December 12, 1992, Seattle Times / Chicago Tribune, CIA Buying Back Missiles It Once Gave Away -- Afghan Guerrillas Get 3 Times Actual Value, by Uli Schmetzer,
PESHAWAR, Pakistan - The end of the Cold War has left a U.S. time bomb on the war-torn Afghan border, where the CIA is desperately trying to buy back hundreds of surface-to-air Stinger missiles it secretly gave Afghan guerrillas only a few years ago.
But the drive to reclaim the Stingers, which were intended to help defeat the country's Soviet occupiers, has not been a success in the jagged Afghan-Pakistani mountains and the low-lying poppy fields dominated by warlords and drug lords.
AK-47s and other assault rifles are common among the tribesmen who use mules and camels to traverse the border region just an hour's drive from bustling Peshawar.
U.S. Stingers are something else again. They are shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missiles small enough to fit into the trunk of a car. The missiles can bring down an airliner.
They are not only a symbol of power but also a significant source of black-market funds if local militia chiefs need to finance their private wars.
There are no rules; local elders readily agree to procure a Stinger within days or even a Soviet-made Scud missile if the client has cash up front.
For nearly two years, the CIA, Pakistani intelligence services and Western military attaches have collaborated in Operation MIAS (Missing-in-Action Stingers), trying to pry the missiles from Afghan hands and stop them from being sold to terrorist and separatist groups.
Western intelligence sources said the agency's success rate in repatriating Stingers was "not good." U.S. diplomats would not comment.
Western diplomats said the CIA is willing to pay as much as 3 1/2 times the original $20,000 cost of a Stinger as black-market prices have soared since the former Soviet Union and the United States stopped shipping military supplies and spare parts to Afghanistan.
"The Americans have organized special units to scrounge around for Stingers in Afghanistan," a European military attache said.
"Every Western intelligence service is trying to help out because all our governments are dead scared (that) one of those things is going to end up in the wrong hands. The British are particularly nervous."
Not only must the seven principal factions in the Afghan civil war now finance themselves, but dozens of mini-warlords have recently suffered heavy casualties from Sri Lankan government gunships and fighter-bombers.
A few Stingers could tip the balance, as the missiles did for the Afghan guerrillas against the Soviets.
"The temptation to sell weapons supplied by the Soviets and the United States is enormous," said Rahim Shah, a senior police officer who fled Kabul last month.
He said Stingers were always hard currency in his country, even in the days when Moscow-backed President Najib fought the U.S.-supplied mujahedeen (Muslim warrior) factions.
The rebels ousted Najib in 1990.
"Najib used to buy Stingers from his enemies, the mujahedeen, for $10,000 a missile," Shah said.
On the other hand, the most bizarre but likeliest safeguard against the Stingers' falling into terrorist hands is the childlike attachment that local commanders feel toward them.
They are their military toys of choice.
"Stingers now sell for $50,000 to $70,000, but most commanders still don't sell them because you lose prestige if you get rid of them for money. The missiles are an enormous status symbol," said Abdul Haq, commander of the once powerful Hizb-I-Islami faction in Afghanistan.
As the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates and outlaw gunmen take over, he warned, "the country will become a training ground for terrorists and a bazaar for arms. People will not only sell Stingers but show the buyer how to fire them," Haq said.
Haq said 24 Stingers have found their way into the hands of Iran from pro-Iranian mujahedeen factions, including one under radical Islamic fundamentalist commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
The twist is that Hekmatyar, 46, who heads one of the two most powerful militia armies, was chosen by the CIA and Pakistani intelligence in 1986 as the main recipient of Stingers.
A senior Western diplomat recounted how an Afghan guerrilla acquaintance recently turned up at his home in Peshawar and offered him two Stingers for $40,000 each.
The guerrilla said he had ferried the missiles by camel from Afghanistan.
The border, with three official and 260 unofficial crossings, is often described as "porous like a sieve."
"I passed him on to the Americans. I don't know if the deal was struck," the diplomat said.
"The Americans have to outbid the others," said a veteran United Nations official. "They have to pay a lot of money for getting back missiles they gave away gratis. Ironically, they are not providing any money for Afghanistan's reconstruction."