The significance of last week's apparently inconclusive talks between the United States and Soviet-backed Angola may become clear only on the battlefield. The main ``news'' in Angola these days is of the ``Soviet-Cuban offensive'' that wasn't. Several months after US-backed Angolan rebels first reported a large influx of Soviet weaponry and material, presumably for use in an offensive by Cuban-backed Angolan troops, no such thrust has materialized. This was confirmed last week by sources close to Jonas Savimbi, leader of the rebel National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) force.
Western diplomats posit at least two possible explanations for the ``nonoffensive.'' One is that Angola's government, strapped for funds for emergency grain imports, is reluctant to risk the human and material cost of such a push. The second is that Angolan leaders have felt a major offensive could interfere with their recent drive for improved ties with Washington.
The US, partly in protest against the presence of some 30,000 Cuban troops in Angola, has denied that government diplomatic recognition since its independence from Portugal in 1975. The rebels, fearing any such rapprochement, believe the push for ties with the US explains the missing offensive.
If this is so, an anti-UNITA offensive might yet materialize in the weeks ahead. Angolan officials, interviewed shortly before last week's visit by US Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker, expressed hope that he would arrive with a softened view on ``linking'' the presence of Cuban troops to improved Angolan-US relations.
The officials were looking to swap a gradual phasing-out of most of the Cuban force for formal US diplomatic recognition, an end to US support for UNITA, and US pressure on South Africa to withdraw from neighboring Namibia (South-West Africa).
State Department comments on the mission, however, suggest no such deal is in the offing. A spokesman indicated that, in the US view, the Angolan government had yet to offer ``signals that it has made the decisions that need to be made'' - an apparent reference to US demands for a formal, detailed timetable for sending the Cubans home.
Barely had Crocker returned home, than the Senate signaled that the US is in little mood to soften on this. The Senate included in its overall foreign-trade bill an amendment denying ``most-favored nation'' trade status to Luanda for at least six months - a blow to the Angolan economy, which is dependent on revenues from US-developed oil stores. The amendment said the bar would be lifted only if the White House informed Congress that Luanda had, among other item, opened talks with UNITA and expelled the Cubans.
For the time being at least, whatever ``offensive'' is being waged is UNITA's work. Clearly alarmed by the government's move to undercut its own bid for sustained assistance from Washington, UNITA announced early this month: ``The Cubans will leave Angola only when UNITA inflicts heavy casualties on Fidel Castro's mercenaries. ... In Angola there will be no partial withdrawal.''
Angolan officials insist that whatever government military preparations have been under way are of a purely defensive nature. And there are, diplomats note, good reasons to forego an offensive. They add, however, that if one element in the lack of an offensive so far has been the hope for a diplomatic breakthrough with the US, the battlefield picture could change soon.
Journalists in South Africa operate under official press restrictions.