PRESIDENT Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz are contemplating covert aid to UNITA, the guerrilla movement that battles the government for control of Angola. Congress is considering $27 million or more of overt assistance to UNITA. Both initiatives dangerously undermine the interests of the United States in Angola and the entire southern African region. Insurgents of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, or UNITA, have been battling the Angolan Army since the mid-1970s and now dominate about 40 percent of the country. Since 1979 they have been backed mainly by South Africa, and also by Zaire, Morocco, and some Arab states. South African air cover, logistical and refueling support, and, at times, direct military intervention have been critical in the growth of UNITA as a formidable fighting machine.
The Soviet Union and Cuba helped the present government of Angola assume power in 1976. Their material and technical support for Angola's Army and Air Force prevents a UNITA conquest of the country; earlier this year a Soviet- and Cuban-backed Angolan offensive almost succeeded in destroying UNITA's capital. Since then a Soviet-supplied arms buildup in Angola has continued, and another assault on UNITA is predicted.
The congressional sponsors of overt aid may believe that giving funds to UNITA would be an anti-Marxist, anti-Cuban act; the Reagan administration believes the same and equates the cause of UNITA with the free Afghanistan movement. In any case, crucial questions can be asked about backing UNITA.
Support for UNITA is support for South Africa. To give aid and comfort to a South African surrogate at precisely the moment that the US (and its major banks and industries) is attempting to persuade that embattled white power to dismantle apartheid makes no sense. Doing so undoes any good that is beginning to flow from the Reagan administration's gradual deemphasis on the now discredited policy of constructive engagement.
Assisting UNITA may appear to have global foreign policy benefits: It shows the USSR that we can help the enemies of its clients. But, and the but is big, helping UNITA escalates regional conflict unnecessarily. The Soviets want the Angolan Marxist government to remain in power and remain steadfastly Marxist, against the African trend. Helping UNITA makes the Angolan government more dependent upon Soviet (and Cuban) backing. Helping UNITA hardly rewards those in the Angolan gove rnment who have tried to turn to the West and have welcomed better relations with the US.
If outsiders wish to entrench the Cubans in Angola, then they should advocate aid to UNITA. Indeed, for at least six years Cuban troops have played a critical role in bolstering the government of Angola's grip on the country and in preventing UNITA (backed by South Africa) from threatening its capital and other crucial centers.
Furthermore, giving assistance to UNITA would prevent any internationally acceptable settlement in Namibia. Since 1977, the US and the West have been struggling to persuade, and to give incentives to, South Africa to unleash its hold on the one-time League of Nations mandate. Since 1982, the US and South Africa have agreed that Namibia could move to independence only when the Cubans leave Angola. Although the government of Angola is prepared to watch the Cubans go, it will do so only when UNITA is weak or weakened, not when it is being strengthened by the US in cooperation with South Africa.
Curiously, the levels of aid to UNITA now being contemplated in Washington would hardly be crucial to UNITA's existence or power. Whereas the US is the principal supporter of Afghan freedom fighters and anti-Sandinistas in Nicaragua, in southern Africa UNITA is South Africa's proxy. The destabilization of Angola is but a part of South Africa's policy of keeping the southern African region crippled and under its thumb. The US is protesting with new vigor South Africa's attacks on Botswana, Mozambique, a nd Angola. Simultaneously to criticize and then to align ourselves with South Africa in hammering the region hardly helps enhance regional peace and development. Nor will it convince whites or blacks in South Africa that the US truly intends to work for serious change within that troubled country.
Neither covert nor overt aid to UNITA is in the self-interest of the US. Nor does it even make sense for rabid anti-Cubans in Miami, or for those who believe attacking the Soviets is the best defense against militant Marxism. The end of Soviet influence in Angola and in the region depends on diminishing the power and spread of apartheid, not the reverse.
Robert I. Rotberg is a professor of political science and history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.