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
October 21, 2001
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
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
"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
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.
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
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