Stop Panicking About the Stingers

The WikiLeaks war logs only confirmed what we already know: The Taliban simply doesn't have the firepower to wreak havoc on Afghanistan's skies.

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.  

Today, however, there is nothing comparable to the "Stinger effect" in Afghanistan. Open-source accounts of the Taliban's weapons suggests that, in recent years, the group has had access to limited numbers of first- and second-generation anti-aircraft weapons, including Soviet SA-7s, Chinese HN-5s, and perhaps a few early model Stingers. (It is difficult to tell from the WikiLeaks documents if the devices used were, in fact, Stingers.) In 2009, London's Telegraph newspaper reported that Soviet SA-14s -- a second-generation heat-seeking missile introduced in the 1970s -- had been smuggled into Afghanistan across the Iranian border. While loose missiles of any type are worrisome, none of those reportedly acquired by the Taliban have the game-changing potential that the Stinger had in the 1980s. This assessment is supported both by open-source reporting on insurgent missile attacks in Afghanistan and the classified documents obtained by Wikileaks. Those files contain numerous reports of suspected missile attacks but very few reports of downed aircraft. One assault recounted in the war logs, for example, succeeded in downing a Chinook helicopter in 2007. But a single downed helicopter -- or even 10 or 20 downed helicopters -- over nine years hardly qualifies as a successful insurgent anti-aircraft campaign.

The Taliban's fortunes in the anti-aircraft game are unlikely to improve anytime soon. The U.S. military is well-versed in this particular missile threat and has developed tactical and technical countermeasures to mitigate it. These countermeasures are not perfect, as evidenced by aircraft lost in Iraq and possibly in Afghanistan, but they appear to be reasonably effective against the MANPADS currently used by the Taliban.

That could change, of course, if the Taliban suddenly acquired state-of-the-art weaponry. But that seems unlikely. The only reason the mujahideen had access to the Stingers (which are among the most tightly guarded weapons in the world,) was a Cold War cost-benefit calculus that no longer applies. The producers of today's most advanced shoulder-fired missiles have no compelling reason to arm the Taliban. It is conceivable that a country with an anti-U.S. agenda might be interested in giving the insurgency a boost. Still, publicly available information suggests that the least-accountable regimes (that is, the North Koreas of the world) don't yet have access to the most advanced such weapons even if they wanted to send them the way of the Taliban. And lacking a friendly government supplier, the Taliban would have a hard time acquiring the best missiles on its own.

At least, for the time being. As more missiles are exported to countries with leaky arsenals, the likelihood that groups like the Taliban will eventually acquire more capable weapons can only rise. Securing MANPADS and other advanced conventional weapons will require vigilance, focus, and sustained commitment -- not exactly something that the current panic over the WikiLeaks documents is likely to foster.

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Trouble Down South

Why did Kyrgyzstan suddenly erupt into violence?

Four days after violence erupted in southern Kyrgyzstan, the embattled interim government is still unable to control the ongoing fighting between Kyrgyz and Uzbek groups in the provinces of Osh and Jalalabad. At least 120 people have died and thousands have been injured during the four days of unrest. According to the Russian media, up to 75,000 refugees have begun crossing the Uzbek border.  Local NGOs believe the real number could be much higher. Short of troops, equipment, fuel, and reliable communication devices, the Kyrgyz military has been ill equipped to quell the violence. The new government, which took power in a violent uprising just three months ago, has found itself over its head and called for military support from Russia over the weekend. But Moscow declined the plea, declaring the violence to be an internal Kyrgyzstan issue.

While the violence has captured the world's attention, outside observers seem unsure about why it has suddenly erupted and the conflicting explanations offered by the participants haven't exactly helped matters. Local officials say the unrest broke out as news spread of a fight between young patrons at a casino in Osh. The groups of young Kyrgyz patrolling the streets of Osh and Jalalabad blame Uzbeks for starting the fighting as part of a plot by neighboring Uzbekistan to wrest control of the region.

