WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration has been unable to recover more than 100 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles that the U.S. provided to Afghan guerrillas despite appealing to their leaders and offering cash rewards if fighters turn in their weapons, according to a senior administration official.
Further, some of the potent shoulder-fired missiles, which were used to shoot down Soviet aircraft and turn the Afghan war in the rebels' favor, might have been sold to hostile countries or radical groups that could use them to attack commercial aircraft, the official said yesterday.
"We're worried about them, because they are a very dangerous weapon," said the official, who asked anonymity. Never before have so many of the U.S.-made Stingers been unaccounted for.
The official said the administration has little leverage at present to retrieve the weapons, which had been provided covertly to the rebels since the mid-1980s.
The Bush administration has been asking Afghan guerrilla leaders to return any unused Stingers since early this year, the official said, but he called it an "uphill effort." He said he knew of no returns.
The missing Stingers have been one of the touchiest issues for U.S. policymakers since the fall of the former Soviet-backed Afghan government last month.
It is doubtful that the shaky new rebel-led government even has the ability at this point to comply with the American request.
Afghan experts in this country believe that a significant number of the missiles might have been stockpiled by the forces of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the most fundamentalistic of the Islamic rebels, who has turned his forces against the new government.
It is possible that the U.S. eventually will try to obtain an accounting for the weapons as part of a program to provide U.S. aid to help the rebel-led government begin the reconstruction of the war-ravaged nation. But Afghan expert Thomas Gouttierre, dean of international studies at the University of Nebraska, doubts that the U.S. can pressure the Afghans into complying.
"These people for 15 years were not made to cower in the face of Soviet firepower, so it is very unlikely that any words from any government will encourage them to submit. I think they will want to be partners, and in that form will be more likely to work with the United States to get these things back," he said.
The danger that Stingers would fall into the wrong hands has been a concern ever since the Reagan administration began covertly providing them to the anti-communist Afghan rebels.
As a precaution, the number of Stingers was limited.