With the final approval of $100 million in new United States aid to Nicaraguan resistance forces, the six-year contra war enters a new phase. US-supplied arms and training will dramatically increase pressure on the Sandinista government. But they may also increase the risks of eventual direct American involvement in the war.
Reagan administration sources say the aid package approved by Congress earlier this month is necessary to force democratic reforms on a reluctant Managua.
But sources on Capitol Hill warn that approval of the aid may not translate into congressional support for the larger objective, implied by several administration officials, of overthrowing the Sandinista government -- or for the military measures (such as a US blockade of Nicaraguan ports) that many experts say would be required to achieve this objective.
``I see no indication that Congress's approval of the $100 million for the contras signals a willingness to continue our commitment if it means a more direct US role to achieve the administration's stated goal of overthrowing the Sandinista government,'' says Rep. Robert J. Mrazek (D) of New York.
Last week President Reagan signed an order releasing $70 million in military assistance and $30 million in nonlethal aid to the Nicaraguan resistance groups.
The resumption of US aid also restores the full operational role of the Central Intelligence Agency. The agency's involvement was suspended in 1984 after it was revealed that the CIA was involved in mining Nicaraguan ports. It also opens the way for Defense Department training of antigovernment guerrillas for the first time since the Vietnam war.
Pentagon sources say the first priority will be to use US Special Forces to train contra units in the use of new weapons that will be supplied as part of the aid package, including light artillery pieces and antiaircraft weapons for use against Soviet-supplied helicopter gunships.
The training, which will reportedly take place in contra camps in Central America and at least one military base in the US, will also focus on logistics and communications needed to weld disparate contra units into an effective fighting force.
The interim military objective will be substantially to increase the contra army and to create an effective southern front along the Costa Rican border to force the Nicaraguan Army into a two-front war.
But US officials remain undecided on whether the ultimate military objective will be to create a guerrilla force skilled at hitting targets like roads and bridges, or a conventional force capable of capturing and administering Nicaraguan territory through a provisional government.
Officials insist the purpose of increased contra aid is to force democratic reforms in Nicaragua. But in a recent interview with a Mexican newspaper, President Reagan warned that if Nicaragua does not institute such reforms, ``the only alternative'' would be for the insurgents ``to have their way and take over.''
Starting in 1981 the CIA organized, trained, and funded the Nicaraguan resistance, creating what is now an estimated 20,000-man force. But after the 1984 reports of illegal CIA activity, Congress stripped the agency of its operational role in the war. This month Congress reversed itself again, restoring management and control of the contra war to the CIA.
Under the terms of the authorizing legislation, the CIA is prohibited from drawing on its multimillion-dollar contingency fund to supplement the $100 million. Even so, critics say large loopholes in the law could give the CIA more running room than Congress intended.
It is unlikely, for example, that such things as US intelligence gathering in the region, the results of which are routinely shared with the contras, would be charged against the Nicaragua account. Thus, congressional budget limitations could be effectively circumvented.
``In theory, anything you spend in Nicaragua counts against the $100 million,'' a congressional source says. ``In fact, there's plenty of gray area.''
Legislation authorizing the resumption of US aid prohibits US employees from entering Nicaragua or providing any assistance to contra groups within 20 miles of the Nicaraguan border. But it is unclear whether the law governs non-American contract employees of the type that helped mine Nicaragua's harbors.
Also unclear is whether the prohibition on operations near or inside Nicaragua also applies to the use of airspace over Nicaragua. Newsweek magazine reports that Florida-based US Air Force crews will begin airdrops of supplies to contra units inside Nicaragua, raising the possibility that Americans could be killed or captured. A Pentagon spokesman yesterday declined to comment on the report.
``We're not just giving these guys money, we're running a war,'' says Susan Benda, a legislative analyst at the Center for National Security Studies. ``It may turn out that Congress bought more than it bargained for when it passed this aid.''
The first installment of $60 million is being made available to the contras immediately and will be used to purchase small arms and supplies.
The second installment of $40 million will be released next Feb. 15. The administration is expected to request expanded funding for the contras within the next six months.