SUMMARY: The alleged performance of STINGER missiles in Afghanistan in the 1980s was grossly exaggerated. By comparing the number of STINGERs provided to the Afghans with the number of aircraft downed, the impossibility of the accepted claims about effectiveness is shown. The success rate of the STINGERs against all aircraft is calculated to have been, at best, in the 20% range. Even after the STINGERs arrived in Afghanistan, the majority of aircraft continued to be downed by less sophisticated weapons, and the maximum total number of aircraft that may have been downed by STINGERs is calculated as 150 over three years, with the actual number most likely less than that. A well documented chronology of events shows that the STINGERs did not initiate, or increase the rate of, the decline in air attacks against the Afghan Resistance in the latter years of the war. Logical analysis refutes the idea that the relatively small military and economic costs that resulted from the STINGERs had any significant influence on the course of the war, or on the Soviets’ decision to withdraw from Afghanistan which evidence indicates had been made before the deployment of the STINGERs..



In the late 1980s, there were only a very small number of Westerners who had been involved in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, who openly refuted the almost universally accepted propaganda claims about the supposedly decisive role of the STINGER missiles provided to the Afghan Mujahideen. I was the only American among those attempting to draw attention to the issue, and ultimately the only person to make a formal effort to publicly challenge the nonsensical stories that had become accepted as fact. The following analysis was originally written in 1989.

In response to my proposal of such an article, David Saw, then editor of the magazine Military Technology (published by the Mönch Group of Germany, with editorial offices in Britain), commissioned me to write it for Military Technology, though as part of the deal I was pressured into also writing some other articles for other magazines produced by the same publisher, on subjects which I had no particular interest or quantitative data of the sort I did in relation to the STINGERs. I completed the articles, and submitted the "STINGER in Afghanistan" article in the summer of 1989, closely following what I had set forth and outlined in my original proposal, and meeting the guidelines/ requirements that had been given me. The article was accompanied by several very good quality 35mm transparencies of Soviet and DRA helicopters in operation in Afghanistan in 1987 and 1988, taken by Jim Emery, an American journalist who was one of the few to accurately report on the war. The photos, some showing helicopters at tree-top level searching for signs of resistance activities, contradicted the claims that the STINGERs had "cleared the skies". Although the helicopters were avoiding the most vulnerable mid-altitudes, some of the photos showed them at distances at which they would have been vulnerable even to RPG rounds, graphically refuting the claims that after the arrival of the STINGERs, helicopters flew only at very high altitudes and avoided any situations where they would have been within range. After not hearing from the editor over the next six months, and not seeing the article appear in the magazine, I began inquiring about its status, but got absolutely no response. Events in my life pushed the matter to the background through much of 1990, during which time Saw was replaced as editor. Then at the beginning of 1991, I moved to Britain to begin work on my doctoral degree in London, and contacted the Military Technology editorial office, where the new editor eventually conceded that, there was a record of the fact that I had been commissioned to write the article, and that it had been logged in as having been received, but that it, and the accompanying photos, seemed to have been "lost" during the changes in editorial staff. I then offered to send a copy of the article and obtain copies of the same or similar photos to go with it, and requested that the magazine honor its end of the commissioning agreement by either running the article and paying me for it, or declining to run it and paying me a "kill fee" as is customary in cases where a commissioned article, can not, for whatever reason, be run. The new editor refused to discuss that contractual obligation the magazine had to me, and only offered to consider for publication any future work I might wish to submit. With my needing to concentrate on my doctoral research work, I didn’t consider it worthwhile to try to pursue the matter in an unfamiliar court system in a different part of the country. I was never able to determine if the failure to run the article was due to editorial incompetence, sloth, and/or internal turmoil which are commonly encountered in the magazine publishing business, or whether my article had been commissioned at the behest of some third party entity which wanted to see the full details of my analysis while making sure a wider audience did not, with the subsequent departure of the editor involved leaving his replacement reluctant to take money from his current budget to satisfy an obligation not incurred by him, for an article that was never intended to be published.

At that same time, however, the first Gulf War was underway. In its aftermath, it became obvious that a similar exaggeration of effectiveness had taken place in relation to the PATRIOT missile system, which finally caused the more intellectually honest analysts to accept the evidence I presented that something similar had indeed gone on in relation to the STINGERs in Afghanistan where the truth was much easier to conceal. So, while I never attempted to have the article published elsewhere, my analysis and conclusions on this subject have circulated among the few scholars and military analysts who have wanted to understand what truly took place in Afghanistan, and who thus made the effort to seek me out and personally inquire about those events and the role of the STINGER missiles.

I am making this version available on the web to help counter some of the great historical distortions and disinformation that have been, and continue to be, presented as fact to scholars, military analysts, and the general public. The article below is essentially that written in 1989, with a few updates and additions of information, the adjustment of time references and grammatical tense to reflect the passing of two decades, and the removal of some material discussing such weapons in their more general military context that is less relevant now in light of technological advances and new military hardware.




Leonard Leshuk, 1989

The image of Afghan resistance fighters shouldering STINGER missiles and shooting down Soviet aircraft became an icon of the latter years of the Cold War era. The shoulder-fired, heat-seeking STINGER was the state-of-the-art Man Portable Air Defense System (MANPADS) at the time, and it did shoot down a number of Soviet aircraft in Afghanistan. The claims related to its use against the Soviets in Afghanistan thus became deeply ingrained in Western military thinking about close air defense. However, its use and effects in that war need to be critically examined.

