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From the Chicago Tribune

Americans facing missile made in U.S.A.

Taliban, Al Qaeda have Stingers sent to rebels in 1980s

By John Diamond
Washington Bureau

October 21, 2001

WASHINGTON -- As the military campaign in Afghanistan shifts to lower- and slower-flying warplanes, Pentagon officials worry increasingly about the threat posed by U.S.-made Stinger missiles.

Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters could have as many as 300 of the shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles that the CIA sent to Afghanistan in the 1980s to help mujahedeen in their war against the Soviet Union.

In that conflict, the Stingers were credited with turning the tide of war and helping the ragtag Muslim freedom fighters defeat one of the world's superpowers.

Now another superpower is fighting in Afghanistan and, in a classic case of what the CIA calls "blowback," those weapons are trained on U.S. aircraft waging the opening stage of what could be a lengthy campaign against suspected terrorist strongholds.

"We still know of certain knowledge there's any number of Stingers and manned portable ground-to-air missiles," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said last week.

Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says the heat-seeking Stingers remain a viable threat.

"We don't have a perfectly clear idea of how many they have," Myers said Thursday. "We have a pretty good estimate, and we've said in the past that it's been in the low hundreds, 200 to 300. Whether or not they've been fired I do not know."

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said China may have reverse-engineered versions of the Stinger and sold more of them to the Taliban, though the reliability of those weapons probably would be less than that of the originals.

In the opening weeks of the air campaign, U.S. strike aircraft flew well above the 10,000-foot range of the Stingers. Pentagon tacticians hoped Taliban fighters would be drawn into firing precious Stingers ineffectually, and to a degree they think they succeeded.

"We just assume that some of those were the Stinger missiles," Myers said last week, referring to the sporadic anti-aircraft fire directed at U.S. warplanes in preceding days.

Vulnerable aircraft

The introduction of AC-130 gunships--lumbering, propeller-driven planes that drop to low altitudes to attack troop emplacements--and the possible use of Special Forces helicopters launched from the carrier USS Kitty Hawk increase the threat posed by Stingers.

Weighing about 35 pounds, the Stinger can be carried and operated with high accuracy by one soldier. It consists of a missile 5 feet in length packaged within a disposable launch tube mounted on a reusable grip-stock. The Stinger is known as a "fire and forget" weapon, meaning it guides itself to the target once it has been fired in the general direction of an aircraft.

U.S. officials suspect the two greatest concentrations of Stingers may be around Kandahar, the southern Afghan city that is headquarters for the ruling Taliban, and at the remote strongholds of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization.

Military experts debate how serious a threat the Stingers pose.

After 15 years of being hauled around in harsh climate, they may be deteriorating, their wiring decaying and their batteries dead or dying, experts say. High-speed aircraft generally are not vulnerable to the Stinger. The Taliban and Al Qaeda won't be fighting with the aid of U.S. satellite technology that helped the mujahedeen use the weapons more effectively against the Soviets.

The weapons are far less effective at night, when U.S. Special Forces helicopters are most likely to be airborne. Pentagon weapons experts know precisely what the capabilities of the Stingers are, and aircraft that would be vulnerable to a Stinger can deploy flares and other decoys that can confuse the missile's infrared seeker.

A Pentagon official speaking on condition of anonymity said the older version of the Stinger that the Taliban and Al Qaeda have is only about 30 percent accurate, though even that level of accuracy could do serious damage.

Sent to rebels in 1986

The decision to sell Stingers to Afghanistan was part of President Ronald Reagan's "rollback" strategy aimed not simply at containing Soviet aggression but, if possible, reversing it. For years the Pentagon and CIA resisted providing sophisticated weapons to the mujahedeen. Deployment of American-made weapons might make the U.S. an overt party to the Afghan conflict instead of a covert foe of the Soviet invasion, they reasoned.

In 1985, the Reagan administration sent Stingers to Angola for use by Jonas Savimbi's UNITA forces. The results were immediate and helped persuade the administration to provide the weapons to the Afghans in early 1986.

"On the first day the mujahedeen used the Stingers in combat, they hit three out of four targets," former Reagan adviser and CIA Director Robert Gates wrote in his memoir. "Indeed it was not long before they were mounting a devastating anti-aircraft campaign against both Soviet and Afghan government aircraft."

Mujahedeen forces are believed to have downed 270 Soviet planes and helicopters, according to Christopher Floss of Jane's Information Group, the authoritative defense publishing house.

In his 1996 memoir "From the Shadows," Gates wrote that the CIA had warned that the decision to provide Stingers to the mujahedeen could come back to haunt the U.S. That warning played a role in the heated internal debate before the Reagan administration's decision to ship Stingers to Pakistan and from there to Afghanistan. But Gates said the CIA did not predict the course that Afghanistan's jumbled internal politics would take en route to becoming a base of operations for Al Qaeda.

"We expected post-Soviet Afghanistan to be ugly, but never considered that it would become a haven for terrorists operating worldwide," Gates wrote.

Buyback program yielded little

The CIA eventually became sufficiently concerned about the Stingers that it instituted a buyback program in the 1990s. That only succeeded in driving up the black-market price of the weapon to $100,000, some three times the original cost. The agency, which provided the mujahedeen at least 1,000 and possibly as many as 4,000 weapons, was able to recover only 70 Stingers. CIA officials declined to comment.

Confirmation that bin Laden has Stingers came in the trial this year of four men accused of involvement in the 1998 bombing of U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Essam Al-Ridi, a government witness in the trial, testified that bin Laden wanted to ship Stingers to Sudan and bought a plane in 1993 to carry out the deal. The shipment never took place.

Taliban soldiers marching in a military parade in Kabul in August were seen carrying Stingers. In 1999 a Stinger fired by fighters with the Northern Alliance, the coalition fighting the Taliban with U.S. help, brought down a Taliban SU-22 fighter-bomber, suggesting that at least some of the weapons are still in working order.

"The battery and sensor are in theory beyond their normal shelf life, but they may have been rebuilt," said Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert and weapons specialist with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "We'll learn the hard way."

Copyright 2001, Chicago Tribune