Counting `contras'

NOW that the United States government is about to resume aid to Nicaragua's anti-Sandinist ``contras,'' attention is focused on their military size and strength. Reports erupt that they have grown so numerous and strong that suddenly they constitute a serious military challenge to the Sandinistas -- and will be able to overthrow the government in a year or two.

Perhaps.

But the prospect is most unlikely.

The contras have doubtless gained additional recruits and funding in the past year, yet it is doubtful that they have either the size or strength they and their adherents claim. Less than a year ago even their staunch backers agreed that no realistic prospect existed that they could overthrow the government for the next few years.

Most independent assessments of contra strength are that they would still be no match for Nicaragua's 60,000-man standing army, plus its thousands of reservists. As one Latin America expert who recently returned from Nicaragua puts it: The contras ``do not and will not pose a serious threat to the Sandinistas.''

The contras, however, are quite capable of continuing as a military and economic annoyance to the Sandinista regime, with their hit-and-run guerrilla attacks. Their efforts make it extremely difficult for the Nicaraguan government to produce promised improvements in the economy and everyday life.

Yet most Nicaraguans still support their government, despite some growing disgruntlement over countinued poverty, especially in the countryside. The contras have been feeding on the discontent and poverty in the rural north and have gained additional recruits since the last United States aid funding was received 14 months ago; the lure of regular contra payments, however modest, is one inducement. The contras are more numerous and therefore stronger now than 14 months ago. But their claim of having doub led their forces to some 18,000 men is dubious.

Both the contras and their adherents in the US government could gain mileage from such claims. Assertions of greater strength and independent capacity could make it easier for them to raise funds from private sources -- or the US government.

The Reagan administration, which set up the contras through the Central Intelligence Agency, has a stake in their progress. Administration strategy in the admittedly difficult Nicaraguan situation appears to be to provide modest financing to the contras -- which resumes in a few weeks -- and hope that somehow their continued pressure will undermine the Sandinista regime.

For the contras to be viewed as an independently viable group, despite a US funding hiatus, would strengthen their legitimacy and appear to support the wisdom of the US policy. And it keeps Uncle Sam's hand in the game, as Washington waits to see the Nicaraguan outcome.

That's just the problem, from the Nicaraguans' perspective. They're too familiar with Uncle Sam's hand having controlled past Nicaraguan governments to trust much of anything the United States is involved in now -- including the contras.

The contras aren't the answer to Nicaragua's problems, any more than the Marxist-led Sandinista government is. Guerrilla war isn't the solution: Surely the US administration can come up with a better long-range policy. ----30--{et

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