STINGER missiles were provided to the Afghan resistance forces in a manner which made it impossible for US personnel to observe the weapons' performance in a direct or coherent manner. Yet, most Western analysts accepted reports concerning the STINGERs without questioning the often implausible, and sometimes impossible, claims coming out of a war well known for generating confused, exaggerated, and frequently totally false stories. The accuracy of many of the news stories concerning STINGER missiles can be judged from the fact that the missiles' alleged effectiveness in use against Soviet aircraft in Afghanistan began being reported in detail at least six months before the time the weapons first arrived in the field. These "phantom" STINGERs were usually presented as evidence of strong US support for the Mujahideen, and their imagined performance hailed as a triumph of Western technology over Soviet brute strength. One report though, went equally far in the opposite direction. A story in a major US newspaper months before the weapons actually arrived in Afghanistan claimed that 18 of 18 STINGERs fired there failed to down their targets; apparently a merging of premature reporting of the arrival of STINGERs with garbled accounts of defective SA-7 shoulder-fired missiles. Ironically, but not surprisingly, the article was accompanied by a note that the author, a well known journalist and commentator, was writing a book on intelligence analysis.

Analyzing the Reports and Numbers

Once the STINGERs did arrive in late September 1986, most accounts claimed that 70% or 80% were downing their targets, or, slightly less optimistically, that there were"1.5 missiles fired per aircraft downed". In early 1987 it was claimed that the STINGERs had been downing aircraft at rates of "one a day", "over one a day", or "1.2 per day".US government officials (usually not named) were often cited as the source of these numbers, and the information was said to be confirmed by Western observers. A few reports did mention that other sources estimated the weapons' effectiveness to be considerably less, e.g."closer to 40%", and some of the same sources which originally presented the very high figures subsequently conceded that the effectiveness had to be "well below 50%". Its now known that during the first 6 - 7 months, only about 20 STINGERS per month were sent into Afghanistan -- making a prolonged rate of more than one aircraft downed per day impossible during that period even if every one had hit and critically damaged an aircraft.

Regardless of the percentages or numbers claimed, there was a curious common factor in the reports; they never mentioned aircraft hit/damaged but not "downed" by STINGERs, even though less-than-lethal hits had been frequently observed with BLOWPIPE and SA-7 missiles. Although the better fuse and warhead system of the STINGER made it more likely that aircraft hit would be damaged to the point they could no longer remain airborne, it was extremely unlikely to have been 100% of them. An explanation may be found by analyzing how "kills" were "confirmed".When a militarily and technically knowledgeable Australian independently helping the Afghans carefully questioned a British journalist about his reporting of an early "confirmed kill", something much less definite emerged from his account. His supposed confirmation of the "kill" had consisted of seeing a STINGER missile fired at a helicopter at a range of over 3000 meters (approximately 2 miles), observing detonation (at that range the point of detonation and any damage done was impossible to determine), and then watching the helicopter, trailing some smoke, make a controlled descent behind a ridge line. No crash was heard or felt, no attempt was made to get to a position even within sight of where the helicopter or wreckage was assumed to be, nor was any smoke seen rising above the ridge. While one can only speculate on the fate of that particular helicopter, it is relatively certain that slightly damaged and undamaged aircraft which quickly took cover behind terrain features when fired upon, but which continued flying, were among those counted as "kills" even by Western observers. The British journalist just mentioned was one of the more honest and knowledgeable members of that profession there. The majority were seeking to create the most sensational, and thus salable, stories, and thus willing to distort or misrepresent the reality, with some even found to have faked combat footage. An American video journalists who played a major role in creating the image of the war seen on the television news in the US was an especially disreputable sort; an ex-convict with a long record of lying and swindling before he began working for CBS.(1)

Western intelligence agency estimates of yearly combined Soviet/Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) aircraft loses had reached 70 - 100 as early as 1983 -- the reality probably being at the low end of that range at most. At that time, the resistance forces had small arms, 12.7mm and 14.5mm heavy machine guns (HMGs), RPG shoulder-fired anti-tank rockets (sometimes used to good effect against low-flying helicopters), and a very limited number of (frequently defective) SA-7 missiles. During 1985, the last full year before the arrival of the STINGER missiles, the same sources estimated 150-200 aircraft were downed. The increase was due to more HMGs, especially 14.5mm ZPU-1s, in the hands of the resistance, and an increase in air operations by the communist forces. The number of aircraft downed "by all causes" in 1986 and in 1987 (the first full year STINGERs were in use) were estimated by Western intelligence agencies to be 150 - 200 each year. Resistance sources confirmed that a large percentage, most likely the majority, of aircraft shot down continued to be downed by HMG fire even after the arrival of the STINGERs. In 1988 the estimate of the number of aircraft downed dropped to less than 50. In 1986 and thereafter, the Mujahideen also had better quality SA-7 missiles. Between the arrival of STINGERs in late 1986, and the departure of Soviet combat forces from Afghanistan, it has been claimed that approximately 200 aircraft were downed by SA-7, BLOWPIPE(2), and STINGER missiles (that number seems too high to fit within the overall aircraft losses during those years, and no documentary or other convincing evidence has been show to support that number, but it will used as a starting figure for calculations), with the STINGERs accounting for 70% - 80% of those; i.e. about 150 attributed to the STINGERs.[See "Putting the Soviet Losses in Perspective" below for further analysis of the numbers.] Although no one knows for certain how many STINGERs were fired in combat against Soviet/DRA aircraft,800 is a reasonable estimate that would reconcile with what is known about those delivered and those bought back or otherwise located after the war, and provides a number with which to work. If the high estimate of aircraft downed by SAMs is accepted, that would mean somewhere in the range of 20% of the STINGERs fired were successful in taking down their targets. If more than 800 STINGERs were fired, and/or the number of aircraft downed was lower, then the success rate would be proportionately lower. If fewer than 800 STINGERs were fired, and the high estimate of aircraft downed is accurate, it could push the success rate up to perhaps 25%-30%, but would further weaken the claims about the wide distribution and use of the missiles.

