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Posted at 5:27 PM ET, 08/10/2010

Ex-spies ponder N. Korean missile sale to Taliban

By Jeff Stein

CIA-supplied Stinger missiles proved to be a game-changer for mujaheddin rebels fighting the Soviet Red Army in Afghanistan 25 years ago, so why aren’t their sons using shoulder-fired weapons to down NATO helicopters there today?

According 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
Categories:  Intelligence, Military  
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If this is true, and I sure don't trust our government to verify it, so it had better have international proof, then we have no choice but to attack North Korea's missile storage sites, shipping, etc. That DOES NOT mean sending in US troops, unless NK attacks the South or does something utterly insane. And, then, if we do have to have a war, a declaration of war by COngress, followed by the utter devastation of NK AND ANY COUNTRY ALLIED WITH IT INCLUDING CHINA AND INDIA, it's trading partners, *must* follow if they choose to become involved in any way. No nation building, no nothing after, just bomb it back to the stone age and leave.

Posted by: mibrooks27 | August 10, 2010 9:45 PM | Report abuse

..."North Korea has two MILLION MEN facing 28,500 Americans/South Koreans in harm's way!

China controls North Korea, and they need to keep them in line, and if they are supplying arms to the taliban, then we shall put a stop to it, and them."

Posted by: ztcb41 | August 10, 2010 10:50 PM | Report abuse

ztcb41 - At least try and be accurate, okay? First, the South Korean Army, regular troops, is 522,000 active troops as of 2008. Their reserves are another 500,000 at minimum, for a total of 1.22 million. The US has 37,000 troops on the ground. NK has 1.2 million troops total: reserves, inactive reserves, active duty. Most of the NK troops are ill trained and poorly equipped. They were able to muster a total 50,000 troops on the border when they threatened to attack South Korea in 2008.

No serious military observer thinks that North Korea could prevail in an all out war with he South. They would loose. As for China AND INDIA, they supply NK with arms, ammunition, raw materials, etc. The Indian's for money. The Chinese because, if NK falls, they have US troops right on their border.

As for what China wants for Korea, that is anyones bet. We know their long term goal is to kick the US out of their sphere of influence, all of Asia and they might use a war between the Korea's to attempt that. However, our "leaders" have been arming and emboldening China with their treasonous "free trade" policies and that is bound to happen sooner rather than later. (And expect that nest of swine in Washington act all surprised and blather about being shot in the back when it does happen. Ditto for Apple, Dell, IBM, CITI, and all of those multinational corporate boards and executives. This bunch are criminals and every one of them deserves to be hanged for treason.)

Posted by: mibrooks27 | August 10, 2010 11:28 PM | Report abuse

Withdraw the U.S. and S. Korean forces from the border at night. Nuke the north from the border all the way up. End of problem. Use neutron devices.

Posted by: boblusby | August 11, 2010 3:16 AM | Report abuse

One of the things that the wikisleaze leaks prove is that the military leadership has been honest with people about how well the war is going. While they haven't been beating the drums on specific incidents in a manner designed to distort the truth, as was done with the so-called 'collateral murder' propaganda release, the contrast between that type of activity and what the public hears about Af-Pak & Iraq (if it's willing to pay attention) stands out rather clearly.

Posted by: Nymous | August 11, 2010 5:19 AM | Report abuse

So who is supplying the Taliban with weapons in Afghanistan? Guns need bullets and IED's don't grow on trees.

I hope this isn't another proxy war with a third country. If you want to see things the way I do, Afghanistan attacked us on 9/11. This is not Vietnam.

Posted by: RobertCurleyJacobs | August 11, 2010 5:34 AM | Report abuse

This 'intelligence' article doesn't really say anything, does it.

Posted by: ctenwith | August 11, 2010 7:35 AM | Report abuse

mibrooks27: "If this is true, and I sure don't trust our government to verify it, so it had better have international proof, then we have no choice but to attack North Korea's missile storage sites, shipping, etc."

