THE United States must not let Mozambique slide further into chaos. Despite the great weakness of its economy and government, and despite the Marxist leanings of its leaders, helping Mozambique preserve its endangered independence and shore up its faltering economy will serve US interests well. Rent by civil war, Mozambique hardly functions. The government, led by newly selected President Joaquim Chissano, cannot impose its will in large portions of the 1,200-mile-long country. It still controls the cities but has lost an official grip on the rural central and northern areas. There the Mozambique National Resistance Movement (MNR), also called Renamo, has imposed a formidable presence since about 1983. Only one of Mozambique's 11 provinces is comparatively free of MNR insurgents.
Although the Mozambican Army of 30,000 is about double the size of the MNR insurgent forces, it has failed time and again to halt the spread of MNR activity. At times the MNR threatens the outskirts of Maputo, Mozambique's capital. Britain has begun retraining the Mozambican Army, but its modest efforts cannot soon restore the morale or make up for the fundamental and logistical supply problems of the official Army.
The MNR, on the other hand, has for many years been backed financially and materially by South Africa. Although not exclusively a creature of South Africa, the MNR has become a successful agent of Pretoria's destabilization policies. Whether or not South Africa originally wanted to undermine Marxist Mozambique's ability to develop and govern itself, South Africa and the MNR are capable in the near future of overthrowing Mr. Chissano's regime and installing their own.
The military situation is desperate. So is the economy, for the civil war has proved immensely expensive for the government. Defense expenditures absorb 42 percent of the official operating budget. The dangers of the war have prevented farmers from selling cash crops. The national commodity distribution system has decayed. Most roads and the rail networks are targets. Of Mozambique's 14 million people, large numbers, perhaps a third, are estimated to suffer serious food shortages.
The war has interrupted Mozambique's sale of hydro-generated electric power to South Africa from the mighty Cahora Bassa project on the Zambezi River. It has sundered and weakened rail and road transport ties to Malawi and Zimbabwe, and thus deprived Mozambique of important transit and port revenues. Obviously, it has prevented foreign investment and slowed the transition within Mozambique from a state-run socialist to a more broadly privatized, incentive-based economy.
Rational observers might justifiably conclude that South Africa should want a stable, tranquil, growing black neighbor on its northeastern flank. South Africa helps run the port of Maputo and maintains export links by rail through that port. It employs 50,000 Mozambican miners in its deep gold deposits, 15,000 digging coal and 30,000 on farms, and in 1984 forged a peace treaty with Mozambique which resulted in the expulsion of anti-South African guerrillas from Mozambique.
Instead, South Africa has orchestrated an effective insurgency by proxy. Mozambique, already reeling from economic mismanagement, ill-advised agricultural and industrial policies, and a failure to increase or even to maintain traditional exports of shrimps and cashews, tourism, and its income from port revenues, has edged from frailty to collapse. Moreover, South Africa has threatened to repatriate Mozambican laborers. Their remittances of $100 million a year constitute about 60 percent of Mozambique's foreign-exchange earnings.
Moreover, the civil war in Mozambique pits a government against an insurgency with shadowy and invisible leaders and with virtually no political or ideological content. Other than being pro-South African, and vaguely anticommunist, the MNR offers no coherent plan or program for Mozambique. It is a mercenary force, backed but no longer thoroughly controlled from outside, and bent on disruption on as broad a scale as possible.
The force has been successful at disturbance well beyond MNR's and South Africa's original hopes. The weakness of the government could lead to an MNR (and therefore a South African) assumption of state power within 12 months.
The US can no longer restrain South Africa easily. But it can try. The new Congress, with or without executive leadership, could seek appropriate funding to shore up Mozambican defenses, bolster the economy, and assist Western Europe in its efforts to restore enduring transport links between Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The US can lean on Malawi, which aids the MNR.
Most of all, as Mozambique under President Chissano seeks to survive, it must receive help. The Soviets will not provide an answer; but if the US continues to turn a mostly deaf ear, Chissano may have little choice.
Letting matters take their course, and visiting prolonged civil disturbance on the people of Mozambique, only plays into South African hands and undercuts our newly focused antagonism to apartheid. To assist an MNR victory by doing little or nothing serves neither our interests nor the interests of the people of Mozambique. It actually helps only white South Africa.
Robert I. Rotberg is a professor of political science and history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.