The recent appeal by Chad guerrilla leader Hissen Habre for American arms to fight Libyan troops in his country presents the Reagan administration with a dilemma.
It is one that is likely to underscore once more the limitations of viewing an inherently local struggle within the context of East-West confrontation.
Mr. Habre's distrust of Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi closely parallels that of the Reagan administration. But African and Western analysts familiar with Chad say that providing the former defense minister with the military aid needed to take on the Soviet-equipped Libyans is likely to reignite the civil war that ended only last December.
Most experts, some in Chad, others with long experience there, dismiss Mr. Habre's warning that the estimated 7,000 Libyans in Chad are a Soviet "Trojan horse" in central Africa. They see it as a relatively recent chord struck to attract the anticommunist chorus currently playing in Washington.
Pointing to the inconclusive French intervention in Chad over the last 15 years, analysts argue that the roots of the conflict --local ones.
Aside from the danger of rupturing a still fragile peace in Chad, United States backing for the Habre faction carries the additional danger of angering Nigeria, a major oil supplier. For a variety of historical and political reasons, the Nigerians view Mr. Habre as a power-hungry rebel, and as a French pawn in the long rivalry between Lagos and Paris for influence in the region.
There is no indication yet that the US will meet Mr. Habre's request. But US allies, such as Egypt, Sudan, and most likely France, are supplying him with weapons. One military analyst suggests that Washington would not protest if US arms now being replaced by more modern ones in Egypt and Sudan ended up in the guerrillas' hands.
Moreover, the US State Department made a point in mid-March, only days after the Habre request, of disclosing intelligence information pointing to Soviet technicians aiding the Libyans in Chad.
The high profile accorded a development that had received wide international publicity weeks earlier, and which had been assumed for months by US and Western military analysts in the region, led some observers to suggest that the State Department was preparing the ground for some sort of aid.
"Our reading is that the people getting heard in Washington right now would like to take the Libyans on," said an executive of a major US oil firm on a recent visit.
But rather than dealing a blow to the ambitions of Colonel Qaddafi, sources in Chad argue, arms to the Habre faction are likely to give the Libyans an excuse to further entrench themselves.
"We'd like the Libyans to get out, too, but the French [by arming Habre] are giving them the best reason in the world to stay," complained a Chad government journalist last month in Ndjamena, echoing a view heard often during a two-day visit there.
A continuing riddle of the Chad situation is the French role, and the perception of it by Chadians. Though constantly accused of backing Habre during the latest fighting, France actually found itself on the same side as Libya, thanks to its ties to southern leader Wadal Abdel Kader Kamougue.
As late as November, French intelligence officers in northern Cameroon were boasting of their close ties to the Libyan-backed coalition, and journalists were told to channel requests for interviews with President Goukhouni Woddei through them.
Reliable sources in the country claim the French are still aiding Kamougue's southern faction, as well as providing arms to Habre, the southerners' avowed enemy. The result has been a deepening suspicion among Chadians of French motives.
"We have a certain hatred for the French; I won't hide it from you," a police commissioner in Lere, a frontier town in the south, said in February.
But dislike of Mr. Habre far outdistances either the widespread antipathy for the French or the increasing dislike for the Libyans. The reasons are a complex blend of religious, tribal, and personal animosities, but the belief, particularly among the southern tribes, is that Mr. Habre is an evil man.
"He could have been president of the country, except for things like this," a young corporal from the south said as he led this correspondent along the bank of the Chari River last month.
"This" was a stretch of dry riverbed with the skeletons of at least 100 men, most with cheap red or blue cord still binding hands and feet. All had been shot.
The site was only 200 meters from Mr. Habre's old headquarters in the African quarter of Ndjamena.
Disclosure of the killings of prisoners destroyed whatever remained of the oft-expressed Western hope that Habre and Kamougue might join forces, based on their mutual opposition to the Libyans, to expel Qaddafi's troops from Chad.