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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

INSIDE STORY AFGHANISTAN
ON THE HUNT FOR A STINGER MISSILE

The CIA gave some 1,000 Stingers to the mujahideen to fight the Soviets. The U.S. bought many back, but perhaps 200 are reputedly still on the black market

By Bruce Duffy


Go to some Stinger statistics

TO THOSE WHO KNOW HER, her name is Stinger. Not, you will note, the Stinger, but simply Stinger, hellfire divinity with her own proper name. Stinger, equal to the swiftest, armored jet or helicopter, to say nothing of those winged bombs, commercial jets. Stinger the singer: Smelling heat, her infrared seeker hits the high note, dreeeeeeeee. Lock on. Pull the trigger and behold a 500-story rush, a slithering white star, packing -- at near Mach 2 -- all the kinetic energy of a hurtling automobile, followed by the fireball of a half kilo of pure C4 explosive.

What am I doing cramming my head with Stinger lore and launch procedures, bound for Pakistan and Afghanistan to find one for sale? Me of all people, Volvo driver, Girl Scout Dad and novelist, off on a fool's errand with all the world's crazies who journey there in search of toys.

Because, existing as she does at the top of the terror food chain, Stinger remains a major threat to civilian aircraft. At the same time, she's our New Age Medusa, symptom of a binge-and-purge world consumed by wars and awash with arms -- arms for sale by people so angry, desperate or casually greedy that, frankly, it's a miracle we've seen as little terror as we have.

Peshawar, rotting once-British colonial city in Pakistan, where forgotten British dead lie in time-tilted rows behind the high walls of the old garrison graveyard on University Road. Sticky with sweat and slapping mosquitoes, I am wasting an hour -- anything to keep from thinking about Stinger.

Dancing in the gloom, beneath huge, bizarrely wrought trees, are the malarial swarms of mosquitoes that probably killed most of them, soldiers, "wives of," nameless infants. Before me there's a whole receiving line as I wade through the swampy growth, followed by an old watchman desperate to be of use, lifting leafy clumps as I strain to read . . . treacherously killed July 30, 1883, by a fanatic . . . In eternal memory of the wives and children of the noncommissioned officers who died during the year of our Lord 1863.

It was India then, and Peshawar, 16 km from the Khyber Pass, was the main western garrison in the decades-long battle to subdue the watchman's unconquerable forebears, the Pakhtun. A century later, in the high desert areas where I'm going, the rules haven't changed but the weapons have -- dramatically since the war in Afghanistan, the old bolt-action Enfields having given way to AKs, mortars and rockets.

Itching and slapping, I wonder what they'd say I was doing wrong, the people who lie here. Because after three tense, confusion-filled days, I can almost hear the Tommies and their ladies scoffing at me. Months and thousands of dollars. Wasted. All wasted by this hapless Yank. Slap.

Certainly, far more knowledgeable people had failed before me. And let's face it: There is an Abominable Snowman aspect to this hunt. From 1986 to 1989, through a notoriously leaky weapons pipeline set up by the CIA and managed by its Pakistani counterparts, the U.S. shipped the mujahideen about 1,000 shoulder-fired Stingers. Today, despite a troubled U.S. buyback program, between 100 and 200 are still at large, many for sale on the black markets in the rugged border regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, home to smugglers, kidnappers, dope kings, arms traffickers and terrorists.

So I'd know what I was looking at, my military contacts had carefully led me through the 13 checks they use to certify Stinger as ready to fire. I also have along veteran photographer Steve McCurry, who covered the war in Afghanistan, as well as Chris Smith, a British arms control expert who for years now has monitored the toxic spill of death and drugs unleashed by the continuing turmoil in the region.

Two years ago, Chris says, he got close to Stinger but couldn't lose the Pakistani detailed to keep tabs on him. Blond, ruddy-faced and very British, Chris is my tutor, you might say. Also guiding us is our fixer, a man whom I'll call Siddiqi to protect his safety -- Siddiqi, whoops-gotta-go, forever clutching his cell phone. Siddiqi is a veritable Houdini when it comes to disappearing, but he's also brilliantly connected and knows it, unfortunately.

At last Siddiqi has come through -- big-time. After weeks of official runaround, we're off to Stinger Central. Off through a back door, even as the Pakistani government, in a bureaucratic no-brainer, has denied us admission to the last place on earth they ever want us to see. This is Darra Adam Khel, a town south of Peshawar in the tribal areas, an outlaw region where you can buy virtually any drug or weapon on earth.

