Wonder Weapons — Gunships versus Stingers
`Aeroplanes are most effective against morale. They frighten; they
exhaust; they break nerves. They do not, usually, in fact, kill many men.’
Captain Tom Wintringham, British guerrilla warfare instructor, 1939.
ON 25 September, 1986, some thirty-five Mujahideen crouched excitedly in the scrub on a small hill only a kilometre and a half NE of Jalalabad airfield runway. It was mid-afternoon and they had been hidden in this position for over three hours. They had done remarkably well to get so close to the strip undetected as they were now well inside the Afghan defences. The Commander, Engineer Ghaffar, could clearly see the soldiers in the perimeter posts around the runway, just inside the boundary fence. At either end of the strip were several tanks and APCs. Ghaffar had exceeded his instructions in getting so close, but he knew the area intimately, and his reconnaissance had confirmed a good covered approach that was useable even by day.
I had personally selected Ghaffar for this operation, together with another Commander called Darwesh, who had been assigned a similar task near Kabul. For us it was a moment we had been anticipating for four years, a chance to confront our most hated opponent of the war on equal terms. These two Commanders had been entrusted to attack the helicopter gunship, or indeed any aircraft, with the US Stinger anti-aircraft missile. On this first occasion it had developed into an outright competition between these two Commanders. Back at Rawalpindi, where they and their teams had been trained, they had challenged each other as to who would get the first kill. To encourage their enthusiasm I had gone along with their game, to the extent of allowing Darwesh a two-day start on his rival as he had the longer journey to Kabul. It was one of the crucial moments of the war. After years of being unable to strike back effectively at the enemy in the air, the Mujahideen had at last received a weapon worthy of their spirit.
The long wait for a suitable target was rewarded at 3.00 pm. All eyes gazed up into the sky to pick out a magnificent sight – no less than eight
helicopters, all their bitter enemy the Mi-24 Hind gunship, were approaching for a landing. With Ghaffar’s group were three Stingers, whose firers now lifted their already loaded launchers on to their shoulders and stood up. Another Mujahid, armed with a video camera, was shaking with nervous excitement as he tried to focus on the rapidly descending aircraft. The firing parties were within shouting distance of each other, deployed in a triangular pattern in the bushes, as it had not been certain from which direction the target might approach. We had organized each team to have three men —the firer, and two others holding missile tubes for quick reloading.
Although the Stinger has an effective ceiling in excess of 15,000 feet, Ghaffar waited for the leading helicopters to begin their final approach. The Hinds were about to be ambushed by the West’s most sophisticated shoulder-fired, man-portable air defence system. It was the Stinger’s first use against a real enemy anywhere in the world. The Stinger had become .operational in Germany in 1981, and with the 82nd Airborne Division in the US the following year. Stingers had been taken into Grenada in October, 1983, during the US invasion of that island, but were never fired. It fired an infra-red, heat-seeking missile, capable of engaging low altitude, high-speed jets, even if flying directly at the firer. The missile carried a high explosive warhead with significant countermeasure immunity. Once a missile has locked on to a target no other heat source, such as flares, can deflect it. The only possible way to avoid the lock-on is to keep so high as to be out of range, or to dispense flares at such a rate that there is virtually no interval between them. This entailed knowing when to start firing flares and having an inexhaustible supply. On this occasion not a single flare was fired as the eight helicopters came in. The attack would have the added advantage of total surprise.
The three firers waited for Ghaffar’s shout. They would then fire almost simultaneously, selecting their own targets. Aiming and firing had been made simple. The firer held the launcher, or grip-stock as the military called it, on his shoulder. On top was the tube containing the missile, which jutted out beyond the end of the grip-stock. The tube was left behind when the missile was fired and would normally be discarded, but I had insisted that these tubes must be collected and returned for security reasons. Also it was proof that the Commander had actually fired his weapon, and so was not hoarding or selling missiles. Without an empty tube I would not issue more ammunition. Each Mujahideen selected a helicopter through the open sight on the launcher, the IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) system signalled a hostile target with a pinging noise, and the Stinger was then locked on to the heat of the aircraft. If the target was out of range no lock-on could be achieved, or pinging heard. The trigger was pressed, the missile fired, and the firer could immediately reload, take cover or move away. It is a ‘fire and forget’ weapon, with no need to remain exposed to guide the missile to its
target. Nothing, short of a miracle, could stop the missile, travelling at over 1200 miles per hour, from homing on its target.
