In the 7 years since they invaded Afghanistan, Soviet forces have relied heavily upon air superiority to gain an edge over the Afghan resistance (mujahideen). But in recent months, United States-supplied anti-aircraft missiles have boosted the mujahideen's ability to fight back.
Early last week, Soviet tanks and artillery began to pull out from Jaji in southern Afghanistan, after a 10-day bid to seal the area's border with Pakistan. The mujahideen shot down six Soviet aircraft, including a transport helicopter, in the fighting.
Successful use of the American-made Stinger missiles largely contributed to the mujahideen effort.
The shoulder-held, heat-seeking missiles are a recent development in the Afghan conflict. The first missiles arrived in mujahideen hands last October and, so far, up to 120 Stingers have reportedly been delivered. Selected mujahideen receive two weeks of training in Pakistan. Mujahideen sources claim an 80 percent success rate for the weapon.
In last week's fighting, Soviet tanks, unsuited to Jaji's mountainous terrain, were forced to remain in vulnerable lowland positions without air cover. The mujahideen were in concealed mountain bases. Soviet air reconnaisance missions were thwarted throughout the offensive by the presence of Stingers, which ruled out the use of helicopters and forced jets to fly too high and fast to gain an accurate picture of mujahideen positions. Consequently, the Soviets were forced to rely upon ``blind'' blanket shelling.
Stingers do not, however, entirely negate Soviet air power. The heat-seeking device is easily fooled by flares. While Stingers have a range of two kilometers (1.24 miles), jets may drop bombs from higher up with much less risk, though with significantly less accuracy.
Although Stingers have been deployed in several areas, notably on the southern border of Afghanistan, there have been some exceptions. Ahmed Shah Massoud of the Panjshair region, for example, regarded as one of the most effective mujahideen commanders inside Afghanistan, has received no Stingers.
This could be explained by the fact that the Stingers are distributed via Pakistan, which is eager to see them used to protect its border from Afghan air transgressions. Commanders deep inside Afghanistan have, therefore, missed out on the weapons.
Mujahideen spokesmen are cagey about the Stingers. Some groups refuse to admit that they are being used at all. One party spokesman referred to increased Soviet air losses as ``a miracle of Islam.''
Those who do admit to possessing the weapon say that the numbers received are insufficient to prove conclusive to the conflict. And aircraft aren't the only advantage the Soviets have over the mujahideen. For instance, during the Jaji push, the Soviets used ``scatter bombs,'' mortar bombs containing hundreds of timed explosive devices.
Although Stingers may not in themselves force the Soviets out of Afghanistan, they have nevertheless had a significant impact on the war.
Some observers believe that the loss of large numbers of aircraft has contributed to Soviet desires for a speedy political solution. It has certainly give the mujahideen a much needed boost in a war that seemed destined to grind on.