Adding more uncertainty to the mix, the Kyrgyz provisional government has accused deposed President Kurmanbek Bakiyev -- who draws much of his support from the Southern Kyrgyz --  of instigating the unrest through proxies as a way to disrupt a planned constitutional referendum on June 27. The referendum would have given the country's new leaders a foundation for establishing legitimacy.

Kyrgyz military officials say that agents of Bakiyev dispatched well-trained mercenary snipers to Osh and Jalalabad who shot indiscriminately at locals to spread chaos. While it's not surprising that the new government would seek to pin the blame on its predecessor, there is compelling evidence to suggest that the unrest may have been carefully orchestrated. These include attempts by unidentified armed groups to seize control of TV channels, universities, and local government buildings during the fighting, unlikely targets for a mob driven purely by ethnic animosity.

One might think that Kygyzstan's southern region would be a tinderbox for ethnic confrontation. Uzbeks are the largest ethnic minority in Kyrgyzstan after Russians, making up over 13 percent of the population. In Osh and Jalalabad, however, Uzbeks constitute the majority of the population. The Uzbek minority is largely excluded from Kyrgyzstan's political system, though they dominate the country's merchant class. Disputes over water and land use between the Uzbeks and Kyrgyz are common in the south. The Soviet Union spent decades trying unsuccessfully to suppress ethnic nationalism in the area and in 1990, when the Soviet military was unable to put a stop to a three-month-long inter-ethnic battle between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in Osh that resulted in hundreds of deaths, it was taken as a sign of Moscow's diminished power over its regions.

But the early years of Kyrgyz independence, the two groups were generally able to settle disputes without resorting to violence, much of which was due to former leader Askar Akayev's policies of rapprochement. He made the advancement of ethnic minorities a priority, granting land to the Uzbek community and building Uzbek language universities under a policy known as "Kyrgyzstan - Our Common Home." Uzbeks were overwhelmingly supportive of Akayev, but their fortunes turned for the worse when Bakiyev overthrew him in 2005. While he never directly suppressed the Uzbek community, Bakiyev mostly ignored their grievances and allowed the ethnic situation to return to its normal state of animosity. Under his leadership, drug traffickers and organized criminal groups found a safe haven in Kyrgyzstan's south, further frustrating local residents. All the same, the president's firm hand kept ethnic violence to a minimum.

Since Bakiyev's downfall earlier this year, however, ethnic tensions in Kyrgyzstan have spiralled out of control. In April, a group of Meshketian Turks, a small Muslim minority group, were attacked by provocateurs in the outskirts of Bishkek. In May, ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks clashed in much small riots in Jalalabad in a preview of this weekend's violence. The incidents highlighted the Kyrgyz provisional government's inability to maintain stability in the country and, despite his denials, have convinced many that Bakiyev is still acting behind the scenes to destabilize the new regime. The heavy deployment of troops to Osh has left other parts of the country vulnerable and fears are running high that the unrest could spread to other areas.

Unfortunately, the Kyrgyz military, predominantly made up of ethnic Kyrgyz, may itself be part of the problem. Many of its leaders share the suspicion that Uzbekistan plans to invade Kyrgyzstan to protect water resources and expand its territory. They are thus inclined to look upon local Uzbek residents as a fifth column; for their part, many Uzbek residents fear that they will be specifically targeted and are disinclined to trust the military to fairly resolve the dispute.

The interim government seems to have given up on solving the problem on its own and at this point, third-party mediated negotiations seem the only viable solution to bridge the trust gap between Kyrgyzstan's Uzbek and Kyrgyz population. Kyrgyzstan urgently needs the United Nations ‘and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's specialized peace mediators to engage Kyrgyz officials and leaders of the Uzbek diaspora before there is the need for peacekeeper involvement in the region.

Kyrgyzstan doesn't often find itself dominating the international headlines, but the stakes in this conflict are high. It is still the only state in Central Asia with viable and active political opposition, professional NGOs, and independent journalists. The upcoming referendum and the parliamentary elections that would follow could set a powerful example for the region. However, if Kyrgyzstan is left alone in solving its deep-rooted ethnic strife, the escalating violence threatens the very future of democracy in Central Asia.


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