The Decline in Soviet Air Attacks

The arrival of the STINGERs appeared to have coincided with a dramatic reduction in Soviet air operations preceding the Soviet withdrawal. Most journalists, many Western analysts of Soviet military affairs, and even a former US National Security Advisor, immediately jumped to the conclusion that it was a cause and effect relationship. It was thus said that the STINGERs "neutralized Soviet air power", "turned the tide of the war", "cleared the skies over Afghanistan" and "caused the Soviets to withdraw". Although these claims were being stated in less absolute terms by 1989, and other weapons, supplied even later, were sometimes mentioned as possible co-factors, the idea of significant strategic impact persisted. In the decades since the Soviets’ departure from Afghanistan the myth of the STINGERs having "won the war" persisted, and in some quarters even grew. The facts and the chronology of events clearly refute those claims and ideas.

In 1985, 1986, and 1987 this writer was director of a US funded project which established and supplied medical facilities throughout the resistance controlled areas of Afghanistan. Soviet/DRA military activities, including air attacks, were seen escalating through the summer and fall of 1985. Early in 1986 though, reports from the medical and support personnel working under me in that project indicated a dramatic decrease in air attacks in almost all areas of Afghanistan. This wide-spread, overall decrease was accompanied by observations of some increase in localized attacks on a few supply route choke-points and strategic resistance strongholds. Given the consistency in these reports from personnel of known reliability working at 30 facilities in geographically, ethnically, politically, and militarily diverse areas, and who had traveled between those facilities and Peshawar, Pakistan, they formed a convincing body of data in themselves. Those reports were later confirmed, and the decline quantified, by much more comprehensive data gathered in the most extensive and controlled survey ever done in the country during the war.(3) In 1987, the highly experienced and respected Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, which conducted the largest educational/agricultural/medical aid program in Resistance-held territories, sent trained and supervised teams into all areas of the country to conduct a survey of the agricultural situation. As part of that survey they gathered data about air attacks which had taken place during the years of the war. Bombing and rocketing of villages and farms peaked in 1985 (approx. 53% of those questioned reported such attacks for that year) and began declining dramatically in 1986. The decline continued at virtually the same rate through both 1986 (approx. 38% reporting such attacks) and 1987 (approx. 22% reporting such attacks). With the first few STINGERs deployed, primarily in the border areas, in late 1986, and a much larger number deployed all across the country during 1987, there should have been only a small decline in 1986 and a much greater one in 1987, if the STINGERs had been the initiating and/or major cause of the decline. Obviously, as the earlier reports told, the decline began six to eight months before the arrival of the STINGERs; before the final approval had been given in the US Congress to supply them to the Mujahideen. In fact, since the Swedish Committee data were gathered before the end of 1987 (i.e. not all bombings that year had yet taken place), it is likely that the rate of decline for 1987 was actually less than in 1986. This is not to say that the STINGERs had no effect on Soviet air operations, but rather, that their influence was not significant on the rate of the decline in air operations which had started long before their arrival.

By early 1986 the Soviets were clearly moving towards a pullout from Afghanistan, and by mid-year had announced the first withdrawal of troops (albeit, largely illusionary), which took place later that year. To maintain bargaining power in the Geneva peace negotiations, they did not make a public commitment to total withdrawal until early in 1988. However, in late 1986 and early 1987, high level US State Department officials in Pakistan were saying with great certainty in private, that the Soviets would definitely be leaving Afghanistan "...but not in 1987". It therefore appears that the Soviet decision to withdraw, along with a general timetable, had been known to US officials either before the first STINGERs reached Afghanistan, or at the very latest, before they had been used in any significant numbers.

The Number of STINGERs Provided

The quantity of STINGERs said to have been provided has tended to grow in media reports over the years since the war -- perhaps to make the claims of their having a major impact more plausible. The number generally accepted in the late 1980s was 1000. Various sources have since reported 2000, 2500, and even as high as 3000, However, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, both the UN and the US Government’s Congressional Research Service, in discussing the problem of the STINGERs believed to remain unused in Afghanistan, were using 1000 as their number for the total provided to the Afghans. One UN report on the subject contended that 550-700 of those 1000 were unaccounted for(4), though that probably included many that had been fired in combat but could not be absolutely confirmed as such, while most other sources used numbers in the 200- 300 for those which remained unaccounted for at that time. Although 1000 remains the most credible and best documented number, it is plausible that it may have been as high as 1500, but how many STINGERs actually reached the Afghans is another question, with some possibly being diverted to other, truly covert, CIA operations, others being retained by the Pakistani military for their own use, and yet others siphoned off by corrupt CIA or Pakistani personnel involved, and sold on the black market for personal profit .

Putting the Soviet Losses in Perspective

Postwar calculations of the aircraft losses deal almost exclusively with the aircraft of the Soviet military, with numbers for Democratic Republic of Afghanistan aircraft being elusive. Serious attempts to document the numbers have generally come up with slightly less than 350 Soviet helicopters, and less than 150 Soviet fixed-wing aircraft, lost due to all causes during the entire war. The resulting figure of less than 500, if matched by a similar losses by the DRA, would fit approximately with the more conservative end of the yearly estimates of aircraft losses for the combined forces made during the war. In any event, given the distribution patterns and schedules over more than two years, deployment of 1000, or even 1500, STINGER missiles could hardly have "cleared the skies" of a country of 637,397 sq. km. In many cases, regional commanders operating over many thousands of square kilometers of strategic territory, received only two or three launcher units, and five or six missiles at a time.

