Afghan resistance stung by charges of arms trafficking to Iran. Mujahideen worry US may suspend shipments
Afghan resistance representatives are increasingly concerned that reports of Stinger missile trafficking to Iran and elsewhere by certain guerrilla commanders or party officials could lead to the United States reducing or even suspending missile shipments. Since October 1986, the US Central Intelligence Agency has been covertly funneling the US-made Stinger - a sophisticated, shoulder-held missile - to the mujahideen (Afghan resistance).
According to Western diplomats and other observers in the region, 900 Stingers have been delivered to Pakistan for distribution to the guerrillas over the past 12 months. As part of the deal, sources say, Pakistan is reportedly receiving additional military assistance.
But how many of the approximately $50,000 surface-to-air Stingers are actually deployed against Soviet forces occupying Afghanistan remains another question, observers say. A certain portion of the missiles - as much as one-third - are believed to have been misappropriated.
Mujahideen sources, mainly at the behest of Pakistan and US officials, refuse to comment on the Stinger program. But privately they note that US military planners accepted from the onset that some of the missiles might go astray.
Some of the missiles, observers believe, may have been held back by Pakistani military authorities. Others, they say, have been stolen, captured, or - as recent reports suggest - sold on the black market by corrupt mujahideen. In one incident earlier this year, two guerrilla commanders from Hezb-i-Islami (the Younis Khales faction) allegedly sold up to 16 Stingers to Iran for the equivalent of $1 million.
Guerrilla leaders interviewed here firmly deny that any of their supporters are involved in Stinger trafficking.
``This is rubbish,'' maintains Rahmatullah Safi, a commander with the moderate National Islamic Front. ``How can you sell your life for money? The Stinger is our life for the mujahideen. This is nothing but KGB propaganda.''
Nevertheless, other guerrilla sources have confirmed that some Stingers have indeed gone astray. ``We are not sure how many, but we know that some have disappeared, ending up in Kabul or Iran,'' an alliance representative said. He voiced concern that the US might misunderstand the situation. ``It would not be very good if America stopped the Stinger. It has had a very positive effect for us in the war.''
Since the early stages of the Soviet occupation of 1979, the mujahideen have received other anti-aircraft missiles, notably Soviet-designed Chinese or Egyptian SA-7s. More recently, they have recieved a number of British-made Blowpipe missiles. But the Stinger has proved the most decisive against Soviet aircraft.
``The Stinger has been the single most important development in the war to date,'' says David Isby, an American military specialist on Soviet arms and tactics. ``By introducing Stingers to the Afghan resistance, they have stopped Soviet air raids throughout much of Afghanistan and allowed civilians to return to certain areas held by the resistance. They have also had a tremendous effect on resistance morale. Stingers are allowing the Afghans to take back their country.''
Estimates vary, but as many as 400 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters may have been shot down by the guerrillas since the missiles were first introduced. As a result, the Soviets have been forced to drastically alter their tactics. They have reduced aerial support for ground operations and are concentrating on high-altitude bombing or long-range artillery, both of which are proving far less effective. The Stinger has also apparently damaged the morale of the Soviet-Afghan government forces. Some 35 Afghan pilots at the strategic Bagram airbase reportedly mutineed in August because so many colleagues were being shot down.
The likelihood of Stingers being sold by the resistance does not surprise most observers given the corruption that exists within the alliance and the tradition of arms trafficking along the Afghan-Pakistan border. A string of arms bazaars exists in tribal regions, where anything from Chinese-made 107 mm rockets to machine-guns or rocket-propelled grenade launchers can be bought.
The CIA has apparently tried to make the Stinger distribution system as security-tight as possible. American advisers try to get guerrillas to supply details on how, when, and where each missile is fired. Informers are dispatched to inside regions to keep track. Military observers and other sources say resistance commanders receiving the Stingers are carefully selected. New weapons are only issued once empty rocket cannisters are returned. In recent months, however, Stingers have been reportedly issued to less reliable commanders.
Given that the mujahideen are not a regular army but a people in arms, says analyst Isby, the present Stinger program ``seems to be as good a system of accountability as can be expected with a third-world guerrilla force.''