When the leading Hinds were only about 600 feet from the ground Ghaffar yelled ‘Fire’ and the Mujahideen’s shouts of ‘Allah o Akbar’ rose up with the missiles. Of the three, one malfunctioned and fell, without exploding, a few metres from the firer. The other two slammed into their targets. Both helicopters fell like stones to the airstrip, bursting into flames on impact. There was a mad scramble among the firing parties to reload and change over firers as everybody in the teams wanted their chance to shoot. Two more missiles were fired, with another success and a near miss with a helicopter that had landed. I believe one or two others were damaged due to heavy landings as the frantic pilots sought to touch down in precipitate haste. Five missiles, three kills — the Mujahideen were jubilant.
Their cameraman was so overcome with elation that he tried to film while running around, so his record of the event consisted largely of blurred images of sky, bushes and stony ground. He only steadied himself sufficiently to film the black smoke pouring from the wrecks. Later, this video was shown to President Reagan, while the tube from the first missile was handed over to the CIA for them to make into a suitable presentation piece.
It was a memorable day. Ghaffar had won his bet and became an instant celebrity. In the coming months he went on to shoot down ten helicopters or aircraft with Stingers. I subsequently had him called to Islamabad to meet General Akhtar, who rewarded him with a special presentation for his achievements.
His rival, Darwesh, did not fare so well at Kabul. He had been tasked, not to get close to the airport, but rather to position his men on the usual approach flight path, some distance from the runway. From there he was to launch rocket attacks on Kabul to try to tempt aircraft to take off on retaliatory strikes. I also suggested he could attempt to get in closer to the airfield at night to take on Soviet transport aircraft. After several days of fruitless waiting for a suitable target, his frustration got the better of him and he let fly at a fast-moving jet at extreme range that was moving away from the firer. It missed, as did two further missiles. He had broken the rules for engagement we had given him during training, so he was recalled for a thorough debriefing and more tuition. This was always considered to be a personal insult, but Darwesh came with comparative good grace for his refresher training. Within two weeks of returning to Afghanistan he redeemed himself with two confirmed hits.
After firing, Ghaffar’s men quickly gathered up the discarded tubes and destroyed the unexploded missile by smashing it with stones; they had no demolition kit and could not leave it to fall into enemy hands. Their dash back to base was uneventful, although about an hour into their journey
they heard jet aircraft in the distance, together with the crump of exploding bombs.
At Jalalabad there was no immediate reaction that afternoon, just stunned disbelieve. In the event the airfield was closed for a month. When flights resumed, flying techniques had changed dramatically. No longer did helicopters come cruising in on a straight, gradually descending flight path, but rather in a tight, twisting spiral from a great height and firing flares every few seconds.
Both these two Commanders belonged to Hekmatyar’s Party, so the second Stinger training course was allotted to two of Khalis’ Commanders, Mahmood from Jalalabad, and Arsala from Kabul. They were both veterans, much respected for their operational performance, and highly reported on by my officers who had previously accompanied them inside Afghanistan. Our confidence in them was subsequently confirmed when they both successfully fired their Stingers.
Mahmood’s achievements were, however, seriously marred by his irresponsibility afterwards. His indiscretion was the equivalent of making a broadcast to the world that Stingers were now in use against the Soviets. After his first `kill’ near the Sarubi dam he gave an extensive and revealing briefing to a journalist. He gave out highly confidential information, including the general location of the training school and details of my policy of rewarding each confirmed kill by issuing two more missiles to the Commander. Mahmood even went so far as to have a Mujahid carrying a Stinger photographed.
