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US debates support for Angolan rebels vs. broader African policy

Following 10 days of lobbying for US aid for his anticommunist insurgency, Angolan guerrilla leader Jonas Savimbi left Washington in style -- in the private jet of an impressed Texas millioniare. During his visit in the United States, Mr. Savimbi skillfully focused attention toward Angola, in the process winning converts to his cause. But Savimbi's presence was also a reminder of the complexities of fashioning a coherent US policy toward southern Africa.

``Savimbi's certainly a household word after this trip. A lot of people know him, and almost everybody that's met him has been impressed,'' says Gerald L. Bender, a southern Africa specialist at the University of Southern California. But Professor Bender notes that ``it's one thing to stand on a platform and wave the flag in support of freedom fighters around the world. It's quite another to face the realities of what that support would actually entail. Very few people thought about that until Mr. Savimbi's visit.''

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Although he was warmly received by Reagan administration officials, the visit of the charismatic guerrilla leader accentuates a foreign policy dilemma.

Conservative champions of Savimbi's cause insist that support to National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) is a test of US resolve to deal with threats to regional security posed by Soviet- and Cuban-backed regimes like Angola.

Savimbi encourages this viewpoint, saying the stakes for the US are as high in Angola as in Nicaragua, Cambodia, and Afghanistan where overt US aid now goes to shore up anticommunist guerrilla forces.

``If you lose Angola to communism, you lose southern Africa. By losing southern Africa, you lose access to strategic minerals that are critical to your economy. Also, you lose the strategic [trade] lines of the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean.''

Even so, Reagan officials have remained reluctant to throw their support behind congressional measures to provide overt humanitarian or military aid to Savimbi's 18,000 UNITA regulars. One concern is that aid to the rebels will escalate the conflict in Angola, forcing the Marxist government to seek more Cuban and Soviet help.

Savimbi insists a small amount of aid to enhance UNITA's antiaircraft capability could make a difference. ``With a little support, we can really bring the MPLA [Angola's Marxist government] to the negotiating table.''

Savimbi's optimism is challenged by two US intelligence reports, which say he has no chance of a military victory or forcing the Angolan government to accept UNITA as partner in a coalition government.

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Reagan officials also say aid could damage prospects for a negotiated settlement and withdrawal of 35,000 Cuban troops and 1,200 Soviet advisers from Angola. A cornerstone of the Reagan policy of ``constructive engagement'' in southern Africa, the negotiations are regarded by administration officials as the surest route to reconciliation in Angola.

Finally, Reagan officials worry about the diplomatic costs of direct support for UNITA, whose principal backing comes from South Africa. By joining with South Africa to support UNITA, the US would invite criticism about its antiapartheid policy.

``US policy should not be locked in such a dilemma,'' says Savimbi. ``You can't say it's better to leave Angola in the hands of the Russians and Cubans in order to deal better with apartheid. These are different issues and we should deal with them separately.''

In an effort to head off Capitol Hill moves for direct US aid, the administration has thrown its support behind a congressional resolution calling in principle for US support for UNITA. In the meantime, President Reagan has authorized a modest program of covert assistance. US officials say they hope the aid will raise the costs of Soviet and Cuban support to Angola, at the same time keeping diplomatic options alive.

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