Of all the stories being plucked from WikiLeaks' classified Afghanistan war logs, many analysts have picked out the Taliban's use of heat-seeking missiles as the most troubling. Remembering how the mujahideen used missiles to drive Soviet aircraft from the skies, pundits worried that the Taliban would inflict a similar pain upon American planes and helicopters in Afghanistan. But for those of us who follow the illicit arms trade, the documents simply underscore what we already knew: The Taliban has failed to reproduce the devastatingly effective anti-aircraft campaign that brought the Red Army to its knees in the mid-1980s.
Afghanistan's storied history of anti-aircraft weapons (known as Man-portable Air Defense Systems -- MANPADS) centers around the American Stinger missile, which played a decisive role in the U.S.-funded insurgency that ended nine brutal years of Soviet occupation in the 1980s. Prior to the arrival of the Stinger, none of the weapons procured and distributed to the Afghan rebels by their three main benefactors -- the United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia -- had proven effective against Soviet aircraft, which bombed villages, attacked rebel strongholds, and strafed supply caravans with impunity.
That all changed in September 1986, when a newly trained mujahideen missile team fired its first Stingers at three Soviet Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships attempting to land at Jalalabad airfield. Locked onto the infra-red signatures of their targets, the five-foot-long, 35-pound missiles raced after the ill-fated helicopters at speeds of over 1,500 mph, smashing into them with "the kinetic force of a mid-sized car traveling at sixty miles per hour," according to a 1987 article in the Arizona Republic. The stricken helicopters fell to the ground and burst into flames, marking the advent of a new chapter in the war.
Over the next three years, the mujahideen, who received Stingers from Washington and extensive training on their use in Pakistan, staged dozens of attacks that brought down nearly 270 aircraft, contributing in no small part to the Soviet Union's decision to withdraw from Afghanistan in 1989. While no single factor can be credited for the triumph of a rag-tag militia over the formidable Soviet military, the Stinger missile was a game-changer, destroying hundreds of multi-million-dollar Soviet aircraft, killing dozens of highly trained pilots, and disrupting and degrading Soviet counter insurgency operations throughout the country. So pervasive was the Stinger's influence on events in Afghanistan that analysts coined a term around it: "the Stinger effect."
After the Soviet withdrawal, the U.S. government scrambled to collect the remaining Stinger missiles, fearing they could end up in the hands of terrorists. A top-secret CIA program dubbed "Operation Missing in Action Stinger" was established to buy back the missiles. Details on the classified program remain scant, but the information that is available suggests that, despite rewards of $100,000 or more for each device, the CIA failed to recover many if not most of the loose Stingers. Government officials interviewed by author Steve Coll for his book Ghost Wars claim that an estimated 600 of the Afghan Stingers were still missing as of 1996. Some of the missing missiles ended up in the hands of terrorists, insurgents, and hostile governments as far away as North Korea and Sri Lanka, but many remained squirreled away in rebel arms caches. As recently as 2005, Stingers were seized from a cache near the Pakistan border, and incidents of trafficking in Stinger components have been reported as recently as 2006.