It was an infuriating breach of security, but it could not detract from our delight that at last we had a weapon which could be a war-winning acquisition. When the news broke, and spread throughout the Mujahideen, there was a wave of jubilation. Morale soared, and I was almost overwhelmed by the clamour of every Party to receive their share. To have a Stinger was the ultimate status symbol. It was also, I believe, the turning-point of the campaign as far as the four-year period of my stint with ISI was concerned. Unfortunately, its arrival had been needlessly delayed – not by soldiers, but by American and Pakistani politicians.
We felt it was appropriate that the first Stinger victims should be the Hind D helicopter gunship (MIL Mi-24). It was particularly loathed for its destruction over the years; not so much for the casualties it had caused to the Mujahideen, which were comparatively light, but for the countless hundreds of civilians and women and children it had gunned down.
It was a formidable helicopter, designed by the Soviets for a battlefield assault role — not only could it deliver massive firepower but also up to eight fully equipped combat troops. It was, like the American equivalent, the Black Hawk, the workhorse of the war as far as the Soviets and Afghans
were concerned. Under its auxiliary wings were four pods for rockets or bombs. With a full load 128 rockets could be carried, plus four napalm or HE bombs, while its cannon could fire at the rate of 1,000 rounds a minute. Within a year of the Soviet invasion the Hind D model, with its heavily armoured belly and cockpit for the pilot and copilot, appeared in large numbers. Its armour made it almost immune to our medium or heavy machine guns. By staying high, over 5,000 feet, it could strafe the ground with impunity as our SA-7 could not reach it at this height. Even when within range of this outdated SAM a few flares could usually be relied on to deflect our missiles off course. The technical details of these state of the art aircraft were top secret. At one stage a US magazine offered a million dollar reward for the first intact Mi-24 to be captured. I have already described in chapter five how two were handed over by us to the US authorities after their pilots defected. As far as I know nobody got the reward — we certainly didn’t.
We did, however, manage to hit some of these helicopters in the years preceding the arrival of the Stinger. Our successes were always the result of superior tactics, of achieving surprise, and thus getting in a shot at close range before the pilot was aware of danger. Sometimes we positioned firers high up the slopes of a valley, hoping to fire down on to a helicopter if it came up the valley floor. For a while this worked; we even killed several with our anti-tank launcher, the RPG-7, in this way, but pilots are quick to learn when their lives are at stake, so they mostly kept high.
One of our most startling achievements against aircraft prior to the use of Stingers was in 1985, when we downed a MiG-21 piloted by a Soviet Air Force major-general. He was flying from Kandahar to Shindand when his plane was hit by an SA-7 missile. The general ejected safely but was captured by the Mujahideen, although at the time they did not realize his importance. The disappearance of the general triggered perhaps the most massive air search of the war. Scores of planes were scrambled to find the missing MiG. Fearing the scale of retaliation the captors shot their prisoner, not knowing for several days that he was a general. Later the Mujahideen brought his parachute back to Pakistan, where it is still kept as a souvenir of success.
The Mi-24 has a crew of three. The pilot and copilot, who is also the gunner, sit in tandem one above the other in the front cockpit, while the flight engineer/mechanic sits in the main cabin with the troops. The Soviets had hundreds of helicopters, including reconnaissance and transport types, in Afghanistan. The main bases for the Hind D were Bagram, Shindand, Jalalabad and Kunduz. The Afghan Air Force had large numbers at Kabul airport, including a squadron of Hinds, with another at Jalalabad. With these Afghan-operated helicopters it was normal for a Soviet or a KHAD agent to be a crew member. This was considered necessary to ensure missions were carried out as ordered. As the war progressed, and particularly after we
started using Stingers, all helicopter pilots began to show a marked disinclination to press home attacks. The Soviets would tend to send Afghan units on difficult missions, while Afghan pilots would sometimes fire off their ammunition at any soft target, and report a successful strike, when they had not flown near their intended objective. A lot of distrust built up, confirmed via the interception of radio conversations.
