Despite the energetic and well-meaning American diplomacy, the Namibian problem is no closer to a solution than it was a year or even two years ago. Indeed, there is much less progress there than meets the public eye. The Cuban part of the conundrum remains as complex as before, the South Africans have increased rather than lessened their control of the territory and its environs, the war goes on, and within the territory there is much ado politically about little.
More than a year ago, the United States publicly linked a South African transfer of control in Namibia to the withdrawal of the 20,000 to 30,000 Cubans who have given crucial military and technical support to the ruling Movement for the Popular Liberation of Angola (MPLA) party in Angola. The MPLA government wants the Cubans to go but, as desirous of such an exodus as most of the Angolan leadership may be, there is the nagging problem of continuing civil war.
Two-fifths or more of Angola has long been dominated by the insurgent forces of the Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). With large-scale South African financial, logistical, and military support, UNITA has become a formidable foe for the regular army of Angola. Without the inter-position of soldiers from Cuba, UNITA could well threaten Angola's capital and the government's grip on the northern half of the country.
At the very least, the presence of trained Cubans prevents a massive turning of the UNITA insurgent machine directly on the army of Angola. Until UNITA's strength is neutralized, militarily or politically, or its sources of external assistance are definitely denied for a substantial period of time, the government of Angola can hardly be expected to send the Cubans home.
If the Cubans stay, so will the South Africans. Constructive engagement, the code word for the Reagan administration's policy of friendship with and gentle persuasion of South Africa on this and other issues, has hardly diminished South African control of all aspects of Namibian life. Moreover, in the two and a half years since constructive engagement began, South Africa has bolstered UNITA and itself moved massively into southern Angola. It has weakened the control of the government of Angola, and of the Cubans in the region, as well as effectively pushing northward the guerrillas of the Southwest Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) who since 1966 have been attempting to free Namibia by force.
In July and August there was little evidence in Namibia itself that the South Africans were either ready or anxious to withdraw from the territory. The grip of the military on both sides of Namibia's northern border was stronger than ever. At that level, there was a paradoxical hope that the Cubans would stay.
Politically, within the territory, Dr. Willie van Niekerk, the new South African administrator-general, was attempting to fashion a local, ''legitimate'' option to the undevised process for eventually transferring power from South African to an indigenously elected constituent assembly. Despite the opposition of constructive engagement, he proclaimed a territorial council composed of representatives of most if not quite all of the many internal political tendencies.
Dr. van Niekerk wants the council to devise recommendations about Namibia's future which could be put to a national referendum and thereafter substitute for the officially agreed upon formula embodied in Security Council Resolution 435. But, as ingenious as this attempt to develop a new, local initiative may be, very few of the political parties of Namibia - left, center, and right - are prepared (for purely tactical reasons) to serve in such a nominated body.
The Namibian political parties, many times burned by these kinds of co-optive exercises, are twice shy. Some interim agreement may emerge, but, if it does, it will come out of the Namibian Forum, a new gathering sponsored by the ''middle'' groups on the local political spectrum. They seek the real responsibility and substantive power that they fear Dr. van Niekerk will not share. In turn, he needs them to lend credibility to an internal rule that is otherwise shallow and an unattractive alternative to the appeal of SWAPO.
The West, particularly the US, wants urgently to solve the Namibian question. Local businessmen also want an end to debate for commercial reasons. SWAPO naturally wants to come to power. But South Africa fears a SWAPO victory, cannot develop a realistic internal alternative, does not wish to contemplate much change because of the possible impact on domestic white politics in South Africa itself, is in the military ascendancy, and continues to benefit from, rather than be cajoled or coerced by, constructive engagement. Even if the Cubans go, or until there is a new American policy, and perhaps not even then, South Africa intends to hold on to Namibia.