Disputes over Cuban troops stymie Angola-Namibia talks

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Intensive diplomatic efforts are under way to try to jolt free the United States-mediated talks on Angola and Namibia. After substantial progress earlier this year, Cuban and Angolan officials are now talking about an ``impasse.''

The last session, held earlier this month in New York, was not fruitful.

``It won't help to get together again unless everybody is going to be flexible and creative,'' says one participant.

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The US mediators say agreement is still achievable. They have been trying to move the talks forward by Nov. 1, but that now looks less and less likely.

South Africa has agreed to that date for implementing the United Nations independence plan for Namibia. But the commitment was made contingent on reaching agreement on the withdrawal of the estimated 50,000 Cuban troops from Angola. Thus, the current hangup.

Concern is growing in Washington that the talks not lose steam. Well-placed administration sources say that if Nov. 1 passes without agreement or substantial progress, key players inside South Africa might argue that they are off the hook on Namibia. People in both camps might begin to assign blame for the delay.

While some US specialists say South Africa was always hedging on Namibia, there is agreement that the talks have now reached the basic strategic decisions. And that makes the going tough for everyone.

While Angola and Cuba are currently saying they have reached the limits of their flexibility, all parties are testing one another and keeping a sharp eye on their domestic constituencies.

Even the Reagan administration faces domestic pressure. Fifty-one senators wrote President Reagan this week urging that a final solution not neglect the need for national reconciliation in Angola, and that the US not prematurely cut off military aid to the UNITA guerrillas battling the Angolan government.

Current sticking points in the talks revolve around the withdrawal from and redeployment of Cuban troops in Angola. But hanging over these issues is a vital wild card not formally on the bargaining table - national reconciliation in Angola to end the 13-year civil war.

The following summary of where the parties stand on the issues is based on conversations with participants in the talks.

Timetable for Cuban withdrawal. The Cubans and Angolans want 30 months; South Africa has agreed to a US suggestion of 24. Cuba says it needs the time to train Angolan soldiers to assume its soldiers' duties - and to transport its troops home and reintegrate them into society. A slower pullout by Angola's Cuban allies would also give the government extra security against UNITA and South African backsliding on the agreement. Insiders in the talks say that South Africa (and UNITA) can probably live with 30 months, provided the residual number of Cubans is small enough.

Initial withdrawal. The Cubans and Angolans are offering a withdrawal of 2,000 Cuban troops at the time the peace plan goes into effect and an easily reversible redeployment of troops northward as confidence-building measures. The South Africans want a much bigger initial pullout (8,000) and redeployment farther north. Pretoria wants to reassure white Namibians and its own electorate that the agreement is sincere, since all South African troops would leave Namibia in seven months under the UN plan and be replaced by a UN peacekeeping force.

Front-loading. The Cubans oppose taking too many troops out, too quickly. Out of nationalist concern, they don't want to rely on Soviet or other shipping to take their troops home. And they don't want to create the image of retreat by pulling out too quickly. A rapid withdrawal would also interfere with plans to train Angolan units. In addition, if the Angolan civil war went poorly, the Cubans would not want to have a small number of troops left at risk.

For the South Africans, on the other hand, front-loading is immensely important for making the process irreversible. They cite the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan, where half the troops left in the first three months. A front-loaded pullout would help convince South African public opinion that the bargain is good. South Africa has asked for two-thirds of the Cubans to leave in the first year; the Cubans have offered just under one-half.

Redeployment north. This is a crucial issue for the Angolans. The faster the Cubans leave, and the farther north they redeploy, the faster the government will be left alone to fight UNITA. Thus the Angolans and Cuba oppose deep redeployments.

For South Africa, a Cuban redeployment in progressive steps northward seems important to convince their electorate that the ``Cuban threat'' is far removed. South Africa also wants to avoid an Angolan offensive against UNITA, which it aids. Such a move could well generate pressures inside the South African establishment to call off the overall agreement.

National reconciliation. Though not formally on the table, the Angolan civil war is on everybody's mind and could, in the end, scotch the whole accord. From Cuba's perspective, a national-reconciliation process would increase the predictability of its pullout. The Soviets also seem to think it would ease the situation. But neither country is willing to tell its Angolan allies how to do it, nor to push too hard.

The Angolans seem tempted to try one more go at a military offensive against UNITA, so at a minimum they can bargain from a position of strength. In public, Angolan officials still say there can be no negotiations with UNITA, only reintegration for individual members. They also say the UNITA will crumble once outside aid is cut. In private, some government officials now acknowledge that they may need to be more forthcoming on reconciliation.

But that prospect threatens radical change for the current regime. UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi is a powerful figure. UNITA represents ethnic and geographic segments of Angola that have not been fully represented in the current government. That government is based on an elite Marxist-Leninist party, and a centralized system.

UNITA is asking for elections and a more diversified political setup. The government would be facing these challenges in the context of removing the Cuban security blanket, which has helped keep it in power since 1975.

UNITA wants the Cuban troops to leave as fast and early as possible. It wants them gone or moved far north before the dry season next August, when the government would be likely to launch another big offensive. UNITA is also urging the US and black African nations to increase pressure on Angola for reconciliation talks.

Tough issues remain in Angola-Namibia talks

Angola, Cuba, and South Africa are expected to resume talks soon Length of withdrawal: How many months will Cuban troops have to leave Angola? Initial withdrawal: How many Cuban troops must pull out at the time the peace plan goes into effect? Front loading: After initial withdrawal, what percentage of remaining troops must leave in the early stages of the pullout period? Redeployment: Must those troops not leaving early be redeployed away from the Namibian border into northern Angola? National reconciliation: Though not on the table, Angola's civil war with UNITA is a key factor in the players' calculations. It could be the wild card that makes or breaks the talks.

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