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Boston Globle January 3, 2002

US is said to buy Stinger missiles back from Afghans

By John Donnelly

WASHINGTON - Concerned about the safety of US military helicopters and cargo planes landing in southern Afghanistan, US defense officials recently purchased five Stinger antiaircraft missiles from local warlords around Kandahar for $150,000 each, according to two officials familiar with the effort.

One of the officials, who was briefed by US military commanders in Kandahar, said yesterday that the United States has made it clear to mujahideen commanders that it wants the US-made shoulder-fired Stingers out of Afghanistan because an increasing number of planes are arriving at the Kandahar Airport.

The number of Stingers left in Afghanistan is not known, but some estimates put it between 50 and 100, with the majority in the southern region. In the mid-1980s, the CIA delivered up to 500 of the heat-seeking missiles to Afghan mujahideen fighting Soviet troops.

Since then, US officials have mounted periodic campaigns to buy back the missiles, including one in the mid-1990s for the price of $100,000 each.

The new Stinger buyback program, begun in the last few weeks, is just one example of how US officials, either from the Central Intelligence Agency or the Department of Defense, have covertly spent large amounts of cash to reduce the risk to US troops and equipment in Afghanistan.

In another example, during the battle at Tora Bora, US officials paid local warlords up to $100 for each mujahideen soldier sent to the front lines against Al Qaeda fighters, according to one of the warlords in an interview last month in Jalalabad.

The presence of Stinger missiles is affecting US operations. ''There are still a number of these Stinger weapons out there, and that's why they are generally not allowing daylight landings at the Kandahar airport,'' said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. ''I was told they were buying them and then blowing them up.''

A Pentagon spokesman said it was plausible that US military officials in Kandahar have begun to purchase Stingers. But the price seems high, said the spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Dave Lapan.

''We want to get them out of the hands of Afghans,'' Lapan said. ''But $150,000? That's going to be a lot of money in Afghanistan.''

But some analysts said that even though the $150,000 offer was more than four times the original cost of a Stinger, the cost was easily justifiable.

''I think the price is immaterial, because a Stinger, even if it originally cost $100,000, can take out a $10 million helicopter with a dozen guys in it or a passenger plane,'' said John Pike, head of a Washington think tank, GlobalSecurity.org. ''It's not the sort of thing you want to have floating around.''

The 35-pound Stinger, produced by General Dynamics and Raytheon, has an infrared sensor that homes on the heat emitted by aircraft engines. The 5-foot-long missile, which travels at twice the speed of sound, functions at low altitudes, up to 10,000 feet, and has a 3-mile range. It is no threat to bombers, spy planes, and jets cruising at high altitudes.

During the 1980s, mujahideen using Stingers destroyed or damaged as many as 270 Soviet aircraft, helping to turn the battle against the Soviets.

The effectiveness of the missiles is believed to be diminished because of their age. Military analysts say the rocket fuel for a Stinger may last 15 to 20 years, and the lifetime of the battery is about a year if left in an active state.

Still, US pilots believe that there remains a serious risk that a Stinger could bring down a helicopter or cargo plane.

One pilot who will soon be sent to the region said many colleagues are concerned about Stingers, as well as the plethora of rocket-propelled grenades in Afghanistan. In October 1993, Somalian fighters shot down two US helicopters by barraging them with rocket-propelled grenades.

''It's very difficult knowing if a missile is fired at you,'' said the pilot, who spoke on condition of anonymity. ''You never see it. It's not like the Hollywood movies, where you see a big contrail coming behind it.

''There's a great debate about whether they would still work,'' he said of the Stingers. ''But it's clear they are out there, and there is concern about them.''

Helicopters are particularly vulnerable when disembarking troops, a procedure that can last several minutes while the aircraft hovers, the pilot said.

Vulnerable US aircraft can use decoys to confuse the missile's sensors. Flying at night, which is the usual procedure for US aircraft carrying special forces to Afghanistan, also reduces the risk, because a Stinger operator cannot see the target as well.

The official who was briefed by US military officials on the Stinger program said there should be plenty of incentive now for local warlords to find any stray missiles in the region.

''If you are a wise warlord, you find them and sell them,'' the official said. ''If they use them, they are in trouble. Plus, they are very old, and they depend on batteries, electricity, electronics. So if you manage to fire one, it's going to be hard to hit something. But there are guys out there who can use them, and that's what you have to be worried about.''


Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.