Both the Soviets and Afghans flew their missions in pairs whenever possible. From early in the war road convoys were given air cover, with the gunships either flying overhead as the column crawled along the road or, for the less important convoys, on immediate call. The Hind was conspicuous in all retaliation strikes or in protecting and supporting a ground advance. Sometimes it operated as airborne artillery, sometimes it combined strafing with dropping commandos in cut off positions, but it was as the primary instrument in search and destroy operations that the gunship earned its infamous reputation.
The attack on the village of Rugyan in 1982 was typical of Soviet methods. Rugyan had a population of about 800 people and lay 8 kilometres NW of Ali Khel. It was an agricultural village set in the narrow valley of the Rugyan River and was, at that time, a thriving community which supported the Mujahideen. The mud-brick houses were clustered together on the lower slopes of the mountains on both sides of the valley, and up a smaller side valley, whose stream joined the Rugyan from the east. In the centre of the village were numerous wells and more houses. Every possible use had been made of terraces to give maximum soil and space for crops of wheat or maize.
On the day in question the villagers were going about their normal chores when at around 9.00 am six helicopters were spotted high above the valley. The leading pair came lower, straight at the village. At about 2,000 feet the first rockets were fired, then another salvo, then another, the high explosive ripping apart the flimsy dwellings and killing or maiming the occupants. For at least two hours the endless bombardment continued with short intervals as one pair flew off to make way for the next. As a gunship ran out of rockets it circled round hosing the houses and fields with machine-gun fire. On the ground a few younger men fled up into the hills, while the remainder, the elderly and the women and children cowered in the rubble or behind boulders. Many died outright, many more were to die later from shock and loss of blood. If there seemed to be a lull in the firing uninjured people would come out co attend the wounded. It was futile; any movement below was the signal for the next pair of gunships to attack. There was no defence. The number of Mujahideen in the village at the time was negligible. There were no anti-aircraft weapons and no caves in which to shelter.
The next phase was heralded by the approach of ground troops from the direction of Ali Khel. Two hundred infantrymen, with several tanks, APCs and mortars, halted a few hundred metres from the village. They spread out
before opening fire. For another half an hour gunfire, mortar bombs and heavy machine-gun bullets pummelled the rubble and every possible place of concealment. At last, by about midday, the Soviet commander stopped the firing. None of his men had been scratched. It was a search and destroy operation in which the destruction preceded the searching. An Afghan officer yelled through a bullhorn for anybody still living to come out. The shocked, petrified, wailing women and children were segregated from the handful of men still able to walk. The searching of the ruins began, with the soldiers setting fire to any building left intact. No attention was given to the wounded, they were ignored until the troops finally departed, taking a few men for interrogation.
It was the end of Rugyan village. All 200 or so survivors trekked to Pakistan, carrying their injured strapped to horses and mules, or carried on beds. It took them ten hours to reach Parachinar hospital. On that occasion the surviving women had been fortunate to escape with a few blows and curses. There was no rape or cold-bloodied butchery as it was not just a Soviet operation. When Afghan troops were present the Soviets usually refrained from their more gruesome atrocities. After a similar mission elsewhere three young girls had been taken up by the Soviets in a gunship, raped, then thrown out while still alive. Multiply Rugyan by hundreds and you get some idea of what the Soviets’ scorched earth strategy meant. Not for them any attempt to win hearts and minds, but rather wholesale destruction, the killing of civilians, or the driving of them into exile. This was their way of rooting out opposition, of depriving the Mujahideen of support, and of putting pressure on Pakistan through the refugees. I must confess that it was partially successful. Had we had the Stinger in 1982 or 1983 I believe countless civilian lives would have been spared.