Additional perspective on the numbers involved can be gained by comparison to the numbers of aircraft the US lost in Vietnam. US aircraft of all types downed in Vietnam numbered in the 8500 - 14,000 range. Officially, only 4857 helicopters were "lost". However, as many as 5000 more were substantially destroyed, but as long as the section on which the aircraft’s number was painted could be retrieved, the fiction was maintained that the crashed helicopter had only been damaged and had been sent back to be repaired/rebuilt in the US, even if all that had been recovered and incorporated into the new helicopter was a couple of square feet of the old one’s aluminum skin bearing its number. Before the arrival of the STINGERs, Western intelligence sources calculated that 700 - 1000 Soviets/DRA aircraft had been downed (with the low end of that estimate now seeming to have been closest to the actual number). Even if the 1000 STINGERs provided had been as effective as the most optimistic projections and reports, they could have raised the total to only a small fraction of the number of US aircraft lost in Vietnam. Additionally, official figures attribute over 4600 of the US aircraft losses (including the majority of helicopter losses) in Vietnam to accidents - over 20 times as many aircraft as the Soviets/DRA forces are estimated to have lost to STINGER missiles. Thus, had the Soviets merely been lured into carrying out more air operations in the last years of their occupation of Afghanistan, it is likely they would have lost as many, or more, additional aircraft to accidents as they did to STINGER missiles.

Effects on Resistance Military Activities

The STINGERs did give the resistance forces some increased operational capabilities. They allowed the Mujahideen to extend the range of air defense over and around their bases. The Mujahideen units which received STINGERs were able to provide themselves with better air defense when transporting supplies and conducting raids. Despite these advances, the STINGERs did not significantly enhance the Mujahideen's offensive capabilities. No Soviet-manned bases, nor any air bases, were taken between delivery of the STINGERs and the Soviet withdrawal. Despite the continual belief by most Western analysts all through the war that the Afghan communist forces could not last more than a few weeks at most if the Soviets withdrew, the Mujahideen required many months to take even the cities and air bases closest to their own bases along the Pakistan border. And it was only after the defection of one of the top communist officers and the large force under his command that the fighting turned decisively in favor of the Mujahideen. Anecdotal reports, such as from the 1989 offensive against Jalalabad, indicated that the Mujahideen experienced frequent attacks by DRA aircraft despite the presence of many STINGERs on the ground.

The Soviet Reaction

Some changes were made in Soviet air tactics after the arrival of the STINGERs, but to say that the Soviets were severely restricted in their air operations would be a gross exaggeration. As early as 1983, knowledgeable observers had reported aircraft operating more cautiously in many areas in response to the presence of SA-7s and the Mujahideen's increased understanding of aircraft vulnerabilities. At that time, infrared countermeasures such as flare dispensers, exhaust heat diffusers, and IR jammers, which had been incorporated into the designs of newer aircraft, were retro-fitted onto older models. Tactics such as higher altitude bombing, stand-off attacks, and nap-of-earth flying were used to avoid both SAMs and HMG fire. But by late 1984, Soviet/DRA aircraft, making use of countermeasures, were reported to have lowered their minimum attack altitudes back to pre-1983 levels. The initial reaction to the introduction of the STINGERs in 1986 didn’t involve any more radical change in operations. The Mi-8 helicopters, which had previously been used extensively as weapons platforms, were largely relegated to the transport role for which they had originally been designed.(5) Other helicopters and fixed wing aircraft began to adhere more closely to standard combat flight procedures, and became more cautious as the Soviet withdrawal became imminent. Even then, Afghans and Westerners encountered numerous helicopters, including the more vulnerable Mi-8s, operating much as before in many areas of the country in 1987, 1988, and 1989. The introduction of 30 new MIG-27s to Shindand air base in western Afghanistan late in 1988 indicated that the Soviets did not feel that these very expensive aircraft were especially vulnerable to STINGERs. After the arrival of the first STINGERs, and again after the second, larger, consignment arrived, the Soviets actually increased the frequency of their air raids on resistance bases across the border in Pakistan; clearly not retreating in fear of the STINGERs, even though one Soviet MIG was downed by a STINGER during such a raid. An American journalist who traveled with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in 1987 and 1988 observed and photographed Soviet helicopters at very close range -- a couple even passing and hovering over villages at altitudes at which they literally could have been hit by stones fired from slingshots. He observed that although the Soviets were exercising increased caution, especially in areas where there were major concentrations of resistance fighters, and thus possibly SAMs, and avoiding any unnecessary exposure, their helicopters were still very much in operation. In the majority of the country, due to the limited number of such weapons supplied, it was highly unlikely that small groups of Mujahideen would have STINGERs. Thus there was little chance that they would be encountered anywhere other than around certain stronghold and along main transport routes.


Stories which portrayed the STINGER as a "magic bullet" with sure lethality and the ability to change the course of the war were useful to virtually everyone involved in the US military aid program, as well as to those promoting increased STINGER acquisitions by US and other military forces. The Mujahideen, who traditionally did not need any encouragement to exaggerate their military prowess, were required to report hits to receive additional STINGERs, so they were unwilling to admit less than perfect performance. Even the Soviets, who all through the war had blamed aircraft downed by SA-7s and RPGs, or even by HMG fire, on "US supplied" or "US made" missiles, were more than willing to place blame on the STINGERs after they were deployed. With nearly everyone standing to benefit from the claims of the effectiveness of the STINGERs, there was little incentive for critical analysis among those generally consulted by the news media. It was somewhat different in the remote interior regions of Afghanistan, where some resistance fighters complained bitterly that the supposedly "covert" delivery of the STINGERs had received so much advanced publicity, and was carried out so gradually, that the Soviets had developed substantial countermeasures before the weapons ever reached those Mujahideen operating deep inside the country, thus removing any element of surprise and making the weapons even less effective than they had initially been in the areas more accessible and visible to the outside world.


