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Stingers Take Heavy Toll in Afghanistan : Use of U.S. Missiles Reportedly Forcing Change in Soviet Tactics

January 21, 1987|WILLIAM J. EATON | Times Staff Writer

KABUL, Afghanistan — The shoulder-fired American missiles being supplied to anti-Communist guerrillas in Afghanistan are reportedly taking a heavy toll of Soviet and Afghan planes and helicopters.

According to Western diplomatic sources, the missiles, called Stingers, have forced changes in Soviet and Afghan flying tactics and provided the first guerrilla challenge to control of the air by the Soviets and the Kabul regime.

The Stinger was introduced in Afghanistan late last September and has been credited by the Pentagon with knocking down one aircraft a day in November.

Afghan officials have not provided any figures on losses, but at a recent meeting with foreign correspondents they displayed a captured Stinger and made it clear that they respect it.

Defense Minister Mohammed Rafie told the correspondents that two Stingers and a comparable British weapon, the Blowpipe, were captured from a guerrilla band near Kandahar in the southern part of Afghanistan.

"We know the bandit groups which have them (Stingers), and we are trying to wipe them out," Rafie said.

Earlier, the Afghan government protested that the guerrillas had shot down a civilian airliner flying between Kabul and Jalalabad. It did not say, however, that a Stinger or Blowpipe was used in that incident.

Diplomatic sources in Kabul said the Stinger's design enables it to get past the flares dropped routinely by Soviet and Afghan pilots to divert heat-seeking missiles. Flares are effective primarily against Chinese-made anti-aircraft weapons, the sources said, but do not offer much protection against the more advanced Stinger and Blowpipe.

More Gunship Escorts

Authorities in Kabul have discontinued regular civilian flights to Jalalabad since last Sept. 26, when two helicopters were shot down in one day, one Western diplomat said.

Soviet and Afghan military flights, he said, have also been affected by introduction of the missiles. He said there have been more flights with gunship escorts, greater use of flares and more night flying than before.

"They're nervous," he said. "The ante goes up for the Soviets."

Although the Stinger has provided the rebels with a weapon to challenge Soviet and Afghan domination of the air, Western diplomats doubt that it can affect the overall military balance.

"There is an escalated stalemate," a senior Western diplomat in Kabul said.

He said that both sides have higher casualties but that neither is able to land a decisive blow.

Western observers here believe that Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev is sincere in saying that after seven years of war, Moscow wants to withdraw its troops, now estimated to number 115,000, from Afghanistan. But the Soviets insist on a halt in the supply of Western arms to the guerrillas and a guarantee of non-interference before they will agree to pull out.

"They (the Soviets) have slowly come to the realization that there's not going to be a military solution in Afghanistan--at least at the level they have committed resources," another Western diplomat said. "But they are not going to leave and allow a blood bath."

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