The international peace talks on Namibia enter what could well be a make-or-break round today. ``If we don't get a agreement this time, both sides will be cocking their weapons,'' says one well-placed participant in the negotiations who asked not to be identified.
Another participant adds that the success or failure of the seven-year mediation effort by Washington rests on what happens during the talks scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday. This could either be the ``end game'' or the ``breakdown phase,'' he says.
Already the parties - Cuba, South Africa, and Angola - have missed a self-imposed Sept. 1 deadline for an agreement on the specifics of a Cuban troop withdrawal from Angola. The Sept. 29 target date for an overall agreement, set by the United States and the Soviet Union, is also fast approaching.
If the gap between parties can be bridged, US officials say, the final agreement would remove 1.3 million Namibians from South African control and apartheid. It would resolve what was the first Soviet proxy intervention in the third world after Vietnam, and remove a major irritant in US-Cuban relations .
But if progress is not evident this week, the parties could well run out of political will or energy to continue, or stumble into a costly but inconclusive military clash, warn US officials involved in the process.
South African forces have been conducting the largest amphibious landing exercises ever held in southern Africa off of Walvis Bay - a South African enclave in Namibia. As one US source says, they are not practicing to invade Namibia.
Simultaneously, Cuba has sent some of its best armored, air defense, and air units to southern Angola during the last six months, boosting the total Cuban presence to more than 50,000, according to US estimates.
Informed US sources discount recent press reports of a new Cuban troop buildup on the Namibian border, but they say both sides are continuing to strengthen their military presence in the region. Without a settlement, one well-placed source says, Fidel Castro will be under domestic pressure to use his new troops in Angola.
Negotiators from Angola, Cuba, and South Africa are sitting down with US mediators for at least two days in Brazzaville, Congo, to try to avoid that eventuality. Senior Soviet diplomats, United Nations officials, representatives of the Namibian independence group SWAPO (South-West Africa People's Organization), and representatives of the Angolan rebel force UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) will be in the wings.
The immediate goal at this round is to narrow the still-large gap dividing the parties on plans for a Cuban troop withdrawal from Angola. On the table is how quickly the Cuban troops would leave Angola, how rapidly they would pull back from southern Angola, in what regions they would be confined during the phased withdrawal, and how to verify these and other details.
Under the proposed accord, South Africa would agree to UN-supervised independence for Namibia. Pretoria would pull out all but 1,500 of its estimated 23,000 troops from Namibia within four months. All South African troops would leave by the seven-month mark and Namibia would be independent after one year.
Given these limits, South Africa is pressing Angola and Cuba to agree to heavy ``front loading'' of the Cuban departure and early withdrawal from southern Angola, informed sources say. To sell an accord at home, says one, Pretoria needs a major Cuban departure by the one-year mark, with the rest of the troops leaving not too long after that.
During the last round of talks two weeks ago in Brazzaville, Cuba and Angola offered a reduction, reportedly to three years, from their initial proposal to pull the Cubans out in four years.
The latest offer was not enough to get the two sides into the ``zone of agreement,'' these sources say. An 18-month withdrawal period has been floated in the past as a possible compromise.
Meanwhile, US officials lament what they say is a ``major disconnect'' between what the administration is trying to achieve in the talks and pending congressional action. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is slated to consider Thursday a bill to impose comprehensive sanctions on South Africa. In effect, officials say, consideration of the bill now will strengthen those South African conservatives who argue that if sanctions are going to be imposed on South Africa in any case, there is no reason to give up control of Namibia. With municipal elections scheduled in South Africa Oct. 29 and the conservatives expected to do well, US specialists say, South Africa's government is under pressure to prove the value of negotiating or again shift policies.
The other major issue to be resolved is Angola's civil war. The Soviet-backed Angolan government continues to oppose direct talks with UNITA, supported by South Africa and the US, to end the 13 years of fighting. But pressure is mounting on Luanda to talk.
The US argues that the risks of leaving the civil strife unresolved are considerable and would keep the superpowers engaged militarily in support of their clients. The Soviet Union has begun to take a similar line. Ten days ago, Cuba held its first-ever secret talks with UNITA to secure the release of two Cuban pilots. Black African leaders are urging Angola to negotiate with UNITA, according to informed sources.
Also, over the weekend, UNITA's leader, Jonas Savimbi, charged that the US was selling out the movement by pressing it to accept a lengthy Cuban withdrawal.
US officials say Mr. Savimbi's remarks are based on incorrect information, but they reveal the high tensions surrounding the parties as the talks get down to fundamental security interests.
UNITA, which US officials say represents at least 40 percent of the population, has said it is willing to negotiate a power-sharing arrangement with the ruling party until elections are held.
However, a senior Western diplomat in Washington who follows the region says the prospect of sharing power with UNITA apparently still scares many in Angola's government, who worry that without the support of Cuban troops they could be overwhelmed.