Appropriate and Inappropriate Weapons and Applications

The facts and figures which are available clearly show that the performance of the STINGERs in Afghanistan was not as good as claimed, and, by extension, that the air defense potential of shoulder-fired SAMs in general needs to be viewed cautiously. Even if the claim that the STINGERs influenced the outcome in Afghanistan had been true, an overconfidence in, or over dependence on, these or any other weapons, based on information from a limited war in which the enemy, already planning to depart, was obviously more interested in cutting losses than in battlefield gains, could prove disastrous in an all-out conflict. It should be noted that the Soviets incorporated STINGER technology into their later shoulder-fired SAMs. Since Soviet (and now Russian) helicopters were generally built more ruggedly and their engines run approx. 150 degrees C cooler than their Western counterparts, the latter may be more vulnerable to these types of weapons.

With expensive equipment and other assets to protect, it could be cost effective for the ground forces of a wealthy country to put enough expensive shoulder-fired SAMs into the field to provide a reasonable level of air defense. For the forces of poorer countries and for most guerrilla forces, such an allocation of limited financial resources would be impractical. Such forces need to devise cheaper, more appropriate air defenses and ways to attack and destroy the enemy's aircraft, unless they are prepared to depend on the superpowers for donations of large quantities of SAMs. However, giving STINGERs to the Mujahideen was definitely more cost effective than the bizarre US program in 1984 which provided approximately forty 20mm Oerlikon AA cannons (a weapon which weighs 1,200 pounds, totally unsuitable for guerrilla forces that may be required to flee quickly into the mountains), supplied without HE ammunition or even adequate tracers, at a reported cost (by the time they were delivered to the Afghans) of $1 million each. These inappropriate and most cost-ineffective weapons were pushed on the Afghans by the CIA , via their Pakistani Intelligence arms conduit, at the insistence of US Congressman Charles Wilson who was reported to have benefited personally from most such arms purchases during the war directly through under the table payoffs and indirectly through campaign contributions (he subsequently left Congress after being found guilty of taking such illegal campaign money, and had the largest fine ever imposed for such at that time), and later was hired as a lobbyist by the arms manufacturing branch of the Israeli government.(6) There was not a single Soviet aircraft loss attributed to these cannons.

Had SA-7s in good condition(7), with training as extensive as that given the STINGERs, been provided early in the war, they undoubtedly would have taken a significantly higher toll on Soviet aircraft. Given the unequal manner in which they were actually provided, any meaningful, quantitative comparison between SA-7s' and STINGERs' effectiveness is impossible. Similarly, had the Mujahideen received an adequate amount of training and basic, low-tech equipment, they could have carried out more effective attacks on air bases to destroy aircraft on the ground; a most sensible place for foot-borne guerrillas to engage enemy aircraft. They could have been provided with low cost, off-the-shelf weapons. One such item available at the time was a grapefruit-sized, rocket propelled explosive charge that could be launched from the end of a rifle by simply shooting a standard rifle round through it, that would have given every fighter the capability of taking out light armored vehicles and even low hovering helicopters within a few hundred yards. Afghanistan would also have been the ideal testing ground for every low tech weapon that had any possibility of being effectively used against helicopters. However, instead of encouraging or facilitating such research and development, the US military aid program did quite the opposite, quite likely because the last thing that was wanted was to give the Afghans any military self-sufficiency. Despite those disincentives, one ingenious Afghan salvaged the 57mm rockets from a helicopter rocket pod and improvised a man-portable, even if not shoulder-fired, SAM system. And before logistic difficulties and political pressures caused them to move the project to another part of the world, a couple of Westerners who were providing independent technical aid to the Mujahideen, demonstrated the viability of a very low cost, anti-helicopter/anti-light armor, rocket system built around standard, simple munitions components, that could be produced in local workshops.



Although the numbers are imprecise and somewhat murky, comparison of the number of aircraft lost by Soviet and DRA forces with the number of STINGERs fired, no mater how far the plausible ranges are adjusted in favor of the STINGERs, shows their effectiveness could have only been a small fraction of that which was claimed. The total number of Soviet aircraft lost was relatively low, and the annual losses were relatively constant through the years, both before and after the STINGERs arrived. Analysis of the time line of events further supports the finding that the STINGERs did not play a decisive role.



1. Columbia Journalism Review, "Mission:Afghanistan", Mary Williams Walsh, January/February 1990

2.) The BLOWPIPE was a difficult weapon to use, and the Afghans were given little training with the initial supplies of them. There were reportedly some aircraft hit and possibly downed with them in the earlier years of the war. Brigadier Mohammad Yousaf of the Pakistani ISI had a low opinion of them, and in his book, Afghanistan - The Bear Trap, first published in the early 1990s, he said that he was unaware of any aircraft being downed by them in the latter years of the war. However, Yousaf was primarily interested in portraying himself as the de facto commander and sole strategist of the Afghan’s resistance effort in those last years of the war, and he generally ignored the larger portion of Mujahideen activities that took place outside his direction and control.

3.) "The Agricultural Survey of Afghanistan", The Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, May 1988, Peshawar, Pakistan/Stockholm, Sweden. The figures concerning bombing of villages are those gathered from farmers who remained in Afghanistan. Information obtained from farmers who left as refugees in 1987, and statistics for other types of attacks showed similar patterns.

4.)E.g. UN General Assembly, Report of the Governmental Panel of Experts on Small Arms, 27 August 1997, "General and Complete Disarmament: Small Arms" A copy of the report can be found online at:

5.) Military Technology, 8/86, "Evolution of Soviet Military Helicopters: from Freighters to Fighters". Charles O. Pflugrath.

6.)Although Brigadier Mohammad Yousaf rather ego-centric book has to be viewed cautiously in relation to the larger events, he was in a position to assess the motivation behind the provision of the various weapons . His observations on the lack of military knowledge applicable to Afghanistan among those in the CIA, and on the profiteering on arms transactions, support what I saw and inferred was taking place. He was especially bitter both about the waste of money on the Oerlikon guns and about them being forced on the Mujahideen, straining their logistical resources. Although his editor made him take out the specific mention of the name of the US congressman who insisted on the purchase and provision of the Oerlikon guns, it is obvious that he was talking about Charles Wilson, and anyone involved with Afghanistan at the time will confirm that the Oerlikon guns were one of Wilson’s pet projects.

