Arming Afghans: a tortuous task. Many US arms are siphoned off along mazelike route
IT is a miserable, gloomy place of buttes and sand, inhabited for hundreds of years by only the most hearty of smugglers. Just beyond Chagai, a town on the Baluchistan-Afghan frontier, 20 men converged from all directions late last month to take possession of a cache of recoilless rifles, grenades, and mines that had crossed three continents over 18 days.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Originating in West Virginia, then flown to West Germany and shipped to the Makran Coast of Baluchistan from nearby Oman, the 10 steel boxes were part of a burgeoning American program of covert support to Afghan mujahideen, or resistance fighters. Budgeted at $250 million for the current fiscal year, it is the Central Intelligence Agency's largest operation since Vietnam years.
But this consignment was different from the vast majority of the thousands of containers of United States aid to the mujahideen since Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan in December 1979.
Amid growing accusations in the US Congress and from the mujahideen themselves that sizable amounts of the covert shipments were being siphoned off, this consignment was bypassing the traditional route. Instead of going through the Pakistani authorities and the mujahideen's political leaders in the Northwest Frontier Province, it was being sent directly to a guerrilla leader inside Afghanistan.
Five lieutenants of the Panjshair Valley guerrilla commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud, transferred the boxes into a commandeered Soviet Army truck. Then, under cover of darkness, the truck rattled off toward the mountains and, beyond them, the Afghan capital of Kabul.
Across Pakistan in Peshawar, the hot and dusty capital of the Northwest Frontier Province, Afghan resistance leaders continually quarrel. They accuse each other, the Pakistani government, and the CIA of responsibility for what they say is an appreciable gap between what Washington claims it is sending and what is reaching fighters inside Afghanistan.
The fundamentalists accuse the mujahideen moderates and the moderates accuse the fundamentalists -- the Afghan ``jamaati'' fighters and the ``jamaatis'' of Pakistan -- of siphoning off huge covert shipments, then either stockpiling them or selling them for personal gain.
One resistance leader estimated that only 20 percent of US covert aid was actually reaching Afghanistan. US intelligence sources claimed the figure is 70 percent.
It is just such discrepancies in figures, combined with the serious control problems that have accompanied the mushrooming of US covert aid to Afghanistan, that have led the Reagan administration to order assessments of the program's ``cost effectiveness.'' Scores of CIA operatives have been sent into the underground bazaars of the Frontier Province, notebooks and calculators in hand, to find out what happens to US-supplied arms.
In Peshawar, said to be populated only by mujahideen, drug-dealers, journalists, and spies, an AK-47 rifle now sells in the teeming underground bazaar for 15,000 rupees (about $1,000), down from 1982 prices by nearly 50 percent. The ones I saw had Egyptian markings -- as those meant for Afghanistan have -- and traders conceded readily that much of their merchandise was purchased from the Peshawar-based mujahideen.
Muhammad Bashir, a guerrilla commander from Afghanistan's Herat District, was asked if his forces were receiving what they needed in US aid. Mr. Bashir was at Peshawar's UN hospital after being wounded.
He was bitter and laconic, charging that his men had gone through a harsh winter without proper clothing or boots. He said they had received only a ``scattering'' of mines and communications equipment, and were incredulous at reports that an improved version of the shoulder-fired SAM-7 missile, antitank rockets, and antiaircraft guns were being sent in through the CIA ``pipeline.'' He claimed that his group, the fundamentalist Hizbi Islami, which is headed by Hekmatyar Gulbuddin and headquartered in Peshawar, had seen no trace of such sophisticated weapons inside Afghanistan.