Help defend the `front-line states'

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IN his recent speech on South Africa, President Ronald Reagan came down firmly against imposing economic sanctions, because of the hardships they would cause for black South Africans and for the surrounding ``front-line states.'' Not only did the President back off from endorsing mandatory sanctions, he decided against a range of economic -- and military -- options reportedly prepared for him by an expert panel on South Africa, a high-level group appointed in April to take a fresh look at United States policy in southern Africa. American diplomats in Pretoria confirm that in response to the recent South African military raids into Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana, the US had considered taking steps to actively promote the military security of these front-line states threatened by apartheid's army. A move to provide military equipment and training to the moderate, Western-leaning southern African states facing the white-ruled republic would bolster the flagging American position in the region and help encourage regional security. These most recent military forays by Pretoria against its black-ruled neighbors to the north underscore a troubling side effect of South Africa's increasing domestic turmoil. Its growing internal unrest has triggered a much more belligerent foreign policy in the surrounding region. Commando teams and warplanes from South Africa have raided each of its neighbors in the last year, and Pretoria continues to arm a collection of rebel groups, including Dr. Jonas Savimbi's UNITA fighters in Angola, which have wreaked havoc on several of the front-line states. The comparatively vast arsenal of military power available to Pretoria, and the demonstrated willingness to use it indiscriminately in the region despite Western criticism, pose a serious challenge for the US.

While it is unclear how South Africa's attacks will influence the military effectiveness of the African National Congress (ANC), the stated target of the South Africans, the raids served to demonstrate the vulnerability of the front-line states. More important for America, the raids reinforced the predominant belief in black Africa that the US has favored South Africa in its regional diplomacy. Quite apart from Pretoria's using the US raid on Libya as a rationale for attacks on ANC ``terrorists,'' the recent decision by the Reagan administration to covertly equip UNITA with hand-held surface-to- air Stinger missiles was widely interpreted as an endorsement of South Africa's policy of destabilization. Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker's policy of ``constructive engagement'' was originally designed to set up the US as an ``honest broker'' in southern Africa, promoting dialogue and negotiation between the various actors in the region. Since the US moved to provide military support for UNITA, a group long championed by South Africa, the balance has shifted in the eyes of many toward Pretoria and away from the front-line states.

This situation can be partially redressed by a concerted US effort to help improve the defensive military capabilities of the moderate front-line states, including Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, and perhaps Mozambique. A military assistance plan would build on US economic and relief programs already in place in each of these countries. This need not be an expensive or controversial program to introduce sophisticated weaponry into the region, like the proposed arms sale to Saudi Arabia, but might rather be a modest program to provide American military personnel to help train the various front-line armies. There is an excellent precedent for this. Britain helped shape Robert Mugabe's guerrilla forces into a modern conventional army in Zimbabwe and has recently stepped up assistance for Mozambique's ragtag army in its desperate battle with antigovernment Renamo rebels, also supported by South Africa. By joining with Britain to support the front-line states, the US might also undercut Soviet influence in the region by offering an alternative to reliance on the Soviets for military hardware and training. To those who would argue that these measures would only serve to militarize the region, it must be stated that the situation is already militarized in favor of Pretoria.

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Although Mr. Reagan has chosen to hold off on providing military assistance to the front-line states at this juncture, there are powerful reasons that argue in favor of these measures in the long run. At worst, a serious US effort to meet the security concerns of the front-line states would engender a degree of goodwill among southern African leaders and people and demonstrate an evenhanded US involvement in the region. At best, a modest military assistance package for these states would enhance regional security, deter South African aggression, and diminish Soviet standing in southern Africa. As southern Africa enters a period of tumult and change, the US should not restrict its attention and diplomacy exclusively to South Africa. It should adopt a more comprehensive strategy for the region as a whole, including a commitment to help defend the front-line states.

Kurt M. Campbell is a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

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