|What About the Taliban's Stingers?
International Herald Tribune
Wednesday, September 26, 2001
PARIS Taliban forces in Afghanistan are reported to have up to 100 shoulder-fired
Stingers, the U.S.-made missile with the deadliest record against low-flying
aircraft of any weapon since World War II.
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In a terrorist's hands, a heat-seeking Stinger could bring down a low-flying
airliner as it approached or left an airport, specialists said. But they
described such risks as low for commercial flights operating in the United
States, Europe and Asia.
No terrorist attack with a Stinger has been recorded in the 12 years
since the end of the war in Afghanistan.
In the 1980s, the Reagan administration delivered several hundred Stingers
to Afghan resistance groups, including the Taliban.
The Central Intelligence Agency, despite strenuous efforts, was never
able to recover more than a few of the missiles after the war ended, even
with big cash rewards.
After Moscow's withdrawal in 1989, the CIA started a buy-back program
to recover the Stingers, offering as much as $100,000 each. There were
relatively few takers.
The Stingers, fired from tubes six feet (nearly two meters) long, would
be difficult to smuggle or conceal near Western airports amid the now-enhanced
security that often includes security around the runways and airfield perimeters.
It is unclear exactly how many of the Stingers remain in Afghan hands
and what condition they are in. The Taliban so far seem to have refrained
from selling their missiles in terrorist weapons markets.
"The Stingers are not sold or passed on by Afghan war clans, who prize
them as symbols of prestige and as real deterrents against low-level air
attacks," said a former CIA officer who specialized in the region. Despite
reports that the Stingers in Afghanistan might be unusable now, after a
decade of wear and tear, the CIA source said that a test-firing in 1999
in the United States showed that the vintage Stingers were still working
"They may have battery problems, but they are fixable," he said.
The Stingers enjoyed "mythological" status because they turned the
tide in Afghanistan, according to Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA official
who was involved in the 1986 decision to provide the Stingers to the Afghans
fighting Soviet invaders. As a result they have always commanded political
Perhaps too much, according to critics of the CIA, who have blamed
the agency for concentrating on recovering the hardware that had done so
much damage to the Soviet military forces and neglecting the larger problems
of the political vacuum left in Afghanistan when the Soviet forces pulled
out in 1989,
The CIA campaign to retrieve the Stingers reflected this misplaced
sense of U.S. priorities, according to one intelligence source, who said
the focus on the weaponry seemed to blind Washington - including even the
intelligence community - to the danger caused by political disintegration
in Afghanistan after the Russian withdrawal and the collapse of any effective
The intelligence source cited a conversation with a senior CIA officer
shaping U.S. intelligence operations in the region: When asked to explain
why the agency seemed to have lost interest in Afghanistan, the CIA official
reportedly said dismissively:
"We don't do windows" - meaning that Afghanistan had become a trivial
issue other than as a potential hiding place for Stingers.
Britain repeatedly urged the United States during the mid-1990s to
pay more attention to Afghanistan, citing the danger posed by the Taliban
to stability in neighboring Muslim countries.
Indeed, one source said, the British started providing covert assistance
- mainly in the form of small special forces teams dispensing training
- to Ahmed Shah Massoud, a leading anti-Taliban insurgent who was recently
The United States, too, finally joined in backing Mr. Massoud's Northern
Alliance, but only last year when the Taliban was firmly established.
Now Washington may need the alliance to help topple the Taliban regime.
Similarly, Washington now needs to turn for help to Pakistan and its
national spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, which worked closely
with the CIA in supplying Stingers to the Afghan resistance and then felt
ignored by Washington once Moscow left Afghanistan.
Surface-to-air missiles similar to the Stinger are made in Britain
and in Russia, whose SAM-16 - an improvement over the old SAM-7s and Strela
missiles - contains Stinger technology stolen from in the 1980s from Greece,
a NATO member, by Soviet military intelligence. The Russian missile can
be purchased in international arms markets. But it does not perform as
well as Stingers or Blowpipe, a British equivalent, supplied to the Afghan
Militarily, Stingers would not pose a major threat to U.S. helicopters
if Washington struck Osama bin Laden's mountain bases in Afghanistan or
attacked the Taliban regime in Kabul, specialists said.
U.S. Special Forces and their helicopter crews usually operate under
cover of darkness but Stingers can be aimed easily only in daylight.
Mr. Cannistraro, the ex-CIA official, said Tuesday that "Iran tried
to use Stingers against U.S. warships in the Gulf during skirmishes in
the late 1980s. They didn't hit anything."
Already, he said, the Iranians' Stingers, stolen from Afghans, were
proving vulnerable to U.S. electronic countermeasures in combat.
Against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Stingers changed
When the Reagan administration started sending Stingers to the Muslim
fighters in Afghanistan, who traveled to Pakistan for CIA training in use
of the missiles, the Afghan guerrillas reportedly brought down five Soviet
fighter-bombers with their first five shots.
Stingers were credited with destroying 270 Soviet helicopters, fighters
and transport planes in Afghanistan.
© 2000 William S. Donaldson III. All