In late 2001, Pentagon officials acknowledged that some of the 2,000 missiles sent to Afghan fighters during the 1980s might have fallen into the hands of Taliban or Al-Qaeda fighters.
No U.S. aircraft has been downed by a Stinger missile in Afghanistan. But pilots of low-flying U.S. aircraft have reported seeing surface-to-air missiles fired at them -- particular near the southern city of Kandahar. It remains unclear whether those were Stinger missiles or Soviet-built SAM-7 missiles.
Rahul Bedi, a New Delhi-based correspondent for "Jane's Defense Weekly," notes that Washington has been trying to buy back the unused stinger missiles since the 1990s. "The effort by the Americans to recover the Stinger missiles that were provided to the mujahedin in the 1980s has been in progress for a very long time," Bedi said. "In the 1990s, there was a move launched by the CIA to buy back a lot of these missiles. It's really unclear as to how many stinger missiles are still out there with the Afghans or with any of the [terrorist] groups. And I don't think even the CIA probably knows how many are in service because a lot of them would have degraded by now as far as their batteries and the various things inside the missile system are concerned."
U.S. military officials in Afghanistan say they have nothing to do with the Afghan buy-back program. But Bedi said he thinks the renewed effort is probably being funded by other U.S. government sources.
"Kabul's effort at buying back these missiles is only a proxy effort. And I think the United States is probably behind this buy back offer. In any case, I don't see how it is likely to work even if the Afghan government is offering to pay for it -- because if any of the groups had wanted to accept the offer made by the U.S. government earlier, they would have done so. I don't think it is likely to make much of a difference for any of these Stinger missiles to surface now," Bedi said.
Military historians say the Stinger missiles were critical to the success of mujahedin fighters against Soviet forces. That's because the missiles gave the mujahedin in mountainous strongholds a strong defense against Soviet helicopters trying to land troops nearby.
But Bedi said it is now impossible to confirm how many of the 2,000 Stingers actually made it to Afghan fighters, or how many are still operational. "What is debatable is whether all of those 2,000 really made their way to the Afghan mujahedin because they were funneled in through Pakistan," he said. "So it is quite possibly that some remained in Pakistan and got stuck to the Pakistani handlers' hands. But as far as the outstanding number is concerned, a lot of the Stinger missiles would be beyond their use by date in any case. So it's very debatable whether even those 200 missiles [yet to be unaccounted for] -- even if we were to assume that figure is correct -- are even operable."
Jim O'Halloran is the editor of a separate Jane's Defense Group publication that focuses on missile systems like the Stinger, "Jane's Land-Based Air Defense." O'Halloran agreed that any remaining Stinger missiles from the 1980s are probably too old and unreliable to be used.
"As to how many actually got to Afghanistan -- once they were handed over to Pakistan authorities to conduit into Afghanistan -- is anybody's guess. Obviously a large number did get there. But there are rumors abounding all over that when the buy-back policy was actually put into force, very few [Stingers] actually came back at all. So nobody could actually tell you the exact number of [Stinger] missiles that are out there. We can assume that there is going to be a substantial quantity," O'Halloran said.
O'Halloran said it is quite possible that terrorist groups have gotten a hold of U.S.-made Stinger missiles. But he said he thinks most groups would have replaced them with Soviet-era SAM-7 missiles by now. He also said Iran has probably had some Stinger missiles for years.
"I've always credited Iran with Stingers anyway -- whether or not they've come legally from the U.S., or whether they've been purchased from a third party. But I do credit Iran in my inventory of weapons systems in Iran. I credit them with the FIM-92A only. The FIM-92A is the oldest type of Stinger," O'Halloran said.
Even if the new buy-back effort fails to bring in more Stinger missiles, O'Halloran said it is likely to help in the collection of other ground-launched antiaircraft missiles. "When they did this last time, well, all sorts of man-portable SAM systems turned up," he said. "And people were offering these back to the government, and to the U.S. forces in particular, for hard cash. There was one instance where a farmer appeared with a handcart full of these things. And, of course, he drove away in a posh car afterwards. It's that sort of thing that encourages people."
UN officials say their disarmament program in Afghanistan has brought in four of the U.S.-made Stinger missiles as well as many more of the Soviet-built SAM-7s.