ON THE KHYBER PASS, PAKISTAN
THE winding down of the Afghan war has left the United States government scrambling to retrieve sophisticated Stinger anti-aircraft missiles it provided to Afghan guerrillas.
US officials in Islamabad are expressing concern to their Pakistani counterparts that as the cash flowing into the conflict dwindles, rebel commanders may be tempted to sell unused Stingers in the open market. Arms dealers in the border town of Landikotal say Stingers have already been regularly sold for about $80,000 to buyers since the mid-1980s, when the mujahideen first received them.
Senior Pakistani military officials say the task of finding the missiles, let alone retrieving them, will be well-nigh impossible.
The Stinger missile is a shoulder-held weapon which, through its heat-seeking targeting device, can shoot down an aircraft. Its small size and portability makes it prized among terrorist groups. Washington's decision in 1985 to provide the weapon to the rebels is widely believed to have turned the tide in the Afghan conflict. (View from Afghanistan, Page 10.)
Mujahed commanders say several thousand Stingers had been supplied to them over the past five years. One prominent commander says "several hundred unused Stingers" may still be left in Afghanistan.
US officials in Pakistan are reluctant to talk about the problems of retrieving the unused missiles. In private, though, they express disgust with the situation. "No one underestimates the potential for difficulty," says one US official in Pakistan. "It is a serious concern."
A US official in Washington says that while controls are in place to track distribution of the Stinger missiles, it is hard to judge how effective they are. Given the severe drop in aid to the region, says the US official, the Bush administration is concerned that there is a greater incentive to sell such weapons in the regional marketplace.
Both US and mujahed sources agree that any large-scale retrieval of missiles and heavy weapons would have to wait until a new government gains control over the countryside. Both also agree that could be years off.
For the Pakistanis, the prospect of peace has led to fears that many of the weapons channeled into Afghanistan by the US, Britain, and Saudi Arabia over the last decade may now be returned and sold in Pakistan.
A spokesman for the Hezb-e-Islami group of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is believed to have received the bulk of the Stingers, says the group will refuse to return the Stingers. "Why should we return them to Pakistan? We still need them to fight," said a Hezb-e-Islami official.
The US and Saudi Arabia provided an estimated $6 billion in military and financial assistance to the rebel groups in the last decade. US assistance stopped on Jan. 1 following an agreement last September with the Soviets, who pledged in turn to cut arms shipments to Kabul.
One of the principal arms markets in Pakistan is Landikotal, which lies just five miles from the Afghan border. The town is located in the Khyber tribal agency, which is not subject to Pakistani law. In the last decade, the town has gained a sinister reputation for its two main businesses - the manufacture of heroin and the sale of weapons.
Tiny stores in the town are crammed with hashish as well as rocket launchers, antitank guns, and machine guns from Russian, Chinese, US, and Saudi armed forces.
The big deals are consummated not in the bazaar but at the homes of the town's major merchants. In the fortress-home of Sheikh Jamiel Shinwari, one of Landikotal's leading arms dealers, rocket launchers are stacked in a kitchen cupboard and a howitzer is stored in the attic.
"I've received regular offers of Stingers in the past, but never from someone I knew well. I only do business with people I know," Sheikh Jamiel confides.
Recently, he says, missiles have been sold to some Iraqis, whom he describes as "official businessmen" and to agents representing the Iranian drug mafia. US Stinger missiles are being used, he says, to protect convoys of heroin shipments across the Iranian border.
US officials here say the use and supply of the missiles was strictly controlled, and each firing had to be recorded. But arms dealers scoff at such suggestions.
"There are no rules about them. That's all propaganda," says Sheikh Jamiel.
Just as the weapons from Lebanon's civil war were sold to the combatants in Yugoslavia, the weapons used in the Afghan war look likely to be passed on. Landikotal businessmen say the biggest customers for the Afghan weapons coming onto the market are Kashmiri militants, followed by Indian Sikhs. Both movements enjoy political support from Pakistan.
"The Kashmiris are buying rocket launchers and medium-range mortars. They're spending millions of rupees" says one dealer in the bazaar. Frequently, Pakistani Army officers accompanied Kashmiris on their buying trips, merchants add. Islamabad has regularly denied reports that it provides military assistance and training to the Kashmiri and Sikh separatist groups.
However, Pakistani officials' greatest concern is that despite the foreign sales, the weapons may flood into hands of their own nationals, fueling ethnic and social tensions even further. Officially, only 11,500 people have licenses to carry arms in Pakistan, but unofficial estimates run into the millions.
Police in Peshawar are said to be particularly worried that their town and province will bear the brunt of this new flood of weapons. Commenting on the availability of Stinger missiles being sold in the province, the Northwest Frontier Province police chief says, "If they were so sophisticated and so useful for terrorist groups, why did you supply them in the first place?"