Afghanistan - The Bear Trap, Mohammad Yousaf & Mark Adkin, Casemate, Havertown, PA, 1992, pp 85-90.

7.) The SA-7 missiles provided to the Afghans in the earlier years of the war were purchased by the US from the Israelis at about 5x the going black market rate. They had been captured by the Israelis in their various wars and incursions, but since they generally controlled the skies in such conflicts and also could obtain as many US Redeye shoulder-fired misfiles as they desired, they considered the SA-7s of little or no military value. Thus, those they captured were treated roughly and stored improperly. When they were provided to the Afghans by the CIA, via Pakistani Intelligence (ISI), the Afghans received only the most minimal training in their use. As a result, a very large percentage malfunctioned, and even when they did function properly, they were often fired in circumstances and ways which gave them a low probability of successfully hitting their targets. To cover up the purchases of defective weapons from the Israelis at grossly inflated prices, the CIA circulated highly implausible stories about those missiles having been purchased from current stocks in Warsaw Pact countries, but the markings and features of the missiles themselves showed them to be those which had been provided many years earlier to Arab countries in the Middle East. I am inclined to believe Brigadier Mohammad Yousaf’s claim that he, the other ISI officials, and President Zia did not know about the purchases from, or the involvement of, the Israelis, or at least not until late in the war. Although I and a few others sensitive to such matters and knowledgeable of the situation in Washington knew that some such dealings were taking place, the full extent did not become clear until later.




The STINGERs certainly did not "defeat the Soviets" or "win the war" in Afghanistan. The Mujahideen won a pyrrhic victory by not losing, and the Soviets lost by not winning in the sense of breaking the resistance and incorporating Afghanistan in the (then already disintegrating) Soviet empire. The Soviets were not defeated in a military sense of victory and loss on the battlefield, and thus definitely not by any particular weapon(s) or tactic(s). More significantly, the STINGERs, and better weapons in general, were only supplied to the Afghan Resistance after the Soviet Government, which had never committed anywhere near the number of troops the history of counter-guerilla warfare indicated would have been needed to defeat the number of resistance fighters in Afghanistan, was already moving in the direction of withdrawal. I, and a number of other observers and analysts, believe that this was intentional timing; giving the Afghans more lethal weapons when there would soon only be other Afghans to use them against. The prolonged and vicious post-withdrawal civil war helped ensure that whatever government emerged in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal would be weak -- an outcome desired both by the Soviets who did not wish a strong Afghanistan on their Central Asian border, and by the US which wanted an easily manipulated Afghan government.

Even apart from the "high tech v. appropriate technology" argument, the fact is that while providing small numbers of high profile, expensive weapons to the Mujahideen, the US failed to ensure adequate supplies of even the most basic military gear reached the Afghans. The Mujahideen were fighting their war on the ground, yet even after the STINGERs were being provided, many of the fighters still lacked boots of any sort and were traversing the mountains in sandals and plastic shoes. Useful items of basic military gear and instructional materials which any 12 year old in the US could purchase at his local military surplus store were totally unknown to the Afghans. Militarily useful maps were not supplied. Although they had previously been available for purchase by the public in the US, early in the war the US Defense Mapping Agency stopped selling the Joint Operation Graphic maps of Afghanistan which would have been helpful in navigation and basic tactical planning even if being of limited use for tactical operations. Some detailed maps and satellite photos were made available to Pakistani Intelligence, but were not put in the hands of the Afghans. When I confronted US Congressman Charles Wilson in 1986 on the Afghans’ need for useful maps, he responded with the militarily ignorant, and very prejudicial, statement that "...The Afghans don’t need maps, they know the country like the backs of their hands. And besides, they wouldn’t know how to read maps if they had them...." In fact though, there were numerous cases in which, after taking a wrong turn, or forced from the familiar main trails by ambushes or blockades, Afghan Mujahideen had perished from heat stroke or exposure while lost in the mountains and deserts. Many of the Afghan fighters had grown up in the major cities, and thus had little familiarity with the mountainous wilderness and trackless deserts in general, much less detailed knowledge of the areas into which they fled, and operated from, when the Soviets invaded. Much time and many tactical opportunities were lost due to having to scout out unfamiliar terrain on foot, and then having to rely on crude hand-drawn maps or guidance from those who had done the scouting, when traveling or conducting operations there. Desperate for detailed maps of any sort, Mujahideen commanders from the northern areas were known to wait for days for me to stop in at a photocopy shop I patronized in the bazaar in Peshawar, Pakistan. They did so seeking copies of Soviet produced geological survey maps of their areas of operation that I had obtained in the US (technically in violation of US law which seemed to be intentionally protecting the Soviets who meanwhile could have walked into any US Geological Survey map outlet and legally purchased similar maps of any place in the US), which they had learned I sometimes recopied there and provided to the Mujahideen. Militarily knowledgeable analysts agree that had adequate supplies of basic items such as boots, maps, communications equipment, etc. been provided, they would have increased the military capabilities of the Resistance more than the small numbers of sophisticated weapons, and with far greater economic efficiency.

There are extensions of the claims about the STINGERs which say that they, and the other weapons provided by the US to the Mujahideen, "bled the USSR dry", "caused the collapse of the USSR", and "brought about the end of the Cold War". The cost of the Soviet misadventure in Afghanistan is generally agreed to have been about US$5 billion a year, for a total of US$48 billion. In that same period, it was costing  Britain US$1 billion to $2 billion a year for troop operations in Northern Ireland to cope with the Provisional Irish Republican Army which had about 300 active fighters and another 1000 in its reserves, with the total cost of maintaining British presence and control in Northern Ireland running in the $5 billion range. The US in 2007 is spending far more, even figuring in the dramatic decline in the value of the dollar over the past two decades, on its war in Afghanistan than the $5 billion that the Soviets were spending with much a larger military force fighting a much more numerous enemy in 1987. Additionally, the Canadians are spending over US$1 billion per year (in 2007 dollars), and the British, approximately US$3 billion, to keep their approximately 2500 and 7000, respectively, troops in Afghanistan; they being just two among several other NATO nations’ forces there.