"Don't kill anybody, huh?" I say, shaking our driver, handsome, maddeningly polite Farid. "As you like, sir," he replies, but only leans more heavily on the horn, scattering goats and men dragging rank, freshly flayed skins. "Fast keeps out the flies, sir." Blowing through the choked bazaar, we continue our ascent into the lunar mountains of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, past the mall-size compounds of the local poppy kings, past camels and nomad encampments.

This road was a major CIA arms pipeline into Afghanistan. Introduced relatively late in the war, Stingers were hotly debated at the highest levels of the U.S. government before their deployment in 1986. No, they didn't single-handedly win the war, but they were far more effective than the Russian SA-7s and British Blowpipe shoulder-fired missiles the mujahideen had been using -- credible enough, anyway, that they forced the Russians to fly higher and bomb more inaccurately. For mujahideen commanders, Stinger became the ultimate status symbol. And money in the bank.

Which explains why few, if any, have been fired since the Russians left. But the whole equation changed last year when the Taliban took Kabul and began confiscating weapons. Ever since, surplus arms -- Stingers included -- have been flowing back into Pakistan, many to the traders here in Darra.

Ahead, we see long green streamers -- graveyard flags, beneath which stand nine or 10 armed men in black berets, our tribal escort. Jumping into two vans, one in front and one behind, they propel us into town at top speed, horns madly beeping. Kidnapping is another local specialty.

Inside the compound, Darra's leading elders, or maliks, are waiting to greet us -- they've even slaughtered a goat in our honor. That gunfire we hear isn't celebratory, though. Rather, it's the cash-register sound of buyers testing the goods, spraying the air and back alleys. Dogging us is a political agent, intermediary between the Pakistani government and the maliks. Also present is a government press agent who has promised to curtail the ceremonial stuff. Still, he's suspicious.

"And please, your story is on what?"

"Oh, arms and the current situation," I say, feigning extreme busyness. "Y'know, the culture, the people . . . "

Fortunately, just then, five, then 10, then a dozen maliks embrace us. There's even one from London, werewolf-charming, who, to Chris's utter delight, has "the most spot-on British accent." And the food! Hot, juicy goat, and lemon cake washed down by glasses of fresh goat's milk yogurt. Yogurt mixed, rather terrifyingly for me, with the crawling local water by my smiling malik host, who watches as I dutifully gulp it down. There are no women present. Ever.

But guys know what guys like, so after breakfast, up we go to the parapet with two AKs and a sack of rounds, which they begin snapping into banana clips. Wow. Tracer rounds, too, pop pop poppa-poppa-pop.

And they're onto us, these guys -- oh, they smell secret business to be done, and not in the gun shops, which mainly seem to front the true trade. Meanwhile, on the street, Siddiqi brings me my first customer.

"To buy? One these things?" Nobody utters the S word.

"Well, not exactly to buy one, no." As usual, there's a crowd. Exasperated, I look at Siddiqi. "You've explained our, uh, needs?"

God, I'm out of my league. A sudden, blistering rain is falling, turning the street to mud as the psychedelic smuggler vans, wildly painted like infernal arks, ram west into Afghanistan. In the rain the hypnotically stupid, cross-eyed goats are hugging the buildings. Even they have sense enough to stay out of the rain. Not me. All around me, I feel people eyeing me like a walking price tag, enough to endow a whole village.

Later, the political agent -- ostensibly the voice of reason here -- is talking about a dispute his people are having with another village. Over electricity. Waving his trigger finger:

"This will be decided tonight! With the heavy weapons!"

"So let me get this straight," I say. "Tonight, you're gonna go home and get your AK--"

"--oh, yes, yes, yes, I have. And rocket grenade, too--"

"--and attack your neighbors? Because your lights flicker?"

"But of course." He thinks I'm hilarious. "And why not?"

Perhaps the most disquieting thing about dangerous people is how utterly normal they can seem. Our new Stinger contact, Shahid, is certainly such a man, with his smooth skin and fine white teeth.

In more than a half dozen meetings, Shahid always wore a white, faultlessly pressed shalwar kameez, the cool, collared nightshirt and voluminous trousers that everyone wears in Pakistan. I recall my absurd relief at that first meeting, thinking, I like this guy. Yet all I have to do is look out into the barren courtyard of our Peshawar hotel to be forcibly reminded of what's going on. For driving Shahid's white car is a stolid, heavily mustached bodyguard. Even in the worst heat, he always stays with the car, out under the white-boned eucalyptus, where the gray-crested jackdaws rattle their wings. Looking out, I also note how he keeps the car aimed at the hotel exit, I guess in the event they have to leave suddenly.

Inside, meanwhile, his boss has expertly jazzed us with photographs of Stinger boxes and another picture of a Chinese SA-7 knockoff. He even has a primitive catalog and two serial numbers that look genuine -- and are, it turns out. But so what? Selling numbers is itself a stock piece of flimflam here.

