Support for armed insurgents fighting third-world leftist regimes which came to power by force is a hallmark of the Reagan era. The so-called ``Reagan doctrine'' is not enshrined in any official policy document. Rather, says Christopher Lehman, a former special assistant to President Reagan for national security affairs, it is ``an agreed upon, region by region, pro-active approach designed to restore democracy and then to make it work.
``A clearly-understood intent of administration policy deliberations was the desire to make things difficult for the Soviets and their proxies - to burn their fingers and make the cost of remaining prohibitive,'' he concludes.
And, after a span of nearly eight years, the ``Reagan doctrine'' appears to have left its mark:
A withdrawal of Soviet troops, which have propped up the communist Kabul government for nearly 8 years, is well under way in Afghanistan.
The principle of withdrawal of the 45,000 to 50,000 Cuban troops that have supported the Angolan government has been tentatively accepted by Angola, Cuba, and South Africa.
In Cambodia, the occupying Vietnamese have proposed a pullout of 50,000 of their 120,000 troops by year's end.
And the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua has grudgingly acknowledged it cannot avoid a minimal dialogue with the United States-backed contra rebels.
Stanislav Levchenko, Sovietologist and former KGB active-measures officer, believes Soviet concessions will go further.
``The Afghan withdrawal is certain, and I am convinced the Cubans will be ordered by the Soviets out of Angola. Something will be started in [Cambodia], and I wouldn't be surprised if, by the end of the year, we see a reduction in Soviet support for Nicaragua,'' Mr. Levchenko says. ``[Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev is reformulating Soviet foreign policy to undo the misjudgments of the Brezhnev era.''
So, are we seeing a vindication of President Reagan's robust, though controversial policies, toward these third-world hot spots?
The answer is mixed. Most observers agree that US support has indeed played a major role in forcing change in Afghanistan.
But in Cambodia, US support of the rebel coalition and thus its overall impact has been minimal. The situation in Nicaragua is far from positive from Washington's perspective. And while an Angolan political settlement looms on the horizon, it is still vulnerable to the fluctuations of wider southern African developments.
Some individuals and groups protest passionately that, whatever the overall gains of the policy, the human cost has simply been too high. Without the escalation of military operations made possible by American support, they assert, the toll of lives would have been much lower.
According to some, a far better alternative would have been to let normal economic and political evolutionary trends modify the Marxist-Leninist regimes in Nicaragua and Angola without armed Western interference. But few of these sources say that such a policy would work in Afghanistan or Cambodia.
To be sure, the end result of current trends toward compromise in these areas is by no means a ``done deal.'' And even if these trends continue, experts agree the picture is not uniformly rosy:
First, as Soviet concessions are offered, differences in goals between the US and some of the insurgent forces are emerging
Regarding Afghanistan, Washington officials say they would essentially be satisfied by the withdrawal of Soviet forces and a neutralist coalition that included the current communist regime. But most mujahideen (as the Afghan guerrillas are known) want a total takeover; and some wish for a radical fundamentalist state.
In Angola, the withdrawal of Cuban troops and Soviet advisers in exchange for South African concessions is primary for the US. But leaders of UNITA (the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) say they will continue, regardless, to fight for a coalition government in which they have a prominent role.
Second, even when Soviet-backed governments may be shattered, regional specialists say successor regimes will not necessarily be pro-Western:
In Afghanistan, what could well occur is a takeover by Muslim fundamentalists, with policies akin to Iran.
In Cambodia, the two noncommunist anti-regime movements could easily be overwhelmed by their coalition partner - the hated but powerful communist Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge was responsible for an estimated 1 million deaths when it was in power between 1975 to 1979.
In Angola, UNITA has yet to prove its proclaimed willingness to coexist in a peaceful coalition with its current enemies.
Third, similar differences are emerging between the US and regional regimes which support the insurgents.
The latter typically entertain more far-reaching goals than Washington. Pakistan, for instance, is concerned not solely with a Soviet withdrawal, but also with having a compatible neighbor in Afghanistan.
