AFTER 15 years of civil war, Angola stands to benefit from the global peace dividend. But arms transfers from the US pose a major obstacle. For much of the past decade the US has supplied military hardware, including shoulder-fired missiles, to the army of Jonas Savimbi's Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). Since Angolan independence from Portugal in 1975, UNITA has battled his country's government, now led by President Jos'e Eduardo dos Santos.
The conflict was born of the cold war. The Soviets and Cubans backed and fought with the Movement for Popular Liberation of Angola (MPLA) against Mr. Savimbi's men and their South African allies. Together they established the Angolan government and supported it as UNITA. With South African help from 1978, they mounted an tough guerrilla campaign against the Marxist state.
After the Soviets entered Afghanistan, President Reagan's administration decided to link arms with South Africa behind UNITA. The US thus successfully raised the costs to the Soviet Union of intervention in Africa and the third world, and may have influenced the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Yet a deescalation of hostilities in southwestern Africa, which led in late 1988 to the Namibian-Angolan peace accord, was primarily determined by President Gorbachev's reassessment of Soviet priorities. He no longer wanted to expend scarce Soviet resources on overseas adventures. He and his military advisers were no longer prepared to prop up third-world regimes. President Castro of Cuba was similarly anxious to beat an honorable withdrawal from Angola.
These moves had to be based on a South African pullout from Namibia and a stop of massive arms and fuel shipments from South Africa to UNITA. When those arrangements were secured, by mid-1989, the US became the major supplier for UNITA, and the major outside support of the Angola conflict.
UNITA is still a tough fighting force. It may be able to count on the support of 40 percent of Angola. But steady US backing removes incentives for a cease-fire. Mr. Savimbi has agreed to several cease-fires, but neither he nor UNITA have laid down arms. Indeed, the balance of power in the country recently shifted away from the government and back to UNITA. New northern bases opened up. In July, UNITA attacked the outskirts of Luanda, the capital.
The role of the US is pivotal. Fortunately, Angola's government no longer considers itself Marxist. Only 12,000 Cuban troops (down from 35,000) remain. Best, in July President dos Santos' Central Committee accepted the principle of multiparty democracy.
Mozambique, a similarly ex-Portuguese and ex-Marxist state, also declared itself in favor of multiparty democracy. Early this month it agreed to permit opposition parties, even the Renamo guerrilla movement, to campaign against the government in elections that were set for 1991. By so doing, the government hopes to end its own 13-year-long civil war, and to begin a painful process of reconstruction and reconciliation.
The two Angolan contenders are poised on another cease-fire. This time the ingredients are there: exhaustion, stalemate, and a desire on both sides to compete in elections rather than on the battlefield. An end to American arms transfers would accelerate the process.