Duh, yeah. And who cares if NK simultaneously smothers Seoul with explosives or launches a sub-based missile on Tokyo. We jus' gotta get even if a copter gets hit. Duh.

NK retaliation would have to be instantaneouos and absolute, since it hasn't the fuel or food for a sustained war, but certainly has the troops, artillery, and missiles to cause 48 hours of hell. Asians would not shrug off 750k dead as "collateral damage" for the sake of Old Glory. Would you let Houston be leveled in the name of some third party dispute over a helicopter shoot-down?

The Taliban could not care less about being "provocative." During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the US always had to worry about Soviet responses at other pressure points. There is nothing the US cannot do to "get even" with the Taliban, unless it is already not doing its darnedest. If the US went "ape," and smeared napalm on an Afghan village to avenge a copter shoot-down, that would probably help the Taliban cause.

The Soviets eventually learned that the war was unwinnable and ran out of money. We have been too thick-headed to figure out that the same is in store for us. Being more violent or more friendly won't help. The same money and manpower might be dedicated to less preposterous dellusions: a ski resort in Death Valley, perhaps.

Posted by: jkoch2 | August 11, 2010 9:02 AM | Report abuse

During the Soviet/Afghan War, Ahmad Shah Massoud was alleged to have sold Stingers to Iran, the USSR and North Korea through their respective embassies in Kabul. Additionally, when in Kabul in 1997, I was told of the above, and of a plan to provide Stingers to Shamil Baseyev, the Chechen Resistance leader. The plan was to shoot down a Soviet aircraft during the May Day celebration and parade in Moscow. It is said that Iran refused to trans-ship the missiles to Baseyev and thereby nixed the plan.

Posted by: afghanhist | August 11, 2010 9:17 AM | Report abuse

If this sale did in fact occur, it would be the straw that broke the camels back! Say Good by to the North Korean military and its leadership!

Posted by: joe100821 | August 11, 2010 10:09 AM | Report abuse

Posted by: mibrooks27 | August 10, 2010 11:28 PM |
"As for China AND INDIA, they supply NK with arms, ammunition, raw materials, etc. The Indian's for money. The Chinese because, if NK falls, they have US troops right on their border.

As for what China wants for Korea, that is anyones bet. We know their long term goal is to kick the US out of their sphere of influence,.."

Interesting comments, If the Chinese would agree to a slow collapse (1-2 yrs) of NK, forcing NK to accept normalization of relations with SK and most importantly accept FOOD AID which would guarantee NK refugees would not flood across China's border, in exchange for U.S. troop withdrawal from all of Korea and SK would not militarize any of NK there could finally be peace in Korea.

Posted by: knjincvc | August 11, 2010 10:35 AM | Report abuse

Like the report states this most likely didn't happen. If you go through the Wikileaks release you will see this is just one report out of 70+ thousand with no further context or follow up. Surprisingly Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is mentioned only a handful of times in the logs.

The level of reliable intelligence on Hekmatyar is extremely questionable. There were reports that he was targeted with a Predator drone in 2002 in a failed assassination attempt by the CIA. If reliable information such as that in the report were available it is quite reasonable to expect that Hekmatyar would no longer be a problem for coalition forces.

The report also claims that Hekmatyar flew from Iran to North Korea, this is possible but lets not forget that Hekmatyar and his organization Hezb-e-Islami were expelled from Iran in early 2002.

Posted by: s0xt3r | August 11, 2010 3:26 PM | Report abuse

How about mentioning the technical challenges in using/maintaining MANPADs? They are unwieldy, require a reasonable level of training, and the batteries are one time use on most. Older Soviet-era MANPADs or Stingers we injected into the area over twenty years ago are unlikely to have been maintained well enough to function today. New DPRK weapons would require training that would be difficult to supply. Iraq was littered with MANPADs yet relatively few were used, I believe, largely because of these kinds of issues.

Posted by: Digger4 | August 17, 2010 5:30 PM | Report abuse

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