The traffic in Stingers

THE ``covert'' United States decision to supply sophisticated Stinger antiaircraft weapons to the rebel forces in Angola and Afghanistan represents a dubious escalation of American involvement in third-world conflicts. Equally unfortunate, the US decision represents a deliberate and unmistakable ratcheting upward of the traffic in world armaments at a time when restraint, not escalation, is called for.

US-built Stingers are heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles that can be fired against an aircraft or helicopter gunship by an individual soldier -- or, it should not be forgotten, terrorist.

Who aims the Stinger is no small matter. Once the weapon is introduced to the world arms arena, there is no certainty that it will remain in the hands of forces friendly to the US; in fact, just the opposite has happened involving far more rudimentary Soviet-made surface-to-air missiles. Captured Soviet SAM-7s have turned up in rebel hands in both Angola and Central America, with the help, in part, of the US.

The American decision to provide Stingers (and the less than zealous effort by the administration to keep that decision secret) must be viewed in a larger setting. It seems hardly surprising, for example, that despite the administration's refusal to confirm or deny reports that the missiles are being sent to the rebels, the leaks about the shipments came from administration supporters. What this suggests is that supplying the missiles -- and in effect letting this be widely known -- represents an effort by conservatives within the White House and Congress to give more visible backing to rebel forces fighting Soviet-backed Marxist regimes. In the case of Angola, that means more open backing for UNITA, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, which for a decade, and with South African support, has been challenging the Marxist regime in Angola. In Afghanistan the insurgents are battling a Marxist regime.

Now hints are coming out of Washington that the administration is considering supplying Stingers to Nicaraguan ``contras'' as part of the administration's $100 million aid request, should Congress approve that package.

By all fair measurements, supplying Stingers would give the US some long-range problems that override meeting the short-term military needs of the rebels. It would take away Washington's ability to be anything but open about its aid for insurgents. In the case of Angola, it is hard to see how the more open support for Jonas Savimbi's UNITA forces will expedite the negotiated regional settlement the administration has sought, including a South African pullout from Namibia. Supplying the weapons puts the US in step with Pretoria in backing Mr. Savimbi. It also creates difficulties for the government of Zaire, the likely conduit for the missiles.

Similarly in Afghanistan, providing the missiles creates problems for Pakistan, the main transit point for weapons to the freedom fighters. And finally, looked at in global terms, the rebels will now presumably be able to fire the US-made weapons directly against Soviet or Soviet-surrogate forces. How could that not be construed as an unfortunate escalation of the global military race?

The US should rethink the Stinger decision.

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