For almost six years it was politics that prevented us from receiving Stingers. Not long after I had taken up my duties with ISI, and before I became aware of the political issues, I had advocated their use by the Mujahideen. In early 1984 a delegation of US officials, who were advising Congress on the war, visited me at Rawalpindi. A member of the delegation asked me which weapon system I would recommend to counter the growing Soviet air threat. Without hesitation I replied, ‘The Stinger’. Back at their embassy my visitors had asked the CIA station chief why the Mujahideen were not getting this weapon, as it had been strongly advocated by Brigadier Yousaf. The CIA’s answer was that it was the Pakistani government that would not allow its introduction. This was only half the truth, as neither would the US administration, but I had inadvertently touched on a very sensitive spot.
The CIA chief had immediately contacted me to protest that the delegation seemed to be convinced that it was they, the CIA, who were preventing the
issue of the Stinger, whereas I knew full well it was my own government. At the time I knew no such thing, but I had obviously caused problems with my ignorance. That evening I had to explain what I had done to General Akhtar. I stressed that I was unaware of any political motives for not accepting this weapon, and that my recommendation had been entirely a professional, military judgement. The General called a meeting with the delegation to clarify our position. I was conspicuous by my absence.
While it was not denied that the Stinger was the ideal weapon with which an infantryman can knock an aircraft out of the sky, as far as Pakistan was concerned it was too good. It was the best of its kind in the world at that time, and had recently been issued to US forces, so its technology was still top secret. President Zia took the view, changed in 1986, that for the Mujahideen to be given this sophisticated American weapon would contradict the policy of keeping all arms supplied to the Mujahideen of communist origin. Its introduction could not be kept secret for long; missiles, or even the weapon, might be captured or seen by enemy agents. In this event how could Pakistan maintain the pretence that it was not allowing the US to support the Jehad directly? Also, but never openly admitted, the President was worried that a Stinger might get into the hands of a terrorist organization and be used against his own aircraft. He had many enemies, and already they had tried to shoot down his plane. Ironically, President Zia was right in so far as he later met his death by terrorist sabotage of his aircraft, but not by the use of a Stinger missile.
What the CIA did not explain to my visitors was that the Pakistan government’s view coincided with their own. The US Administration were equally terrified that their new wonder weapon might fall into the wrong hands. If it was supplied to the Mujahideen then, inevitably, sooner or later, they could lose one to the enemy either in action or to a KHAD agent, or even by sale by an unscrupulous Mujahid. Selling one Stinger would enrich a man for life. Rightly, the Americans were scared of the technology being obtained by the Soviets. They were also worried that the weapon might end up with a terrorist group for use against a civil airliner. In this connection they had a dread of it getting into the hands of Iran, which in the circumstances of the war in Afghanistan was quite probable. In the event they were proved justified, in that both the Soviets and Iranians obtained Stingers in 1987, although their fears about it being used against them were groundless.
By late 1985 I considered the Stinger issue to be the single most important unresolved matter in defeating the Soviets on the battlefield. I became more and more vocal in my demands to obtain an effective anti-aircraft weapon. As I have narrated before, I was fobbed off with, first, Oerlikon guns, and then Blowpipes. Always the civil authorities of both Pakistan and America responded by saying, ‘Supposing it falls into the hands of the Soviets;
supposing a terrorist uses it against the president; can you guarantee these things will never happen?’ Of course I could offer no such guarantee, but as a Stinger had apparently already been stolen from a US base in West Germany, the strength of these arguments was questionable. All I knew was that without it Mujahideen morale would not hold out indefinitely.
By a strange twist of fate it was the temporary loss of Zhawar, and the Soviet/Afghan successes around Ali Khel, that finally swung opinions to my point of view. Although I was severely criticized for developing these strongholds, and defending them in a conventional battle, it turned out that this error, if error it was, got me the Stingers. They were to tip the balance on the battlefield in our favour. It was the heavy fighting along the border with Pakistan in April, 1986, that frightened everybody into forgetting the risks and giving us what we wanted. I made the most of the opportunity to press my demands, both to General Akhtar and to the CIA. I reinforced my appeal with the opinions of US analysts, who were then saying that the Mujahideen could not continue to fight on with this rate of attrition; that manpower shortages were growing; that the men in the field were tiring; that the younger generation were hesitating to join the Jehad. I did not altogether go along with these theories, but they provided additional ammunition for me. By the middle of that year the President had been prevailed upon to agree. Suddenly, we were to get the Stingers.
