Washington — The Soviet Union is trying to strengthen one of its military footholds in Africa. Soviet personnel in Angola are leading a massive military buildup against United States-backed rebel forces, according to top US officials.
Round-the-clock deliveries on hundreds of military planes are carrying military equipment and Cuban and Angolan troops to bases near the edge of rebel-held territory in southeastern Angola, the officials say.
A major offensive is expected against the rebel forces - known as the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) - when the dry season begins in a few weeks.
A senior US official says it looks as if the Soviet-supplied Cuban and Angolan troops ``will go for military victory over [rebel leader Jonas] Savimbi.'' Discussions are under way in the US government as to the appropriate US response to the buildup, this official said.
A key US official doubts that the expected offensive will defeat Mr. Savimbi's forces. The rebels can give up territory, disperse into smaller units, then regroup later, according to both this official and a top UNITA official here.
The Soviet-led military buildup has received little attention here. But it was described to the Monitor by a senior administration official and confirmed by two other administration officials and a top UNITA official here.
US and UNITA officials expect that a slow, methodical push by Soviet-supplied Cuban and Angolan troops into rebel-held territory will begin soon.
If the Soviets, Cubans, and Angolans were to defeat Savimbi forces, this could free Angola to offer support for the independence struggle of their southern neighbor, Namibia (South-West Africa), says one nongovernment analyst here.
Since the mid-1960s, South Africa has administered Namibia in defiance of UN resolutions, and has insisted that Soviet and Cuban withdrawal from Angola is a prerequisite to independence for Namibia. The yet-unsuccessful Reagan administration policy in the region has been to try to broker an accord trading a Cuban-Soviet withdrawal from Angola for a South Africa withdrawal from Namibia.
If Savimbi were to appear to be losing, this might make President Reagan feel obliged to respond with further covert military assistance, the nongovernment analyst suggested. Last year, the US Congress voted to supply UNITA with $15 million in covert military support. A situation could develop where Mr. Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev were responding to each other's moves in the Angolan conflict, the analyst added.
But Carol Lancaster, director of the African Studies Program at Georgetown University, questions Soviet interest in pushing hard now in Angola. Such a push could ``strengthen the hand of [US] conservatives and make arms control more difficult,'' she said.
In the face of the current Soviet-led military buildup, sources say, one might expect the UNITA forces to be calling publicly for more assistance, especially from the US. And one could equally expect to hear concerns expressed from South Africa, which provided substantial air strikes for UNITA in the face of a major Soviet-led offensive in 1985.
But both parties have been relatively quiet.
A spokesman for the South African Embassy here said he had no information about a buildup.
But ``the South Africans have been very upset about the buildup,'' says an academic expert on Angola, who asked not to be named.
UNITA officials have been stepping up calls for a negotiated settlement, which may indicate concern over the buildup, this expert added. Last week, UNITA announced it was ready to allow the reopening of a key rail transport line from neighboring Zaire.
Although UNITA has made no public calls for more assistance, Charles Ebinger, a specialist on Angola at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, says that the UNITA people have privately been asking the US Central Intelligence Agency for more assistance. ``They [UNITA officials] are trying to make it [the military buildup] more than it may be.''
Still, Mr. Ebinger notes, ``There appears to be a fairly massive buildup.... I think it's a serious buildup to put Savimbi on the rout,'' though he says it won't defeat UNITA.
``We can handle it,'' says Tito Chingunji, UNITA secretary for foreign affairs of the expected offensive.
The buildup may amount to Soviet replacement of materials lost in previous offensives, he said. One tactic UNITA has used in face of the buildup is to increase their rebel strikes in the northern part of Angola. This serves to draw off some of the Cuban troops now massing in the southeastern corner, according to Mr. Chingunji.
Commenting on US military assistance, he said ``the more we can have the better.'' But he would not respond directly on whether he was asking the US for more military assistance because of the Soviet-led buildup.
UNITA practices the usual guerrilla hit-and-run tactics, but has also developed a territorial base in southeastern Angola. According to Chingunji, there are about 35,000 Cuban, 2,500 Soviet, and 2,500 East German military personnel in Angola. The US estimate on Cuban military personnel in Angola is about 37,000.
Other experts, including Ebinger, suggest that at least several thousand of the Cubans identified by the US military are nonmilitary personnel.
US officials widely acknowledge the covert military support for UNITA but would not give details. ``I think it's a good bet [the US] has given them Stingers,'' a congressional source said, referring to highly sophisticated US antiaircraft rockets.
The military aid from the US reaches UNITA forces via Zaire, Gabon, the Central African Republic, and South Africa, says Ebinger.
Angola gained its independence from Portugal in 1975, after 14 years of fighting by nationalist Angolan groups. But a civil war broke out after independence, as several factions, once united against the Portuguese, began fighting among themselves.
The current Angolan government is generally described as a ``Marxist'' state. The Soviets have given it an estimated $4 billion worth of assistance in the last decade - at an accelerating rate, says one State Department official.
But the Angolan government is doing some fairly un-Marxist things, according to one academic expert, such as welcoming private investments.
A ``major liberalization'' of the economy is under way, the expert said.