Twenty Years Ago Today: The Stinger Stung

Twenty years ago today, it emerged that the CIA was having a bit of a hangover from the cold war. More specifically, it was coming to the conclusion that it had screwed up royally in Afghanistan, which is one of those things that every major world power realises sooner or later. You see, way back in 1980, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, which was on its southern border. No one was willing to intervene directly, but the US nevertheless found a way to undermine the Russian occupation: by arming the mujahideen resistance fighting back against the Soviets, something you may recall being dramatised in the film Charlie Wilson's War.

A good deal of the American aid came in the form of surface-to-air Stinger missiles, which were the perfect weapon for taking on the Soviet helicopter gunships which were being used to terrible effect against the resistance fighters. To begin with, there was a tight control on how many of these rather expensive weapons were deployed, but when the CIA saw how effective the mujahideen were at using the missiles, they gave up any pretence at stinginess and just sent them as many as they could find, to as many different groups as would take them. "We were handing them out like lollipops," said a typically nameless US intelligence official.

The war ended in 1989, and the Russians withdrew. No missiles were fired after that point - and yet they remained in the country. With the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, the CIA realised that they really needed to get their missiles back before they started falling into the wrong hands - and by that point, it was already too late. Missiles were turning up in places as far apart as Iran, Qatar and North Korea. So a buy-back programme was initiated, with Congress authorising more than $65m to recover the weapons by this point in 1994.

Now, you'd think that the nation that has done the most to champion capitalism and the free market would understand basic market forces, but apparently this was not the case. The millions of dollars on offer for the missiles did not encourage the militias to return the weapons. It simply increased their market value and thus encouraged the many factions of mujahideen to trade the Stingers between themselves and even fight to keep control of them, which tended to slow the pace of recovery down to a crawl. The Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, was also involved in spiriting some of the missiles out of Afghanistan - and despite promises they made to the US, they had a tendency to keep the weapons rather than return them.

More than 400 missiles were still unaccounted for by this date in 1994 - more than the 350 or so that the mujahideen actually used during the war (although these counts are the ones given in 1994, and may not be entirely accurate). And Afghanistan had barely even begun its descent into madness.

Here's a couple of videos - the first one talks about the impact of the Stinger on the Afghan War:

...and the second is from the Discovery Channel, so it's mostly military porn and things blowing up in slow motion (but there's some good perspective from the Russians who were getting blown up in slow motion):