Arming Afghan Guerrillas: A Huge Effort Led by U.S.
By ROBERT PEAR and SPECIAL TO THE NEW YORK TIMES
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With help from China and many Moslem nations, the United States led a huge international operation over the last eight years to arm the Afghan guerrillas with the weapons they needed to drive the Soviet Army from their country.
The operation is one of the biggest ever mounted by the Central Intelligence Agency, according to American officials and foreign diplomats. It dwarfs American efforts to aid the Nicaraguan rebels, but its details are much less widely known because it encountered little opposition in Congress.
Indeed, Congress was continually prodding the C.I.A., the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the State Department to provide more support for the Afghan guerrillas, who limped along with relatively ineffective weapons until they got Stinger antiaircraft missiles in September 1986. They used the missiles to shoot down armored Soviet helicopter gunships, and as a result, the guerrillas and their supply caravans have been able to move with much less fear of being attacked from the air. Cost Totals $2 Billion
As Afghanistan and three other nations signed agreements last week providing for the withdrawal of Soviet troops, these details of the supply operation emerged from interviews with members of Congress and officials at the White House, intelligence agencies, the Defense Department, the State Department and the Office of Management and Budget:
* Arming the rebels has cost the United States more than $2 billion over eight years, although the exact amounts of appropriations are secret because the operation is not officially acknowledged by Washington. The program has had strong bipartisan support in Congress throughout.
* The Government of Saudi Arabia has generally matched the United States financial contributions, providing money in a joint fund with Washington to buy hundreds of Stingers for the Islamic guerrillas even though Congress would not permit such sophisticated weapons to be sold to the Saudis themselves. In addition, several wealthy Saudi princes, motivated by a sense of religious duty and solidarity, gave cash contributions to the guerrillas.
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* Tennessee mules have made an invaluable contribution to the guerrillas’ campaign, transporting tons of equipment, food, clothing and medical supplies from Pakistan into Afghanistan. Hub R. Reese Jr. of Gallatin, Tenn., who runs what he describes as the world’s largest mule trading and auction company, said that in the last year he delivered 700 mules to an Army base in Kentucky for shipment to Pakistan.
* China, which has a short border with Afghanistan, ”worked hand in glove with the United States” in supplying the guerrillas with rocket launchers and other weapons, according to a military officer who served at the American Embassy in Beijing. But Iran, which often portrays itself as a leader of the Islamic world, provided very limited, intermittent support to the guerrillas, who call themselves mujahedeen, or ”holy warriors.”
Administration officials cite their support of the guerrillas as a success for President Reagan’s policy of helping indigenous groups resist Communist-supported regimes in regional conflicts. But many officials were initially reluctant to provide vigorous support for the Afghans, fearing that it might unrealistically raise their hopes for a military victory or provoke Soviet reprisals against Pakistan, the main conduit for aid to the guerrillas.
Stansfield Turner, who was Director of Central Intelligence under President Carter, said some intelligence professionals believed the United States would be putting money into ”a hopeless cause.”
Fred C. Ikle, an Under Secretary of Defense from 1981 to February of this year, said that in the first three or four years of the Reagan Administration, ”there was a general shyness and hesitation, a reluctance to make a more concerted effort, to provide more instruments and tactics to freedom fighters in Afghanistan.”
In October 1984, Congress passed a resolution saying, ”It would be indefensible to provide the freedom fighters with only enough aid to fight and die, but not enough to advance their cause of freedom.”
The measure had been introduced two years earlier by Senator Paul E. Tsongas, a liberal Massachusetts Democrat. Senator Malcolm Wallop, a conservative Republican from Wyoming, wrote in 1984 that ”the only opposition to the resolution has come essentially from the C.I.A. and the Department of State.”
Senator Gordon J. Humphrey, a New Hampshire Republican who is chairman of the Congressional Task Force on Afghanistan, said in an interview this week, ”The C.I.A. was very reluctant in carrying out its responsibilities for the longest time.” But he and other lawmakers gave the agency high marks for a much more efficient operation in recent years. Inferior Arms in Early Program
What follows is a history of that operation, as described by people who supervised it or followed it closely.
More than 30,000 Soviet troops moved into Afghanistan, with planes and tanks, in the last week of December 1979. On Jan. 1, 1980, the Soviet Government newspaper Izvestia charged that the C.I.A. was ”directly involved in training Afghan rebels in camps in Pakistan.” The State Department declined comment.
In mid-February of 1980, Egypt’s Defense Minister, Lieut. Gen. Kamal Hassan Ali, said his country was training Afghans in guerrilla warfare and would send them back to fight against the Soviet-backed Government. At about the same time, six weeks after the Soviet intervention began, White House officials said President Carter had approved a ”covert operation” to supply the guerrillas with small arms of Soviet design, including Kalashnikov AK-47 rifles.
For five years, American officials provided the guerrillas with weapons designed and manufactured by the Soviet Union or other East Bloc countries so they could deny that the United States was supplying such assistance. They could maintain that the guerrillas had captured the weapons from the Afghan Government or from Soviet troops in Afghanistan.