The first problem was training. Even with this weapon, we still insisted that the Mujahideen be trained by Pakistanis, not Americans. This meant our instructors had to be trained in the US. They flew there in June. Meanwhile the Stinger training school was set up in my backyard, at Ojhiri Camp in Rawalpindi, complete with simulator. In practice all training was carried out on this simulator, with no live firing ever taking place before the teams fired Stingers for real in Afghanistan.
Our main constraint was that we could not train more than twenty men at a time, due to the limitations of the training equipment. The agreement with the Americans was for an annual allocation of 250 grip-stocks, together with 1000-1200 missiles, so it would be some time before we could field sufficient teams to absorb all the Stingers. There was no question of us suddenly being able to swamp Afghanistan with the weapons. The build-up would be more a gradual affair.
I personally interviewed and selected the majority of the Commanders for training. I looked for men with a proven record on the battlefield, particularly those who had performed well with the old SA-7. In the event, half of the Stinger trainees were already competent SA-7 operators with one or more kills to their credit.
US officials insisted on a four-week course for Mujahideen. Our ten Pakistani instructors, who had completed an eight-week course in America, felt three would be sufficient. Our first courses were as long as was felt
necessary to produce competent operators. In the event three weeks was normally enough, with some only lasting 15 days. The US sent over an officer to watch our first course, and from him I learned that the average hit rate by American troops trained on the Stinger was 60-65 per cent in a non-hostile situation. They regarded this as satisfactory. From statistics we compiled later during actual operations the Mujahideen’s success rate was 70-75 per cent, while our Pakistani instructors reached 95 per cent.
I put these excellent results down to the high standard of training imparted, the determination of the trainees to succeed, the natural affinity of the Mujahideen for weapons and the aggressive anti-aircraft tactics we employed with Stingers. By contrast, the Pakistan Army’s efforts with this weapon were dismal. A number of Stingers were provided to units in the border areas to respond to the countless ‘hot pursuit’ incursions into Pakistani airspace. To my knowledge the Pakistan Army fired twenty-eight Stingers at enemy aircraft without a single kill. In early 1987 the Pakistan Army claimed to have hit an aircraft with a Stinger. There was great excitement. The corps commander at Peshawar, General Aslam Beg (now head of the Pakistan Army, and the only general not to board the President’s aircraft at Bahawalpur in August, 1988) wanted to interrupt a meeting to inform the Prime Minister personally. I happened to be in Peshawar at the time, and asked Hekmatyar, in whose area the plane was supposed to have crashed, to check it out for me. He was in radio contact with his base, so within minutes he informed me that no aircraft had been shot down.
That evening back in Islamabad I received a telephone call from General Akhtar who wanted me to arrange to have the wreckage retrieved. He was dumbfounded when I explained that there was no plane and insisted I send an officer to check personally. I did, and he confirmed our version of the story, much to the embarrassment of the Pakistan Army. They had even sought to authenticate their claim by sending an officer to the Mujahideen to collect together some debris from another crashed aircraft, as evidence of their achievement. Fortunately better sense prevailed.
The US flew out a special team to find out why our Army could not get results with the Stinger. Senior Army officers refused to accept the numbers of Mujahideen kills as anything other than propaganda. When the President and General Akhtar insisted, they claimed they had been given a worthless, outdated version of the Stinger. I believe part of the reason was that the Pakistan Army did not use the weapon offensively; they did not set out to ambush aircraft, tempt them into vulnerable positions, before catching them by surprise. They were content to sit in a static defensive position and wait for a target to come their way, although to be fair that was really their only option in the circumstances on the frontier.
