WASHINGTON — Even some members of Congress who support President Reagan's policy of aiding Third World anti-Communist rebels are questioning his decision to supply them with deadly shoulder-launched Stinger missiles.
Two such lawmakers, Sens. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.) and Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), recently sponsored a proposal that would have effectively halted the flow of the anti-aircraft missiles to resistance forces. Although the proposal was defeated, the issue is not likely to be forgotten.
A similar proposal sponsored by Rep. Les AuCoin (D-Ore.) and others is pending in the House.
The Stinger is a highly sophisticated heat-seeking missile designed for use against low-flying aircraft or helicopters--even those that are equipped to deflect anti-aircraft missiles. The United States previously has provided Stingers to Saudi Arabia and North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, but with the stipulation that they be kept under the tightest security.
At the request of Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas and other Republicans in Congress, the President agreed last March to provide Stingers to the Afghan and Angolan rebels. Kassebaum said the decision was made on the basis of "pure politics"--an attempt by Dole to satisfy GOP conservatives who were advocating the move.
No 'Shadow of a Stinger'
Although the Stingers already have been used to shoot down Soviet MI-24 helicopters in Angola, according to rebel sources, none has yet been delivered to the Afghan resistance forces. Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), who recently visited the Afghan-Pakistani border, said he was told by one rebel commander: "I haven't seen the shadow of a Stinger."
Intelligence committee sources report that Stingers intended for the Afghan rebels have been delayed because Pakistani officials refuse to allow U.S. personnel to teach the fighters how to fire the missiles on Pakistani territory for fear that it would bring retaliation from Soviet forces just across the border in Afghanistan. Even skilled U.S. soldiers are unable to successfully fire the Stingers without about six weeks of training.
In addition, according to sources, the Administration tried unsuccessfully this year to persuade Congress to include Stingers in the $100-million aid package for the anti-Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua, known as contras. Although officials were forced to rule them out this year under congressional pressure, there is little doubt among members of the intelligence committees that the request will be renewed by the President next year.
Critics charge that the President made a dangerous mistake in approving these weapons for use by guerrilla fighters, who cannot protect them as well as the Saudis or the NATO countries. Because of its greater range, DeConcini said, the Stinger would be a much more lethal terrorist weapon than the SAM-7, the anti-aircraft missile previously used by rebel groups and one that is widely available on the international arms market.
"Picture an American jetliner filled with summer travelers as it takes off from a European city," DeConcini said. "Perched on a hilltop more than three miles away is a terrorist with a shoulder-held Stinger anti-aircraft missile aimed at the jet. Within seconds, the airliner, with its hundreds of passengers, disappears in a bright orange inferno."
The Kassebaum-DeConcini measure would have required the rebels who receive Stingers to adhere to the same strict security standards as NATO--a requirement that opponents said was impossible for any guerrilla army to meet.
Dole and other supporters of the President's decision to put Stingers in guerrilla hands said they are satisfied by the security provided for them by the Angolan rebels.
Rep. Charles Wilson (D-Tex.), a staunch supporter of the Afghan rebel cause, argues that Stingers are no more effective against commercial airliners than SAM-7s. The Stinger was developed for use against craft that are equipped with devices that deflect anti-aircraft missiles, such as Soviet helicopters.
"The big problem that Afghan freedom fighters have is shooting down MI-24 helicopters, and if the Stinger will do that better than anything they've got, then I want them to have it," Wilson said.
And defense analyst David Isby, a frequent visitor to the Afghan rebel camps, argued that Stingers are not ideal terrorist weapons.
"If a terrorist should capture a Stinger and a manual, he's not going to be an effective Stinger gunner," he said. "They are not a simple weapon, and require an 18-step process to fire it. I suspect that Joe Afghan won't be very good at it either."