There are 3,200 fresh United States troops in Honduras today as a ``concrete symbol'' of US support in face of a border incursion by Nicaraguan troops. Secretary of State George Shultz told Congress yesterday the message to Honduras is: ``We are your friend and we stand with you, and if you are invaded, you can count on the United States.''
The Reagan administration, however, is primarily concerned that Sandinista forces will overrun the main contra supply depots near the Nicaraguan-Honduran border. Already several contra strong points have fallen, officials say, and Sandinista attacks were continuing inside Honduran territory as of Thursday morning.
Alarm bells have been ringing within the administration this week over increasing evidence that 6,000 Sandinista troops backed up by bombers and helicopter gunships were going after contra supplies. The main depot reportedly lies in Honduran territory. About 2,000 Sandinista special forces have been sent into that area, according to US intelligence sources.
If these depots fall, officials say, it would ``really cripple'' the contras.
Official sources admit that information on the actual battle situation is patchy. This added to the appearance of confusion earlier this week as officials scrambled to put together accurate intelligence on what was happening on the ground.
Indeed, Democratic leaders in Congress are expressing uncertainty and anger over the President's decision late Wednesday to send 3,200 troops to Honduras on an ``emergency deployment readiness exercise.'' The administration says US troops will not engage in actual fighting or even combat exercises, but are there to bolster any Honduran actions to protect its territorial integrity.
On Tuesday, Honduran President Jos'e Azcona wrote President Reagan requesting ``effective and immediate assistance.'' Wednesday, after intensive consultations with the US, and after Honduran reconnaissance flights confirmed the Sandinista incursion, President Azcona laid out the specific type of support desired, officials say. President Reagan subsequently approved one of several options discussed earlier in the day by the interagency Policy Review Group.
Congressional skeptics ask how much pressure the US put on President Azcona to request assistance and question how many Nicaraguan troops are really in Honduras.
Secretary Shultz and other senior officials say the incursion is real and continuing despite Nicaragua's denials. In addition to the 2,000 Sandinista troops operating inside Honduras, another 4,500 are attacking contra strong points inside Nicaragua, they say. The contras have less than 1,000 troops in the border area, a number of whom are technicians and medical workers. A continued Sandinista presence in this region reportedly could cut off the 9,000 contra troops operating deep inside Nicaragua.
Officials deny any US pressure on Honduras to request aid. It is not clear, however, what kind of action the Hondurans contemplate. One well-placed US official says, ``The Hondurans are not concerned about being overrun, but they don't like the Sandinistas operating in their country.'' He said he was not sure how much Honduras is willing to extend itself to protect the contras or expel the Sandinistas.
Experts on Central America say the Sandinista offensive was predictable. ``This is the third year in a row this has happened,'' says Richard Millet, a specialist on the region at Southern Illinois University. but Mr. Millet says it was ``politically dumb'' for the Sandinistas to launch the offensive on the eve of peace talks with the contras next week. ``It makes the Sandinistas look less interested in peace, makes the Democrats look foolish, and gives the administration a chance to yell.''
US officials say Nicaragua clearly calculated that the military and political benefits of destroying contra supplies far outweigh the short-term political heat from the offensive. Once this is done the Sandinistas will have no need to remain in Honduran territory.
Thus most analysts agree that if international observers are eventually sent to the border region, they probably won't find any Sandinistas there.