Early in 1987 I was informed that a PAF F16 had been shot down near Miram Shah, with the wreckage falling inside Afghanistan. The report
alleged that it was the victim of a Stinger fired by the Mujahideen. There was a monumental rumpus. Everybody turned on the ISI with cries of, ‘I told you so. The Mujahideen should never have been given this weapon. They haven’t been trained properly. They can’t differentiate between Soviet and Pakistani aircraft.’ I was sceptical from the start, as no Stinger team had either been deployed in that area or was moving through it. I informed General Akhtar accordingly, but rumours abounded, including one that the missile had been fired from inside Pakistan. The panic prevailed for 24 hours, until proper investigation revealed that the plane had been downed by another Pakistani fighter. There was acute embarrassment when it became known that it was the PAF, rather than the Mujahideen, who needed to brush up their aircraft recognition training.
How best to deploy our wonder weapon was the subject of much animated discussion. As we could not suddenly flood Afghanistan with hundreds of Stingers, the strategic choice lay between concentrating first around enemy airfields, or deploying them close to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, thus retaining a tighter control over the teams, and perhaps lessening the likelihood of one being captured. I argued strongly for the first option. I felt that the teams should be used boldly to strike offensively at important airfields. This was where our targets were concentrated. If we could achieve surprise, and hit hard at the outset, we would gain a tremendous moral advantage. To position them to protect our border bases would hand the initiative back to the enemy. All our American friends agreed, except for their Ambassador. He was fond of passing judgement on military matters about which he was imperfectly qualified to speak; this was such an occasion. He wanted the initial deployment around Barikot and Khost.
Military good sense prevailed (see Map 18). As previously narrated, the first Stingers achieved spectacular success at Jalalabad airfield. We also included Kabul – Bagram in phase one of their deployment. This was followed by sending them over the Hindu Kush to the airfields at Mazar-i-Sharif, Faisabad, Kunduz, Maimana and dose to the Amu River. The third phase envisaged a more defensive role in the provinces bordering Pakistan, with the final deployment being around Kandahar and Lashkargah airfields. This area had a low priority because the terrain was so flat and arid that it favoured the enemy who, with the advantage of airpower, were able to spot Mujahideen movement with comparative ease.
The use of Stingers tipped the tactical balance in our favour. As success followed success, so the Mujahideen morale rose and that of the enemy fell. We now had the Soviet and Afghan pilots running scared; they were on the defensive. They became reluctant to fly low to push home attacks, while every transport aircraft at Kabul airport and elsewhere had its landing and take off protected by flare-dispersing helicopters. Even civil airliners, which we did not attack, adopted a tight, corkscrew descent to the runway, causing
[Begin Graphic – Map 18]
STINGER DEPLOYMENT PHASES 1986-87
[End Graphic – Map 18]
much nervousness and vomiting by the passengers. We had instructed Commanders to hunt not only aircraft, but the crews as well. We wanted dead pilots more than dead planes, as the former were far harder to replace than the latter. We set out to kill or capture more pilots by training special `hit’ groups for this task, who accompanied each Stinger team whenever possible. We even went to the extent of targeting pilots’ messes at Kabul and Bagram for stand-off rocket attacks.
Although it was never our policy deliberately to kill captured aircrew, Soviet propaganda had instilled in many that to be taken prisoner was a fate infinitely worse than death. This had been the position long before we introduced Stingers. Back in 1984 the courageous British photographer John Gunton had captured this terrible fear in a photograph of a dead Soviet MiG-21 pilot, published in the French news weekly L’Expres. It showed the pilot lying amongst the shrouds of his collapsed parachute, still in his ejection seat with his hand cocked to his head. He had ejected, but had his leg ripped apart as his seat cleared the cockpit. On landing, in dreadful agony, he had shot himself through the brain to avoid capture. Later, the Mujahideen had removed the pistol from his hand. In his book Soldiers of God Robert Kaplan quotes Gunston as saying, The pilot had been there for several weeks, and had turned black in the sun, though the snow had kept his body from decaying. Maggots were eating a hole in his face. I found his radio rigs and MiG-21 instruction book. But damn, the muj wouldn’t let me keep it.’
