The conflict in Angola is intensifying in the wake of United States support for the antigovernment rebel movement and, with it, the Angolan government's dependence on Soviet military backing. US military aid to UNITA is reportedly being channeled to bases in southern Angola via a new supply route through neighboring Zaire.
Soviet-supplied heavy equipment has been pouring into Luanda. And, more recently, it was reported that the Soviets were leading a buildup in southeastern Angola. Government troops have managed to stave off UNITA attacks in recent times, maintaining a military stalemate, and there has been no major showdown since 1985.
But both sides - armed with new weapons - are preparing for it, say reliable sources in Luanda. One source said that senior Angolan and Soviet officials are meeting weekly to confer on the course of the war. Angola's debt to the Soviets, which stands at around $2.6 billion, can be expected to soar.
The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates that there are only 950 Soviet military advisers in Angola, but truckloads of uniformed Russians can be seen in various parts of the country. These are in addition to pilots, officers, and Soviet commandos that guard airport tarmacs where sophisticated equipment is in use.
Cuban troops have been fighting in Angola since 1975. Their current strength is estimated at about 30,000. Currently, however, observation and reports indicate that they play a backup role, avoiding direct conflict.
Recent moves by US, Angolan, and rebel officials to find a solution to the decade-old conflict have only highlighted Angola's dependence on the Soviets and the importance that Moscow places on this nation.
Officials in the capital, Luanda, say this dependency reflects necessity, not choice. Angolans, they say, are asserting their desire to run their own affairs in the future. All over the country, newly trained Angolans are replacing Cubans and East-bloc technicians in civil service jobs. And in the Air Force, some newly trained pilots are replacing Soviet couterparts.
But in a recent interview, the Soviet ambassador to Angola, Arnold Kalinin, said that the policy decisions of the last Soviet Communist Party Congress, which steers the Soviet's foreign and domestic policy, could not be interpreted as moves toward d'etente or disengagement in Angola so long as the US provides military backing to the rebel National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). He said that by furnishing military aid to UNITA, the US was ``taking its final stand in southern Africa.''
The implication is that Angola will also be the scene of the Soviets' last-ditch stand in southern Africa, and it will not be a situation like that in Afghanistan, where the Soviets are going through the motions of disengagement.
``Afghanistan is a different case,'' a Western diplomat commented. ``Angola is the Russians' trump card at Geneva.''
If there is great bitterness among many Angolans at US support for UNITA efforts to overthrow the Angolan government, there is also an awareness that not all Americans back the policy. Angola's US friends can be found in the northern Cabinda enclave: The Chevron Overseas Petroleum company is pumping out 200,000 barrels of oil a day, which accounts for 90 percent of Angola's export earnings.
Texans run the oilfields from a company compound that is a small piece of America in Africa. Rows of golf buggies line the corridors of the executive apartment block. There are movies and plenty of cold cola. (In the rest of Angola, even clean drinking water is scarce.)
On the busy offshore platforms, Texans and Angolans work side by side. The oilmen depend for their security on Cuban troops in the area. That security was shaken recently when UNITA guerrillas bombed the nearby Cabinda airport building.
It was a year ago when the US delivered its final official rebuff to Angola by announcing aid to UNITA. Soon afterward, President Jos'e Eduardo dos Santos visited Moscow and signed a new military agreement.
If Angola seems hopelessly hooked on Soviet military support, it is a result of several factors: the US decision to increase the stakes by backing UNITA; the government's rejection of any initiatives toward a negotiated solution; the Soviet Union's global strategy in which Angola is seen as a sticking point in the confrontation with the West; and the failure of arguments presented in Angolan ruling circles, specifically the Air Force, that Angola should look both East and West for military aid.
The man who put forward this case was Air Force commander Gen. Iko Carreira, a prestigious veteran of the ruling party. He lost the argument and was fired last summer.
If the Gorbachev leadership was thinking of reexamining Soviet policy on Angola, as it has on Afghanistan, this option was probably closed off by last year's US policy change. Soviet policy in Angola has as much to do with the Soviet's global strategy, in which southern Africa is a vital point of competition with the West, as it has to do with Angola itself.
Ambassador Kalinin is a man well-chosen by the Kremlin as their trigger-finger for Angola. After earlier service in Cuba, he gained his diplomatic laurels in Lisbon as the first Soviet ambassador to post-revolutionary Portugal. His opposite number was Frank Carlucci, President Reagan's new national security adviser. As US ambassador to Portugal, Mr. Carlucci was competing with Kalinin to influence the course of the Portuguese revolution.
Their ways parted in intervening years, but now Kalinin and Carlucci face each other again across the battle lines drawn between East and West in southern Africa.