PRESIDENT Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz are contemplating covert aid to UNITA, the guerrilla movement that battles the government for control of Angola. Congress is considering $27 million or more of overt assistance to UNITA. Both initiatives dangerously undermine the interests of the United States in Angola and the entire southern African region. Insurgents of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, or UNITA, have been battling the Angolan Army since the mid-1970s and now dominate about 40 percent of the country. Since 1979 they have been backed mainly by South Africa, and also by Zaire, Morocco, and some Arab states. South African air cover, logistical and refueling support, and, at times, direct military intervention have been critical in the growth of UNITA as a formidable fighting machine.
The Soviet Union and Cuba helped the present government of Angola assume power in 1976. Their material and technical support for Angola's Army and Air Force prevents a UNITA conquest of the country; earlier this year a Soviet- and Cuban-backed Angolan offensive almost succeeded in destroying UNITA's capital. Since then a Soviet-supplied arms buildup in Angola has continued, and another assault on UNITA is predicted.
The congressional sponsors of overt aid may believe that giving funds to UNITA would be an anti-Marxist, anti-Cuban act; the Reagan administration believes the same and equates the cause of UNITA with the free Afghanistan movement. In any case, crucial questions can be asked about backing UNITA.
Support for UNITA is support for South Africa. To give aid and comfort to a South African surrogate at precisely the moment that the US (and its major banks and industries) is attempting to persuade that embattled white power to dismantle apartheid makes no sense. Doing so undoes any good that is beginning to flow from the Reagan administration's gradual deemphasis on the now discredited policy of constructive engagement.
Assisting UNITA may appear to have global foreign policy benefits: It shows the USSR that we can help the enemies of its clients. But, and the but is big, helping UNITA escalates regional conflict unnecessarily. The Soviets want the Angolan Marxist government to remain in power and remain steadfastly Marxist, against the African trend. Helping UNITA makes the Angolan government more dependent upon Soviet (and Cuban) backing. Helping UNITA hardly rewards those in the Angolan gove rnment who have tried to turn to the West and have welcomed better relations with the US.