Risks with rebels

IT is ironic that, according to recent news reports, the conservative Reagan administration should be seriously considering a general policy of open support for wars of national liberation. The Soviet Union long has followed this policy, and the United States has objected to it. Of course, in supporting insurgent forces against existing third-world regimes, the administration will back only anti-communist liberators. The most obvious difficulty with such a policy is that it once more puts the US in the position of brazenly trying to control other people's history. We decide which governments are legitimate, which should be opposed; which freedom fighters are really fighting for freedom, which are not; which insurgent movements are democratic, which are totalitarian.

The proposed policy underestimates, and gets in the way of, natural processes of evolutionary change that favor us in the long run. It is a primary objective of all third-world leaders to maximize their autonomy and independence. When a Marxist regime is no longer completely dependent upon Soviet support for protection against its internal and external enemies, it typically seeks to balance its Soviet relationship with an opening to the West. That has happened time after time, most recently in Mozambique. The desire for economic development also tends to turn regimes toward the West and Japan. US support for internal opposition, however, perpetuates dependence on the Soviets and makes movement in our direction impossible.

Especially to the extent that US policy is open rather than covert, it increases our commitments and reduces our freedom of maneuver. If the Soviets up the ante, we have little choice but to follow suit.

The purposes of anti-communist insurgents are not necessarily US purposes and our aid to them does not necessarily give us the ability to determine political outcomes. For example, victory by the ``contras'' would not necessarily produce the kind of regime we seek in Nicaragua. The other side of that coin is that we may use others as tools to achieve our goals with little regard for their goals. Often the US objective -- as in Afghanistan and potentially in Kampuchea -- is to harness an enemy regime; the insurgents, however, expect to win. Our aid affects their calculations, making them less willing to compromise, but we are not prepared to provide the kind of aid that might permit them to gain power.

Our objectives can change. We may settle for a compromise outcome or may decide to give up the struggle. We then abandon those who have staked their lives and their futures on our support. The problem is accentuated if our aid is overt and large scale so that we create a substantial dependency relationship as we did with the tribal peoples of Southeast Asia during the Vietnam war.

A supposed advantage of small-scale covert aid is that it is low-cost and low-risk. As we move to ever-larger and more open aid, as we are doing in Afghanistan, we could face new costs and risks. During the Chernenko period, the Soviets made increasingly serious-sounding threats against Pakistan as the sanctuary and pipeline through which US aid passes to the Afghan rebels. While a large-scale Soviet attack on Pakistan is improbable, should it occur we would be involved in a major confrontation.

Why such a policy now? The administration is committed to a foreign policy of initiative and movement, yet everywhere it is faced by stalemate -- in US-Soviet relations, arms control, the Middle East, Central America, our relations with our allies, and in foreign trade policy. Support for third-world insurgencies promises movement at minimum cost and risk. Others take the major risks and pay the principal costs; we reap the potential benefits by harassing or overturning pro-Soviet regimes.

Taking the war to the enemy has an understandable attraction, perhaps, but it could generate many serious problems and dilemmas. It is also likely to confirm the stereotypes that the US is an anti-revolutionary power and a clumsy would-be policeman to the world. Nor is it clear that we are equipped by understanding and experience to be more successful in supporting insurgencies than in aiding counterinsurgencies.

Robert H. Johnson is a visiting fellow at the Overseas Development Council and former member of the State Department's Policy Planning Council.

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