South Africa clearly wishes for an Angolan regime that will tacitly accommodate Pretoria's regional agenda. And China's long support of the Khmer Rouge is unlikely to be readily discarded, despite US pressures to do so.
Many analysts see the divergent goals between the regional players and Washington carrying the seeds of possible friction.
While Western military and monetary support to insurgents in the third world has helped motivate Soviet flexibility, experts say it is not the sole ingredient.
They point to a medley of other factors:
Mr. Gorbachev's apparent aim of defusing regional tensions in order to obtain Western concessions on major strategic issues; disillusionment about the value of its third-world adventures; Moscow's need to remedy its economic weaknesses; Chinese pressures; and the resistance movements themselves.
In an article in the May 1988 edition of the Soviet magazine, Literary Gazette, criticizing Brezhnev-era failures, Vyacheslav Dashichev writes:
``There were no clear ideas of the Soviet Union's true national state interests. These interests in no way lay in chasing petty and essentially formal gains associated with leadership coups in certain developing countries.''
With a strong caution that conditions vary widely between areas, a former senior member of the National Security Council staff and ``Reagan doctrine'' supporter puts the balance of factors motivating Soviet compromises at 60-40 - with the larger proportion representing the pressures generated by visible US military and political support given to the various resistance movements.
Others count the balance differently, with greater weight given to internal factors in the Soviet Union.
Ex-KGB officer Levchenko asserts that American ``pressure was a catalyst, and expedited [concessions.] But Gorbachev's motivation is primarily rooted in his domestic economic problems.''
Arkadi Shevchenko, former Soviet undersecretary of the United Nations, stresses the importance to Moscow of improving relations with China.
``If the Soviets and Vietnamese withdraw from Afghanistan and Cambodia respectively, Moscow will have met two of the three conditions stipulated by the Chinese for a betterment in relations,'' Mr. Shevchenko says. ``The only further issue,'' he adds, ``is that of militarization along the Soviet-Chinese border - and I suspect they will meet Chinese conditions there also.''
What if the Gorbachev era proves short-lived, and a power shuffle in the Soviet Union brings conservative leadership disinclined to make further compromises?
While acknowledging that retrenchment is possible under such circumstances, Shevchenko joins many Kremlin-watchers in doubting that older patterns of aggressive behavior would reappear soon:
``The Soviets just can't afford another Cuba or Vietnam. I don't think most likely new leaders would go as far as Brezhnev did,'' says Shevchenko.
It is, in short, not one ingredient that is causing the trend, but several occurring simultaneously.
What the assistance did:
Would the current situation differ, had no US support been given? The answers differ markedly.
The Afghan resistance would have received assistance via Pakistan from the Islamic world and probably China. But most qualified observers agree that the addition of generous Western assistance, including the US's surface-to-air Stinger missile, elevated the intensity of mujahideen activity to a point where the Soviets felt pain.
As far as Angola is concerned, UNITA's designated secretary for foreign affairs, Tito Chingunji, says, ``The results we are now seeing did not occur during the time when US support was absent. American supply of anti-air and anti-armor weapons was the turning point.''
And an American ex-intelligence officer who knows Angola well contends that heavy Soviet-Cuban air and ground support to the Angolan government in 1984 and 1985 had pressed UNITA to the limit, before delivery of the US's Stinger missiles.
In Cambodia, the largest force fighting the Vietnamese-backed government is the Khmer Rouge, not the two noncommunist factions modestly backed by Washington and its Asian allies.
Chinese support to the Khmer Rouge preceded Washington's role and would continue regardless. According to US officials, the key effect of the latter has been largely to strengthen slightly the hand of the conservatives within the resistance toward the Khmer Rouge.
In Nicaragua, contra supporters agree that the resistance could never have commenced large-scale activity without American support and motivation.
Clearly, US support on the ground has drastically affected the course of battle in Afghanistan, Angola, and Nicaragua. The impact in Cambodia has been modest, and the longevity of support for the contras is obviously a question mark.
Next: Is insurgency support an acceptable foreign-policy tool?