subcommittee, David Obey, describes Wilson as "a man of courage and conviction who worked hard, loved his country, and lived life to the fullest."
Tom Hanks and Julie Roberts in "Charlie Wilson's War"
Such a tale as Wilson's was hardly likely to go unnoticed by Hollywood. His story was told in the 2007 film "Charlie Wilson's War," in which the actor Tom Hanks portrayed Wilson, acting opposite Julia Roberts.
The film captures the atmosphere of the murky world of undercover operations, where nothing is what it seems.
So, the war against the Soviet Army was won. But the peace was subsequently lost as Washington's attention strayed from Afghanistan, allowing chaos to envelop the country after the Soviet departure.
Wilson blamed himself as much as anyone else for this. In an interview with The Associated Press in 2001, he said Washington did not fulfill its responsibilities towards Afghanistan in the post-Soviet period, allowing a power vacuum to develop both there and in Pakistan.
Defense Secretary Gates agrees with that assessment, but exonerates Wilson from any blame. Gates writes: "After the Soviets left, Charlie kept fighting for the Afghan people and warned against abandoning that traumatized country to its fate -- a warning we should have heeded then, and should remember today."
Through a twist of fate, the United States and its allies are now engaged in an escalating war of their own in Afghanistan, fighting some of the very elements which Wilson sought so skillfully to arm. Having gained their footing in the 1980s, these militants are today deadly enemies of the United States.