Ex-spies ponder N. Korean missile sale to Taliban

CIA-supplied Stinger missiles proved to be a game-changer for mujaheddinAccording to one of the intelligence reports obtained by WikiLeaks, one of the Afghan insurgency’s most powerful figures, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, traveled to North Korea in 2005 with a top aide to Osama bin Laden and purchased ground-to-air missiles.

Then, about 18 months later, according to another WikiLeaks-published report, an American CH-47 Chinook helicopter was downed by a missile “shortly after crossing over the Helmand River.” Wikileaks also cited a few other instances of missile-targeted choppers.

But that was it. Although the WikiLeaks “revelation” produced headlines like CNN’s “Shoulder-fired missiles a threat to US troops in Afghanistan,” the fact is that the Taliban has not been deploying the uniquely devastating weapon in any meaningful numbers — if at all.

The question is why?

“Good question,” said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Middle East specialist in the CIA’s directorate of operations. “I suspect the answer is lingering fear of the American reaction. Al-Qaeda and Hekmatyar would need either official Iranian or Pakistani assistance to pull this off…. Blowing American helicopters and planes out of the air with traceable weaponry is just a different level of provocation.”

“Think back to the Soviet-Afghan War,” Gerecht added, “and the extreme reluctance of the CIA to supply advanced armaments to the mujaheddin. Langley thought it was too provocative. Even after [President] Reagan gave the order for the Stingers, Langley still stalled. Senior officers had to be transferred. A crude parallel might be appropriate.”

As it turned out, Moscow did not respond by attacking bases deep inside Pakistan, as was feared. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine Washington being provoked into attacking North Korea over a shoulder-missile sale to the Taliban when its nuclear weapons haven’t triggered a military response.

Michael Scheuer, a former CIA analyst who once ran the agency’s bin Laden unit, doubts that the Taliban has bought North Korean’s version of the Stinger.

It doesn’t need them, he says.

“They have the weapons from non-North Korean sources, but why bother using them?” he said. “They are beating the U.S. and NATO with a smaller array of weapons than they needed to drive out 40th [Soviet Red] Army, so why use the stockpiled weapons if we are going to beat ourselves?”

Even if the Taliban has them, says Gary Berntsen, a former CIA officer in Afghanistan, the rebels would risk their lives every time they turned them on.

Instead, he said, “They have, and try to use, dishkas,” Russian heavy anti-aircraft machine guns “that can knock down a helicopter with troops.”

As soon as a spy reports the rebels dragging one forward for an attack, he said, NATO forces’ electronic ears and eyes start looking for it.

“It’s a dangerous game of cat and mouse,” said Bertnsen, who has returned to Afghanistan as a military adviser in recent years but is now the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in New York.

Of course, the report of the North Korea visit by Hekmatyar and bin Laden aide Amin al-Haq (or ul-Haq) might well have been false — or even fabricated to implicate Pyongyang, some sources said.

As one former senior CIA officer put it, “You are right to distrust information on this topic, since every serious intelligence organization in the world, and certainly our own, is probably engaged in disinformation as part of a general psy-ops program.”

Hekmetyar, he pointed out, could “get in touch with the North Koreans without a traceable trip to Pyongyang, like by sending an emissary to [their] embassy in Islamabad or some other Third World country nearby, including Iran.”

When the first reports of the helicopter shoot-down arrived in 2007, word spread in intelligence circles that the culprit was an Iranian-supplied weapon, one person familiar with the incident recalled. It was a time when hardline elements in the Bush administration were pushing for regime change in Iran, he noted.

A military intelligence officer also theorized the report was fabricated, but by different parties, for a different reason.

“My thoughts are that perhaps the intelligence report might have been provided by a HUMINT [human intelligence] source under the hostile control of either Iran or Pakistan, to deliberately mislead us and turn attention away from them as the providers of such weapon systems and blame the North Koreans.”

The silence of the Taliban missiles, in short, remains a mystery.

Except, perhaps, to U.S. military officials in Kabul, who sound grateful.

“There’s been no recent activity suggesting that these weapons are a threat,” an unidentified U.S. official told CNN, “as attested by the volume of our daily air activity and the causes of aircraft incidents, which we report.”

By Jeff Stein  |  August 10, 2010; 5:27 PM ET

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