And while Shahid's hustling me, I'm selling him on reports that the U.S. government is paying far more than the $100,000 price he dangled -- $175,000, according to one story. But who can they trust? After several rumored stings by ISI (Pakistan's notoriously ruthless intelligence arm), everybody's so jittery that few deals go through, and those that do take forever.

So here's the deal: $2,500 for photos of one of three Stingers his contacts allegedly have for sale -- photos or videotape of the 13 vital points that I've sketched out for Shahid, all to be shot with a magazine in the background to authenticate the date.

Of course, it's a miserable deal. With no better options, we're asking to be taken, but there is one inducement that Shahid seems to find genuinely intriguing: If he delivers, we'll try to facilitate a U.S. government buy -- at top price. But here, when it seems this argument is getting through, Chris breaks in professorially.

"Er, well, Bruce, I'm sure the CIA is paying the market price. And prices do seem low just now--"

"Chris," I snap, "the Americans are paying $175,000."

Enough palavering -- I lay it out. Cash, five times the average annual income. Steve busts out laughing. "What a pair of 007s! So you're giving the chief here all the cash? Up front?"

Shahid's English may not be much, but he sure speaks money. Cinching the deal, he rolls my $2,500 in a newspaper, like a hunk of old fish. He still thinks we're spies, posing as journalist bozos in some bizarre scheme.

Lord, had Shahid's English improved suddenly."But why not just buy one?" he asks me at the door. "Not for your government. For your home. Your wife, maybe?"

Afghanistan, the yellow, almost combustible dust. At the border, there is an ominous feeling about it, as we leave our cars, pay off our drivers, have a dust-caked kid load our gear onto a cart, then sink into rapids of slack-boned refugees and animals, as old men with sticks beat small children to move faster, and bereted soldiers from the famous Khyber Rifles frown and wag their fingers at our cameras. Then I see why.

Packed in white Toyota trucks, in clouds of dust, here come the Taliban, robes and turbans blowing. White battle flags rippling in the wind, they are blazing across the border, off to the front with rifles and pods of green rockets. Four days before, in Mazar-e-Sharif, the Taliban had suffered a horrendous defeat. Yet look where the Taliban reinforcements are coming from -- Pakistan. Cannon fodder, too. Boys barely able to grow fuzz, let alone the required 10-cm beards, are roaring in fresh from the Taliban madrassas (religious schools).

Our plan had been to stroke the Taliban as conquerors and world statesmen, before turning to our true agenda. But after this Mazar-e-Sharif debacle, all bets are off. At this point, we're just going -- anything not to go stir-crazy in our hotel. It's just Steve and me now -- Chris is out: "Dunno a bloody thing about Afghanistan. I'm off, mate."

First stop is Jalalabad, a small, relatively unscathed city just across the border. There we're hoping to hook up with a man who had some Stingers once. Sketchy details, said cell-phone Siddiqi, who also bowed out -- another family tragedy, courtesy of the most obligingest, dyingest relatives on planet earth. Instead, Siddiqi dispatched Shah, not only the portliest Pakistani we'd seen, but the only one we'd ever seen drunk.

"Not even a fly," emphasizes the handsome young aide of the Taliban governor of Jalalabad. "If you try, will be very dangerous for you. Believe me." The governor's aide is talking about photographs, which are strictly forbidden, like music, kite flying, even paper bags (which could -- they fear -- contain a particle of the Koran). Still, it must be said that the Taliban rule of law is no mean achievement. As many told me, hanging and dismemberment are infinitely preferable to the raping, robbery and murder they'd known before.

"Paughhh," mutters Shah as the governor's aide leaves for prayers, "I hate them all, these beardmen."

Yet while the governor and his aide were busily protecting the privacy of insects and the sanctity of paper, not 4 km away a major weapons depot had blown up two months before, killing 50. In Kabul, two days later, we ourselves heard a blast that killed a dozen Taliban. Gathering weapons with the single-mindedness of squirrels, they no sooner build their hoards, it seems, than they blow themselves up.

Shah bounds up, jabbering. It's the governor, just back from prayers. He looks profoundly bored. The dark beard and pale skin, his almost malarial languor -- like most Taliban officials I met, he is not quite of this earth. Obviously, you don't just start off talking Stingers with such a man. So I ask about "conditions," then about America. The governor rouses up.

"Why does America not recognize the Taliban?" he asks. "Look at the suffering, and no help from America. And here when we lose one million people helping you defeat the Russians."

Shah is mopping his face, desperate to go. I turn to arms.

"Yes," translates Shah, "many we have collected. They are national property and strictly for our protection. We are not Iran." In fact, they hate Iran.

