Afghanistan’s Islamist terrorists the Taliban owe a lot to a Greek American CIA spy who ran the largest covert operation in the agency’s history in arming their predecessors, the Mujahideen, in the 1980s.
Gust Avrakotos was in charge of arming Afghan tribesmen during their guerrilla war against the Soviets, who had invaded Afghanistan on December 24, 1979.
The Soviet-Afghan War (12/24/1979-2/15/1989) mainly took place in the Afghan countryside with the mujahideen being backed by the United States, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, and the United Kingdom.
The 10-year-long conflict was one of the final acts of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and an opportunity for Avrakotos — or “Dr. Dirty,” as he was dubbed by colleagues — to do his undercover work.
In retrospect, the Greek-American Afghan Task Force Chief for the CIA was instrumental in arming the Mujahideen, whose weapons eventually fell into the hands of the Taliban, who later took over Afghanistan.
Who was Gust Avrakotos?
Born on January 14, 1938 in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, Gustav Lascaris Avrakotos, was the the son of Oscar, a Greek American soft drink manufacturer from the island of Lemnos, and his wife Zafira.
Young Gust graduated as valedictorian from Aliquippa High School in 1955 and attended college at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (CIT).
He then had to interrupt his studies in order to work to aid his father, who was facing financial problems. He worked selling beer and cigarettes to bars frequented by immigrants from Europe.
After paying off his family’s debts, Avrakotos returned to college at the University of Pittsburgh — from which he graduated summa cum laude.
He almost got hired by IBM, when one of his professors, Richard Cottam – who had also worked at the CIA – suggested he should be interviewed for a job with the Central Intelligence Agency.
Although the CIA salary was only a third of what he could have made at IBM, Avrakotos chose to join the CIA on August 1, 1962.
Because he spoke Greek, he was posted to Athens. While in Greece, a junta of army colonels overthrew the democratic government on April 21st, 1967 and established a dictatorship.
Avrakotos became the chief CIA liaison to the Greek colonels. But not only that — he became friends with them and advised them on several unofficial issues, sharing their anti-Communist views.
The regime fell in July 1974 and a year later the November 17 terrorist group assassinated the CIA’s station chief in Athens, Richard Welch.
CIA renegade Philip Agee, who had exposed Welch as the Athens station chief, later revealed Avrakotos as well.
Avrakotos stayed in Greece even after his exposure. However, he was vilified by the Greek press for his role in the colonel’s regime, and eventually was forced to leave Athens in 1978.
The Greek American’s coarse and roguish character, along with his profane language, was not liked in the CIA and he would not be granted a good assignment, much less a promotion.
Nevertheless, he worked in Boston for a while, recruiting foreign businessmen. After that he was stationed at the agency’s headquarters in Langley for three years, undertaking difficult missions in which moral standards were often overlooked.
The Greek American spy finds his calling in Afghanistan
The Soviet-Afghan War was a bonafide opportunity for the Greek American CIA agent to conduct his clandestine war against the Communist enemy.
His collaborator was former congressman Charles Wilson (D-Tex.), a man who used his leverage to fund and arm the Mujahideen in their war against the arch enemy.
In late 1982, Avrakotos found a position in CIA’s Near East desk, which included overseeing the agency’s work in Afghanistan, including involvement in Operation Cyclone, the CIA program to arm and finance the Afghan Mujahideen.
In 1983, he was appointed acting Chief of the South Asia Operations Group, funneling a lot of money and guns to the Mujahideen.
Wilson, as a member of two major foreign policy and covert-ops committees, along with Avrakotos, controlled more than half of the CIA’s annual expenditures for covert operations.
In 1984, Avrakotos appointed Michael G. Vickers from the CIA’s paramilitary group to Operation Cyclone to revamp the strategy for the Mujahideen.
New weapons like AK-47’s and heavy machine guns, new tactics and training were introduced to make the Afghan fighters more competitive in battle.
Money kept pouring in, until the well-armed tribesmen drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan, striking a great victory against their enemy — and the U.S. enemy as well.
During his stay in Afghanistan, Avrakotos broke every rule in the CIA book, yet he had a cunning ability to avoid anything that would put him in trouble with the agency.
The Avrakotos-Wilson clandestine collaboration was exposed in 2003, when “60 Minutes” TV show producer George Crile published “Charlie Wilson’s War.”
The book is a detailed description of how the two men convinced Congress and the US bureaucracy to support the Mujahideen cause and spend hundreds of millions of dollars.
Tom Hanks bought the rights of the book and turned it into a movie with the same title in 2007. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman starred as Gust Avrakotos, while Hanks plays Wilson, next to Julia Roberts as the influential Houston socialite Joanne Herring.
In 1986, the Greek American CIA agent disagreed vocally with a president-supported program of selling weapons to Iran with to fund the Contras in Nicaragua – the Iran-Contra affair – and the agency removed him from Afghanistan and stationed him to Africa.
The end of a shadowy career in the CIA
In his book, George Crile described Avrakotos as a man beyond any moral law and extremely worldly wise. He was never reckless in his actions, however, and was always aware of the risks he was taking.
Despite all that, he was made a member of the elite Senior Intelligence Service in 1985 and received the Intelligence Medal of Merit in 1988. He resigned from the agency in 1989.
In retrospect, Avrakotos’ shadowy actions in Afghanistan were heavily criticized because the weapons given to the Mujahideen were later used in the country’s fratricidal war before the Taliban took control.
The same weapons were later used against U.S. troops, when the United States went to war in Afghanistan in 2001.
Avrakotos returned to work on contract for the CIA from 1997 until 2003. He died of a stroke on December 1, 2005.