It has been a quarter-century since the first Afghan rebel fighter brought down a Soviet helicopter with a shoulder-fired, U.S.-made Stinger missile, Michael M. Phillips writes in The Wall Street Journal. The use of that weapon would reverse the disproportional nature of the fight between invading Soviets and the mujahedeen resistance in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and ultimately help doom the Soviet Union itself, he argues.
Outside Jalalabad, Afghanistan, 25 years ago this week, an angry young man named Abdul Wahab Quanat recited his prayers, walked onto a farm field near a Soviet airfield, raised a Stinger missile launcher to his shoulder and shot his way into history.
It was the first time since the Soviet invasion seven years earlier that a mujahedeen fighter had destroyed the most feared weapon in the Soviet arsenal, a Hind attack helicopter. The event panicked the Soviet ranks, changed the course of the war and helped to break up the USSR itself.
The Stinger isn't only history, either. The same weapon that was so effectively deployed to the mujahedeen to help ensure that the Soviet occupation would bleed Russian money and lives remains a danger, and increasingly a threat to American interests. Conservative commentators who frown on President Barack Obama's "leading from behind" approach to the Libyan revolution, for instance, could point to the disappearance of Col. Muammar Qaddafi's stash of Stingers and other weapons, which now potentially reside with forces opposed to U.S. and coalition interests.
And the U.S. effort to collect some of the hundreds of Stingers that remain on the loose in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region is as old, or older, than the current war in Afghanistan. Amid a buy-back effort in 2005, U.S. pilots said they had seen the missiles flying at them, though without making impact. Even lesser weapons can do devastating damage, as in the crash of a troop helicopter in August that killed 38. That chopper was brought down by a rocket-propelled grenade and a very lucky shot, authorities said, expressing relief that the attack did not signify that the Taliban had found away to obtain a more powerful weapon, like the Stinger.
The Stinger story is also about the surprising arcs that lives and interests have taken in the United States and in Afghanistan for the last 25 years. Wahab was a "holy warrior," a mentor told him, before he fired the missile that crashed a Soviet helicopter – to the delight of the United States. Twenty-five years later, he is an Afghan banker, allied with the U.S. again, and opposed to a movement that sees its own warriors as holy and carrying on the very mission that began in resistance to the Soviets.
There is a distressingly familiar note, too, in Phillips' description of the toll the Afghanistan venture took on the U.S.S.R. The Reagan administration "put aside qualms" about arming Afghan forces with Stingers because they knew it would amplify the costs of the war for the Soviets. "Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev," he writes, "faced with an imploding domestic economy, was already seeking an exit from a costly war."
The stinger in action: