Several years after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, many US officials felt neither the US-backed Afghan rebels nor the Soviets had gained an edge.
According to a statement given to media by Jack Devine, CIA’s Afghan Task Force head at that time, “in ’85 there was a prevailing sentiment – if you would look at the press and if you were in officialdom; if you walked around Washington and talked to people in the defense, intelligence, and executive branch in general – the view was that we were at a stalemate with them.”
Devine, who has given his life’s 32 years to CIA, has also been the director and associate direction of operations. “There was a sentiment growing, ‘How long are we just going to bleed the Russians?'” he further added. More critical observers interpreted the US dictate as “bleed the Russians to the last Afghan.”
At the beginning of the invasion, a program was set up to support Afghan rebels. However, it was pretty small and meager as per Devine. “They had weapons left over from World War II or something that they started with.”
The task force and the budget grew with White House’s permission. But the program faced a new problem at the ground level, where weapons and aid were supposed to cross the “zero line” from Pakistan into Afghanistan. “Despite the fact that we had now ample money and ample production, we weren’t able to move things across the border because the Hind helicopters for the Russians just basically nailed down and suppressed movement across the border,” Devine told the media.
War with the main enemy
To overcome the problem, a few officials wanted to use the still-in-development, Stinger missile. “With this we’ll be able to alleviate the pressure on the border,” the thinking went, Devine said. “I don’t think anyone there, certainly myself included, thought that this would drive the Russians, in and of itself, out.”
Deployment of the Stinger wasn’t easy. There was a lot of resistance in the Reagan administration as well as within the CIA. Pakistan’s then president, Mohammed Zia-ual-Haq was also not on board.
“It was the concern that if we deployed it that the Russians would [see it as] a real slap in the face and that they might respond, and it could produce a much larger direct confrontation,” Devine told the media.
US lawmakers also raised concerns over using the Stinger in Afghanistan, worried mainly about the sensitive technology falling into the hands of the Soviets. The CIA’s officer in Pakistan, Milton Bearden, overseeing Afghan operations at that time told senators that the Soviet Union had gotten its hands on the Stinger through a source within NATO, years earlier.
An interagency meeting at the White House led to agreement to introduce the Stinger. A presidential memo followed, after which Devine was sent to procure the missiles from the military through a logistics officer. However, Devine couldn’t get his hands on the Stinger as the troops themselves didn’t have it at ready at that time. After a lot of resentment, 300 were reportedly delivered in 1986, followed by 700 the next year – between 2,000 and 2,500 of the missiles were given away by the CIA during the war.
Pakistani officers trained by the US military for the new missile, further trained the Afghan rebels in 1986. By late September, only the best fighters of Afghan mujahideen were deployed on the first mission. A few missiles were launched, with the first one a failure; three Soviet helicopters were brought down. “It was a big event for the mujahideen. It was a big event for us, the Pakistanis, everybody involved,” Devine said. “It was a stand-up-and-shout event.”
Change in strategy by the Russians
The Soviet responded immediately.
New tactics were adopted by the Soviet military, including a thumb rule that 20,000 feet was now the safety altitude – about twice the ceiling of the Stinger. According to the calculations by the Soviet officials, within the first year of its use, the Stinger had a success rate of 20%, up from about 3% when the rebels were using the SA-7 system, which was a Soviet copy of a much older US weapon. As per a report, approximately 270 aircrafts were downed in total.
Russia began to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan within two years of the first successful Stringer strike. The withdrawal was completed in February 1989, almost 10 years after the invasion.
Though the effect of the Stringer was a game-changer, however it is still debated.
According to a political scientist and arms expert, Alan J. Kuperman, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had already made the decision to withdraw prior to the Stinger’s first use and that Soviet countermeasures – such as flares and nighttime operations – negated the Stinger within a few months.
As per Devine, “we know now that the Russian military decided in aftermath of this that they were leaving,” he also acknowledges the fact that there were other reasons as well behind the withdrawal, like Soviet economic decline, budgetary issues, and political distaste for the campaign at home. The Stinger undercut “their air capabilities,” he further added. “The Stinger changed the course of the war.”
Aftermath of the war
In addition to limiting who could get Stingers, the US required expended missiles be returned before new ones were issued. A program was started by the CIA to recover the remaining missiles after the Soviet withdrawal, with Congress authorizing $65 million for buybacks in the early 1990s.
Pakistani and US intelligence sources monitoring the effort told the media in 1994 that it had been plagued by failures, miscalculations, and wasted money. As per the sources, only a fraction of estimated 1,000 Stingers provided to rebels during the final years of the war had been recovered and that CIA did not know where the rest of them were.
According to the statements given by officials involved in the distribution and monitoring of the missiles, the accounting system broke down as the war turned in the favor of Afghanistan, missiles were handed out like “lollipops”.
More than 600 Stingers were still missing in 1996.
The US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 again stirred concern the US-provided weapons could be used against American forces. At the start of the war, the Pentagon accused Taliban and Al Qaeda of possessing 200 – 300 missiles. US pilots in low-flying aircraft reported seeing surface-to-air missiles fired at them, but no US aircraft were downed by Stingers.
The Afghan government launched a movement in 2005 to recover the remaining Stingers, not sure about how many were still out there. However, the experts believed that the missiles were now too old to be used effectively.