In 1987, in the Logar Valley, a Stinger missile downed a helicopter which burned like a furnace on impact with the ground. The Mujahideen raked through the debris, and filmed one guerrilla lifting up the tiny, shrivelled, blackened body of the pilot with the end of his stick. It looked like a grotesque charcoal doll.
In the ten-month period from the first firing up to when I left the ISI in August, 1987, 187 Stingers were used in Afghanistan. Of these 75 per cent hit aircraft. By this time every province, except for three, had them. Always we taught Commanders to plan and act offensively. They would put pressure on a post hoping that it would radio for assistance. If helicopters arrived they were ambushed. Similarly rocket attacks were used in broad daylight to tempt the Hinds into the sky. Sometimes they came, stayed high, fired a few rockets and disappeared. With high-flying helicopters the Mujahideen would often deliberately expose one or two vehicles, drive them so as to make a lot of dust, thereby hoping to entice the victim down. If he came he was usually killed. More often he stayed high.
There is no doubt that the introduction of Stingers caused considerable alarm among the enemy air crews. On one occasion two gunships were strafing a village when one was hit by a Stinger missile, whereupon the pilot of the second helicopter bailed out in panic. The winter of 1986/87 was the first time that Commanders and Leaders were prepared to continue operating
in strength throughout the severe weather, provided they had a good supply of Stingers. We exploited their enthusiasm to the maximum. It was the first winter in which we did not lose ground around Kabul; in fact some outposts were recaptured by the Mujahideen as the enemy gunships’ pilots were often too frightened to intervene effectively as before.
Despite our continuous emphasis on security, on the need to prevent any Stingers or missiles reaching the enemy, the inevitable eventually happened. Twice, in early 1987, we lost Stingers, firstly to the Soviets, and then to the Iranians.
We had trained a team destined to operate in the Kandahar area under the infamous Mulla Malang (`the Butcher’). On his way back to his base of operations with three Stingers he was successfully ambushed by a Spetsnaz unit. Despite my personal briefing on how to move tactically and remain alert, he managed to break all the rules of security. He put two grip-stocks and four missiles in his advance party, while he, with the remaining Stinger, followed some way behind with his main body. The advance party had halted and were caught napping by the Spetsnaz, who suddenly descended on the Mujahideen in helicopters. Far from being shot down, the gunships landed and disgorged the commandos who proceeded to kill or capture the entire group, with the exception of one man who escaped. The Soviets must have been well rewarded when they returned with such valuable booty.
For months I hesitated to deploy Stingers in the provinces bordering Iran. There was a real risk of its being sold or given to the Iranians. However, after we knew the Soviets had captured some I decided to take the chance. I introduced the weapon to sensitive areas near Herat, Shindand and other suitable areas near the Iranian border. Tooran Ismail of Herat was the first Commander of this region to get Stingers through his deputy, former Colonel Alauddin, who came to Pakistan for training, and later escorted the missiles himself. Thereafter we selected a less important Commander from Khalis’ Party. After training, he was given two new vehicles and escorted up to the border, where he was briefed at length on the route he should take through Helmand Province. On no account was he to go into Iran. Inexcusably this Commander returned to Quetta after a short journey into Afghanistan, on the pretext of collecting more weapons, leaving his party to continue without him. They had difficulty crossing the Helmand River and deviated from their intended route. Whether by accident or design they ended up being arrested in Iranian territory by the Passadars (Iranian Border Scouts). They had with them four Stinger launchers and sixteen missiles. Repeated efforts by Khalis and Rabbani, who had excellent contacts in Iran, failed to get them returned. The Iranian authorities never actually refused to give them back, they just kept delaying their release with one excuse or another. To this day we have never seen these missiles again. I do not know if it is generally known that Iran has had access to these weapons since 1987. I can only pray they
never end up with a terrorist organization. Needless to say, it was the last time Khalis got any Stingers while I remained in office.