LEADERS of the southern African frontline states sensibly urge President Bush to end United States support for the anti-government rebels in Angola. Now that the Cubans have begun leaving Angola and South Africa has promised Namibia independence, the only obstacle to peace in the region is the 13-year-old civil war in Angola. The Reagan administration aided the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) rebels with Stinger missiles, other armaments, and advice. South Africa says it will soon stop supplying UNITA with petroleum, weapons, and cash. If and when it does, the US will be the main overt backer of the movement that has long been led by Jonas Savimbi.
Logic and a genuine desire for peace ought to lead the Bush administration to support the Reagan administration's recent mediation efforts in the region and to extend diplomatic recognition to the government of Angola. But President Bush and the current assistant secretary of state for Africa, Chester A. Crocker, have both backed the continued supply of war materiel to UNITA.
Mr. Savimbi's guerrilla forces exert a paramount influence over about 40 percent of Angola, primarily in the southern and central parts of the country. Later this year, once Cuban numbers have been reduced substantially, a UNITA army as powerful and as threatening to government troops as it now is might be powerful enough to march on Luanda, the national capital.
Clearly, the Republican administration wants Savimbi and his troops to remain strong, and intends to help UNITA overcome the loss of South African logistical and financial help. Although Mr. Crocker, who entered the Reagan administration because of George Bush's strong backing, tenaciously achieved agreements regarding Cuban withdrawal and Namibia's future, he now wants Washington to keep UNITA's saber sharp.
Angola's government is Marxist in origin and was secured in power in 1976 by Soviet and Cuban support. In this decade, since South Africa began backing UNITA and invading and occupying Angola, government forces have been on the defensive. Their position has been secured only by 60,000 Cuban soldiers and airmen.
Despite the Cubans, and Soviet-supplied aircraft, radar, and arms, UNITA has consistently held the upper hand. It raided and shut down the vital Benguela Railway, which traverses Angola, and ranged as far afield as the coffee plantations of the country's northwest and the diamond mines of the northeast. Savimbi gave exuberant press conferences to Western journalists and welcomed South African officials openly to his rebel headquarters.
There seemed to be no stopping UNITA. Last year, however, new Soviet aircraft and Cuban pilots gained control of the southern Angola skies from the South African air force. There were a series of major land battles between the Cubans and South Africa, and the Cubans won. South Africa, hitherto largely invincible, began suffering its first serious human casualties.
South Africa agreed to leave Angola primarily for other reasons, and also to give Namibia independence. But its comparatively weakened military position helped accelerate an initiative already forming inside the South African political and foreign affairs establishment.
Angola has agreed to the removal of the Cubans over 27 months on the understanding that South Africa will no longer assist UNITA. If South Africa keeps its word, and UNITA receives no significant new help from outside, how long can UNITA survive as a fighting force?
That is the key question. Crocker and Mr. Bush want UNITA to remain potent in order to compel the left-leaning (but increasingly more pro-Western) government of Angola to negotiate the kind of peace treaty which would give UNITA a share of power. (US companies pump oil from Angola and provide most of the country's export earnings.)
The South Africans assume that UNITA has sufficient fuel and arms to fight on against the government (and the Cubans) for as long as it takes for the government to agree to some kind of a coalition arrangement.
The government, in turn, calculates that UNITA cannot maintain its punch for as long as 27 months. While UNITA is strong, the government believes, the Cubans will be there as protectors. As UNITA's strength wanes, the Cubans will be able to leave without jeopardizing the otherwise parlous position of the government.
US assistance to UNITA prolongs the agony. Yet Washington seems reluctant, now that it has achieved d'etente in southern Africa with Soviet help, to take the next step forward to stability and peace.
It would be folly to stand shoulder to shoulder with UNITA, whatever its anti-Marxist (and pro-South African) credentials.
It is wiser if the new Bush administration breaks cleanly with its predecessor and pushes the peace process in Angola. It is time to end the unneeded war in Angola.