The exposure of the even greater discrepancy between the initial propaganda concerning the PATRIOT missiles and their actual performance in the first Gulf War in 1991 caused at least a few of those who had initially been skeptical of my findings and conclusions concerning STINGERs in Afghanistan, to concede that a similar deception not only could have, but did, take place. For those who do not recall the events and story: The US PATRIOT missiles were deployed in Saudi Arabia to protect US forces, and in Israel to protect the country at large, from SCUD missiles fired by Iraq. In theory, the PATRIOTS would intercept the SCUDs, destroying them in the air, with only scattered debris falling to the ground rather than the SCUDs’ powerful explosive warheads detonating on impact. The US military began issuing reports that the PATRIOTs were intercepting SCUDs with a 100% success rate. (The US commander, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, whose press briefings on such matters earned him the nickname of "Disinformin’ Norman" not only touted the supposed 100% success rate of the PATRIOTs, but also claimed photos of attacks on such things as water tanker trucks showed SCUDs being destroyed on the ground by the US.) The deception enabled the manufacturers of the PATRIOTs to make many large sales of the weapons on the basis of their supposed flawless performance in the Gulf. When the fog of war cleared, it became obvious that many SCUDs had detonated after reaching their targets, an that the intercept rates could have had been nowhere near 100%. Ultimately it emerged that the PATRIOT missiles’ performance had been abysmal, with the only disagreement about the effectiveness of those deployed in Israel being whether they had successfully intercepted one SCUD or none at all. (Compounding the failures, when the PATRIOTs failed to intercept their SCUD targets in the air, they generally caused significant damage of their own when they hit the ground.) Those deployed in Saudi Arabia are reported to have done a bit better, but even there they were found to have had success rate of about 10%. The problem was blamed on a computer software error, and keeping the missiles’ computers on too long (apparently they were designed for wars that lasted minutes rather than days). No one was ever held accountable for having misrepresented the capabilities of the PATRIOT missiles which led to unnecessary fatalities due to over dependence on them, nor for the attempt to cover up their failure in actual use, nor was anyone held accountable for having signed off on the purchase of such ineffective weapons, even though it is known to be common practice for Pentagon officials with such authority to be less than prudently critical in return for the implicit promise of high paying jobs with the relevant arms producers after they retire from the military. However, with such lack of outrage over such more recent deceit concerning missile performance that led to the deaths of US military personnel, it became obvious that there would never be any serious official investigation of the STINGER missile deception, even though it had set the precedent.

At that point, having had my work on the STINGERs issue validated by history repeating itself because no one had been willing to believe that such great deceptions could have taken place, I felt vindicated and pursued it no further. However, having seen the great discrepancy between the reality and the almost universally accepted claims about the STINGERs in Afghanistan, and how the most simple mathematical analysis had never been applied to the propaganda figures, did prove useful to me when, starting with my knowledge that there had been a great body of spurious but widely accepted claims about use of chemical and biological weapons in Afghanistan, I began to investigate the long history of propaganda concerning the supposed extraordinary effectiveness of such weapons. (That research, begun at the University of Pittsburgh, ultimately led to my book on the subject, A More Insidious Enemy: Exposing the dangerous lies and misinformation concerning chemical and biological weapons) Similarly, my having seen firsthand the incredible deceit, incompetence, and corruption on the part of US politicians, diplomats intelligence officials, and those in the news media carried on in the name of opposing the Soviets in Afghanistan, provided a model to use in analyzing the US intelligence operations and political policies directed at the Soviets prior to the Cold War era in my doctoral research. (My doctoral dissertation became the basis for my book, US Intelligence Perceptions of Soviet Power, 1921-1946)

During and immediately after my involvement in the war in Afghanistan, my observations and experiences caused me to assume that the highly publicized provision of the STINGERs and other less than cost effective weapons was motivated primarily by politicians and CIA officers acting as public relations and sales staff for weapons producers who were trying to persuade the US and other governments to make large purchases of their weapons for the use of their own troops. Similarly, the relationships between the US political and intelligence personnel and the arms dealers involved in the lower tech weapons transactions, which included perks and financial links long after the aid program ended, indicated to me that those too were guided primarily by what could produce the most personal gain rather than what the best mix for the battlefield would have been. I considered a lack of desire to cause any real harm to the USSR, or to promote an independent, self-sufficient military and government structure among the Afghans that could sustain itself after the Soviets left, the secondary motivation. In the years since, in light of events and additional information, I have reversed my assessment of the order of importance of those two motives.

