The contras: a sorry sight despite 4 years of US help

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This has turned into the week in world affairs that took Honduran troops, ferried to the fighting front in United States Army helicopters, to rescue the main force of the Nicaraguan contra rebels from Nicaraguan troops. So low has the contras' fighting ability fallen that they could not defend themselves in their base camps some 10 miles inside the Honduran border. For several months now, the Sandinistas have been able to keep the contras hemmed into their camps, preventing the contras from taking offensive action inside Nicaragua itself.

The Reagan administration has been feeding, arming, and training the contras both overtly and covertly for more than four years. In theory, the time has long since passed when the contras should have been able to move inside Nicaragua and set up a permanent base from which they could hope to overthrow the Sandinista government, as Fidel Castro once did to the Batista regime in Cuba.

But since last March, the main fighting between the contras and the Sandinistas has been largely on the Honduran side of the border with the Sandinistas substantially on the offensive.

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Last weekend was not the first time that Washington has had to come to the rescue of the contras. In March, the Sandinistas made a serious attack on the contra camps in southern Honduras. The Sandinista troops involved in the attack were estimated at between 800 and 1,500. While there are supposed to be at least 7,000 contras in Honduras, the Reagan administration nevertheless pressed the Honduran government to send its own troops into the area, which it did - reluctantly.

This time, there is as yet no reliable estimate of the strength of the Sandinista forces in the recent fighting, in an area now called ``New Nicaragua,'' from the number of Nicaraguan refugees and contras in the area. The number of Honduran troops ferried in US helicopters in last weekend's rescue operation is estimated at 1,200.

By this weekend, the Sandinistas are expected to have largely withdrawn from Las Vegas Salient, an area of Honduras jutting into Nicaragua, where the skirmishing has been going on.

The two governments - Honduran and Nicaraguan - have engaged in lively conversations with each other.

One result is that the Honduran government has pressed the Reagan administration to get the contras out of Honduras. The Hondurans say they have an absolute promise that this will be done by April 1987 at the latest.

US officials in Honduras and Washington make it sound more like a desirable goal than a hard promise. However, there seems to be at least a tentative schedule for moving the contras out of Honduras and into Nicaragua.

There is a reason for selecting April as the target date.

In February, the contras are scheduled to receive the second installment of the $100 million in military and humanitarian aid that the US Congress approved in October.

This would, in theory, give the contras three months in which to try to fight their way inside Nicaragua and let the Hondurans get back to a life of neutrality.

But the contra operation is already well behind schedule. As usual in such operations, the planning of the counterrevolutionary operation is based on the assumption that the population inside the target country is yearning for liberation and will rise at the appropriate moment to join in the battle against their local oppressers.

This was the expectation in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. The rising up never happened.

This has been the expectation for Nicaragua. In four years of opportunities the rising has not happened. The contras have made many excursions into the country. But they have never been able to find enough local popular support to make it possible for them to stay there.

Meanwhile, the Sandinista Army has grown steadily in numbers, weaponry, and military skill. They are definitely on the offensive now.

During most of the time since the tide of battle turned in favor of the Sandinistas in March, the Honduran government of President Jos'e Azcona Hoyo has tried to ignore the fact that Nicaraguan soldiers are operating inside Honduran territory.

Honduras moved troops into the border region last March only after urging by the US government. This last weekend, it was US action which spurred Honduras to allow some of its troops to be sent toward the border into Nicaragua. But this did not lead to serious fighting between Honduran and Nicaraguan troops.

The Nicaraguans more or less backed away.

Honduran tolerance for Nicaraguan soldiers inside Honduras is based on international law and custom. It is the legal responsibility of any government to prevent hostile action being launched from within its borders against any other country.

The Hondurans, who recognize the Nicaraguan government of Daniel Ortega Saavedra, should under international law and custom, prevent the contras operating against Nicaragua from Honduran bases.

It is generally recognized that if and when a government is incapable of preventing damage being done another country from inside its own borders then the other country is entitled to intrude against its enemy.

In 1916, a Mexican guerrilla, usually called a ``bandit'' at the time, named Francisco Villa raided the US border town of El Paso.

President Woodrow Wilson ordered a US military expedition into Mexico in pursuit of Francisco Villa.

Villa was never caught, but his raids across the border did cease.

Meanwhile, John J. Pershing, who commanded the cavalry column during its sortie into Mexico, achieved fame and campaign experience. It led to his appointment to command US forces in France in World War II.

A current example is the frequent presence of Israeli troops in southern Lebanon. This is based on the fact that the government of Lebanon is, in fact, incapable of preventing the Palestine Liberation Organization and other anti-Israeli groups from mounting military operations against Israel from inside Lebanon.

Honduras is now trying to do what it should under international law: prevent further contra action from its own territory against Nicaragua. But all it can do is urge the US to get the contras out. It can do no more without risking its large US subsidy, which includes arms and military training.

It remains to be seen whether the contras will ever leave Honduras for Nicaragua. The support they will receive from the US is in doubt now because of recent disclosures related to the US-Iran arms dealings. Expert observers are of the opinion that the time has long since gone when the Nicaraguan contras could hope to achieve a revolution on their own without the help of large US forces in combat.

The chances are that we are close now to the collapse of the contra operation.

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