But that strategy created immense problems for the guerrillas. ”For most of the first five years of the war, the mujahedeen lacked any effective antiaircraft or long-range weapons,” said Alexander R. Alexiev of the Rand Corporation, an expert on Soviet affairs who has analyzed the war in Afghanistan under a Pentagon contract.
”Despite the presence of vastly superior weapons in Western arsenals,” he said, ”the resistance was supplied primarily with 1930’s vintage antiaircraft machine guns that were hardly a match for the heavily armored and deadly Soviet gunship helicopters. On the ground, the rebels’ main long-range weapon was the Soviet-model 82-millimeter mortar, not known for either superior range or accuracy. As a result, the Soviets enjoyed virtually unchallenged dominance in the air.” First Reagan Effort Falls Short
When Mr. Reagan took office in January 1981, his appointees were told that support for the Afghan guerrillas was the most significant covert operation being conducted by the C.I.A.
In the fall of 1982, the President decided to increase the quality and quantity of arms supplied to the insurgents. In December, the agency was ordered to provide them with bazookas, mortars, grenade launchers, mines and recoilless rifles. But guerrillas on the battlefield said they saw no dramatic improvement in the flow of arms.
Andrew L. Eiva, chairman of the Federation for American Afghan Action, a private group that lobbies for military aid to the insurgents, said that through 1984 they were still getting weapons of relatively poor quality, like the 82-millimeter mortar and the Soviet SAM-7 antiaircraft missile. Even when they got good weapons, like the 12.7-millimeter heavy Soviet machine gun known as the Dashaka, they did not get nearly enough ammunition to defend themselves against Soviet helicopters, according to Mr. Eiva, who was an Army infantry officer in the Green Berets in the 1970’s.
In the fall of 1983, Representative Charles Wilson, Democrat of Texas, started a campaign to supply the guerrillas with a more effective antiaircraft weapon. ”Opposition to the Stinger was so great that we had to settle for something less than a missile,” he said, recalling that even William J. Casey, the Director of Central Intelligence, would not push for Stingers.
At the end of 1983, Mr. Wilson persuaded his colleagues to provide $40 million for weapons, and much of it went for a powerful 20-millimeter antiaircraft gun made by a Swiss company, Oerlikon. The guerrillas began to get the automatic cannon in late 1984, Mr. Wilson said in an interview.
In January 1985, Congress formed the Task Force on Afghanistan to investigate guerrilla needs and to put pressure on the Administration.
A turning point came in April 1985, when Mr. Reagan signed a classified order clarifying the goals of the covert operation. One goal was to get the Soviet troops out of Afghanistan ”by all means available,” it said. That declaration eventually cleared the way for the C.I.A. to supply Western-made weapons to the guerrillas.
The budget for the covert operation more than doubled, to $280 million in the fiscal year 1985 from $122 million in 1984, members of Congress said. In 1985, the guerrillas got their first effective surface-to-surface weapons, 107-millimeter multiple rocket launchers made in China. They have a range of about five miles, so the guerrillas could fire on targets from a safe distance.
Nevertheless, according to Mr. Alexiev, 1985 was ”the bloodiest and most difficult year of the war for the mujahedeen.” After Mikhail S. Gorbachev became the Soviet leader in March 1985, Soviet forces dramatically increased the number and intensity of their attacks on the guerrillas and the civilian population, he said. The offensives continued into the spring of 1986.
In February 1986, in his State of the Union Message, the President seemed to step up America’s commitment to insurgent forces in the third world. Paraphrasing a line from the Tsongas resolution passed by Congress in 1984, he said: ”You are not alone, freedom fighters. America will support you with moral and material assistance, your right not just to fight and die for freedom, but to fight and win freedom.”
For several months, conservative groups had harshly criticized John N. McMahon, who was Deputy Director of Central Intelligence, on the ground that he was blocking efforts to send Stingers to the guerrillas. In early March 1986, Mr. Reagan approved delivery of such missiles.
At about the same time, Mr. McMahon, who had served 35 years with the agency, resigned for what he described as ”personal reasons.” He said his resignation was not ”an expression of discontent with the President’s policies.”
The first Stinger was used in Afghanistan on Sept. 26, 1986; the missile launcher now hangs over a door in Mr. Wilson’s office in Congress. Three Soviet MI-24 helicopters were destroyed by the new weapons on the first day of their use in Afghanistan. Since then, according to American officials, the guerrillas have shot down at least 270 Soviet aircraft.
In 1986, the insurgents got two other types of portable antiaircraft missiles, the British-made Blowpipe and the American-made Redeye. But neither was as effective as the Stinger.
”We were startled by the success of the Stingers,” Mr. Wilson said. Senator Humphrey added, ”It’s rare that one weapon can transform a situation so radically.”
Moreover, the guerrillas’ bravery has surprised some of their staunchest supporters in Congress.
In 1980, according to Mr. Wilson, ”it was completely beyond the realm of anyone’s imagination that the mujahedeen could chase the Russian Army out of their country.”