Sacrificing His Core Supporters in a Race Against Defeat
It is unfortunate that Milton Bearden, in an otherwise informative article ("Afghanistan, Graveyard of Empires," November/December 2001), repeats the tired myth that the Stinger antiaircraft missile "changed the course of the war" in Afghanistan in the 1980s, forced the Red Army to withdraw, and thereby led to "a cataclysm for the Soviets." This story is incorrect in virtually every respect.
Archival evidence now shows that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev decided to withdraw from Afghanistan a year before the mujahideen fired their first Stinger in September 1986. The Stingers, moreover, had no lasting military impact in Afghanistan and thus could not possibly have chased the Red Army out. The missiles did make an impact in their initial few months -- shooting down dozens of Soviet and Afghan aircraft and compelling others to abandon their missions or to fly so high as to be ineffective. Soon, however, Soviet technical and tactical countermeasures largely nullified the effects. Soviet aircraft were retrofitted with flares, beacons, and exhaust baÛes to disorient the missiles, and Soviet pilots operated at night or employed terrain-hugging tactics to prevent the rebels from getting a clear shot. The best evidence that the Stingers were rendered ineffective is that the mujahideen had all but stopped firing them by 1988, despite continued receipt of hundreds more from the CIA. Instead, the rebels sold the missiles in international arms markets or squirreled them away for future use. (Some have reportedly been fired at U.S. aircraft during the latest hostilities.)
Finally, the Soviets were hardly bled out of Afghanistan. Gorbachev merely used the rhetoric of a bleeding wound to win domestic support for the decision to withdraw. His real motivation for that decision, by all authoritative accounts, was to achieve the lifting of U.S. sanctions, especially on technology transfer, which he viewed as important to his goal of domestic economic restructuring, or perestroika.
Now more than ever, it is essential to put to rest the myth of the Stinger missile, which not only distorts history but offers misleading lessons. The key to victory in our current war is likely to be not some fancy high-tech weapon but rather persistence on the ground in the face of sustained, low-level casualties.
ALAN J. KUPERMAN
Visiting Scholar, Center for International Studies, University of Southern California
Milton Bearden responds:
Alan J. Kuperman's proposition, based on archival evidence, that Gorbachev was ready to withdraw from Afghanistan in 1986 is simply not supported by the historical fact of a vigorous and brutal Soviet prosecution of the war until 1988. And Kuperman's characterization of the Soviets' having developed successful countermeasures to the Stinger -- flares, beacons, and exhaust baÛes -- is contradicted by overwhelming evidence from U.S., Soviet, and Afghan sources. The only reliable Soviet countermeasures employed in Afghanistan were flying above 12,000 feet or at night. Either measure negated the tactical value of Soviet air forces and gave the mujahideen freedom of movement on the ground, which is why the United States introduced the Stinger in the first place. In short, the Stinger did its job. The Afghan resistance was bolstered, the Soviets quit Afghanistan, and their empire collapsed a couple of years later. It is noteworthy that, although Kuperman has written extensively on this topic, he has not chosen to discuss his theories with former CIA officers directly involved with the deployment of the Stinger.