When the relatively pragmatic elements of the Afghan Mujahideen, first under Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, then under Burhanuddin Rabbani and the military leadership of Ahmed Shah Massood, assumed control of the post-war Afghan government, they were largely shunned by the US because they wished to develop ties to the West through relationships with a number of countries such as Germany and France, and not become a dependent client state controlled by the US no matter how much they were offered in personal gain. When they were driven out of Kabul by the Taliban, politically influential elements in the US began to court the Taliban leadership whom they felt could be "bought". Prominent among them was Zalmay Khalilzad who had been an Under Secretary of Defense in the elder George Bush’s administration, and then taken a position with the Unocal Oil company during the Clinton years. Thus in the late 1990s when I accompanied Afghans from the United Front forces who had then been fighting the Taliban for several years, to Capitol Hill congressional offices as they requested such basic aid as military supplies and aerial intelligence photos of Taliban positions and troop movements, only to be told even by the most sympathetic congressmen that they could not expect any help from the US, Khalilzad was negotiating with the Taliban on behalf of Unocal, and defending them in Washington and the news media against accusations that they were supporting terrorism. After the younger George Bush took office, he appointed Khalilzad to the National Security Council (which did not require Senate approval), then after the invasion of Afghanistan, appointed him Special Envoy there, then later appointed him the US ambassador to Iraq. Khalilzad’s close association with leading Neo-conservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz, and his participation in drafting of the foreign policies of the younger George Bush’s administration, have convinced me that he has been part of a group which began working in the early 1980s to the ensure that only a weak government controllable by the US would emerge in postwar Afghanistan. Similarly, during the war I had been aware of, and extremely uncomfortable with, involvement of the Israelis, and that of strong supporters of the Israelis in the US (largely among those who we now recognize as Neo-cons), in both the arms transactions and in the formation of US policy for the region. As the extent and nature of that involvement has become clearer over time, I have concluded that they had a hand in influencing and manipulating the type of military aid given and the timing of its delivery.

Meanwhile, when the Soviet Union was collapsing, the US Government had no plans ready for dealing with that event (despite, as my doctoral research uncovered, it having been pointed out repeatedly and as early as 1921 that it was critical to US national interests that such plans be made, and resources to deal with that eventuality be in place and kept ready), which would not have been the case had there actually been the intention to bring about such a collapse through the war in Afghanistan or any other means. Instead, the administration of the elder George Bush worked frantically to prop up and perpetuate the communist government in the USSR.

Although it is impossible to know all that went on behind closed doors, the information I have pieced together points to Pakistan’s President Zia ul-Haq having figured out what the true agenda was as the Soviets started to withdraw from Afghanistan. Righteous indignation, and confidence that most of the Muslim world would support him, may have led him to openly confront the US officials involved rather than let himself continue to be used by them against his wishes. Those officials themselves were probably no more than easily manipulated dupes, or corrupt, self-serving hirelings, but would have immediately made Zia’s stand known to those who were in actual control of the agenda. Zia’s assassination in 1988 was never definitely attributed to any specific persons or entity. Whether or not such was the motive of his assassins, his death did ensure that he (along with the head of Pakistani intelligence, Gen. Akhtar, and the US ambassador to Pakistan, who were on the sabotaged plane with him) could not talk about what had taken place in the preceding years relative to the war in Afghanistan, and it removed him as an impediment to any future activities of foreign powers in Afghanistan.

As mentioned, the US government had, until the very end of the 1990s, been unwilling to give support to those Afghans opposing the Taliban. As much as help was wanted in the fight against the Taliban by the United Front (a.k.a Northern Alliance), I can not believe that Ahmed Shah Massood would have stood by and allowed another foreign occupation of Afghanistan; something which was implicitly confirmed by Rabbani’s post-American invasion statement that the foreign troops should remain in Afghanistan no longer than six months. Massood’s assassination on September 9, 2001 cleared the way for an invasion from the north and a long term US occupation of Afghanistan, and then the events two days later on September 11, 2001 provided the US with cause to invade. That either represents incredibly poor planning and strategy on the part of the Taliban and bin Laden, or good planning on the part of some other entity. Whichever was the case, I have always found it more useful to analyze events of recent years from the perspective of the pivotal event having taken place on September 9th, rather than on September 11th.

Although I don't think that the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the way they ultimately took place was envisioned in the mid-1980s, or even the mid-1990s, I do think that it was the policy to keep whatever government came to power in Afghanistan so weak that it could be manipulated, or, failing that, forced, into doing whatever political and financial interest groups in the US wanted. Creating "fire breaks" in the Islamic world by turning strategically place countries into weak client states of the US seems to have been a goal of Israel even before the 1980s, though the extent of resistance that would require them to be made garrison states may not have been forseen. If the longer term agenda was already formulated and being implemented in the mid-1980s, as it now appears to have been, then the STINGERs provided to the Afghans had a role akin to that of the attractive, flashy, assistant to a stage magician who hands him his props and stands off to one side. Yes, she does provide some minor, though largely unnecessary, help, but she has no critical part in making the main events happen. Rather, her presence and appearance are intended mainly to distract the audience’s attention, allowing the magician’s true actions to go undetected and thus enabling him to create the desired illusions. In that case, trying to precisely quantify the performance of the STINGERs in Afghanistan would be of as little value in understanding that war, as obtaining an accurate count of the sequins on the assistant’s costume would be in understanding how a stage illusion was performed. Thus, what is important is to recognize that the "covert" provision of the STINGERs which was continually reported on the front pages of American newspapers starting long before it took place, and the claim that they gave the Afghans the ability to defeat the USSR, were part of a propaganda campaign which distracted attention from an agenda designed to ensure that the Afghans would remain militarily and politically weak.

Unfortunately, the myth of the STINGERs having changed the course of the war in Afghanistan has been so firmly planted in the American public’s mind by the news media, picked up so widely in popular literature, and accepted by so many at all levels of the US government and military, that it will undoubtedly be one of those enduring historical inaccuracies that no amount factual information to the contrary will dispel. Thus it is likely that the myth will only be challenged and refuted in the most serious scholarly works which research the subject in depth and apply critical analysis to the propaganda claims in light of the available data.


Copyright 1989-2008 by Leonard Leshuk, Ph.D. This article can be quoted, and the information utilized in non-commercial electronic or print publications if the article is cited and credited to the author in such a manner as to allow the reader to locate the full original article. Electronic copying and storage of this complete article can be negotiated with the author. If this article is copied and/or stored in any manner that allows it to be accessed by the public or by government, without first obtaining permission from the author, such copying shall constitute an agreement to pay the author a fee of $1,000.00 (US) plus $100.00 (US) for each viewing.