"And what about jihad?"

"We do not support terrorism, we support Allah."

"Well, your excellency, one thing Americans are very concerned about is these Stingers --"

Stingers. No translation necessary. Blinking with annoyance, the governor summarily denies my request to see the weapons they've collected -- if any are even left in Jalalabad.

Shah can't get out of there fast enough, salaaming and palming his heart. But, calling after us, here's the young aide with a burning question. He is inches from my Adam's apple, gaping in wonder. It's my beard, I realize. He is peering under my throat, at the part I trim each morning.

"Why?" he asks thoughtfully, tickling the afflicted area. "Why do you shave this place? No, this hair here Allah wants you to grow. Oh, yes," he beams, "this hair very, very good. Do you know the Koran?"

Naturally, our supposed Stinger contact in Jalalabad falls through. Maybe we'll find him on our return, or maybe we should just pack it in, but on we go, almost wind-driven, like migrating birds. Banging up the blown-up road to Kabul in a van with a shattered windshield, we're following the Kabul River, here booming in foaming cataracts, there as wide and shimmering blue as a lake. Up the camel-backed mountains, around blind passes, we're beating our bones, jolts so hard I smack my head on the roof, bouncing over tank ruts and sections blown out by massive mines, past destroyed armor and villages reduced to ruins. Men died here, you remind yourself, men and women and kids plowed under pitiful gray stone shards, many scarcely larger than fingers.

Kabul is the worst, though -- ashen, reeking, utterly destroyed for blocks in places. Swarms of beggars. Listless babies and leprous kids with horrible scabs from the biting sand flies that transport some dread filth-borne disease. More horrifying are the ghost women smothered under the burqahs which the Taliban force them to wear, widows free to beg but not work, their cricket voices pleading through filmy airholes. Within a day, I'm elbowing kids and even threatening the more insistent with bodily injury. When our driver tries to cheat us out of a few pennies, I order him to stop so I can find the nearest Taliban and have his thieving, malingering carcass sent to the front. Or shot, for all I care.

Everybody's a little nutty. Hearing a knock one morning, I find the Egyptian cameraman we'd met coming across the border. Seems the day before, a Taliban commander saw his camera and tried to mow him down with a truck.

"Huge stones he is throwing. Hard. To kill me. Crying 'Kafir! Kafir!' [unbeliever]. And here I am -- Muslim. Helpless, while his men stand by with Kalashnikovs."

He had covered the whole war. Many times his life had been threatened. But what had him groping and stammering was the shame of it, to be publicly humiliated in this way by a brother Muslim.

The beardmen even get to Shah, rousted from his bed to pray by the roving religious goons. Near the front, or when we take pictures, Shah is absolutely worthless now, almost addled with paranoia and rumors, marked by lack of beard and our mandatory Taliban translator who whispers against him.

Kabul, city of the dead, where the beggar woman puts her small children in the middle of the road, saying, in effect, alms or death, as cars mindlessly speed by.

Back in Peshawar, there are almost daily meetings to soothe the paranoia of Shahid, so he can allay the paranoia of his contacts, who still can't comprehend why we don't just buy one. And eeriest of all, Pakistan and Afghanistan, even the Taliban -- to me now, it all begins to make a kind of lurid sense. Swift justice, because, as they themselves like to say, the people are wild and lawless and fantastic. Weapons, because weapons permeate the culture, as they have for centuries. And really, is it that much crazier than America's gun culture?

I'll never forget Shahid's expression when I asked how it felt, selling such things. He stopped and smiled with acute discomfort, not from guilt but from embarrassment at a question so obvious -- obvious because money is all the answer necessary, and at last the only question that really matters.

You probably want to know how it all came out. Or maybe you do know, and always did. I wish I'd had that luxury. Anyhow, we got stung. Stung on our professional vanity. So kick me. Hard. But know that she's still out there, Stinger in her waterproof case, with the super argon batteries. Stinger, I almost knew you, and now I do, sort of, with your voodoo tingle. Stinger, whom I always think of now when my flight is boarding. Stinger, as we belly flop off the runway, off in that awful, whoopsidaisy second as we flounder up, 200 souls, and the wheels go bump.

Bruce Duffy is an American journalist and novelist.

This article originally appeared in LIFE magazine.


STINGER STATS

With one shoulder-fired missile a soldier can bring down a jet. How the weapon measures up:

Length: 1 .5 meters
Diameter: 7 cm
Weight: 10.4 kilograms
Range: 4 km
Number made: 40,000-plus
Price: $38,000
Street value: $50,000-$175,000
 

Sources: Hughes Missile Systems Co.; LIFE magazine


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