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Examining US-supported insurgencies. If they fail, America risks communist expansion and conflict

Just how serious would the defeat of American-supported rebels in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, and Nicaragua be? The answer lies only partly in the enhancement of Soviet status and power such a defeat would imply. Of more immediate concern would be the risk of expanded conflict in the wake of such communist victories.

Recent congressional debates on Nicaragua demonstrate that United States political prestige is committed to these anticommunist insurgencies. They provide a focus for President Reagan's challenge to the Soviets in the third world.

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The reported price tags for supporting these groups vary: $100 million for the Nicaraguan rebels in 1986; several hundred million in covert military aid to the Afghan mujahideen; at least $5 million for the noncommunist resistance forces in Cambodia; and a substantial amount for rebels fighting Angola's Marxist government.

In this era of gigantic defense expenditures, these economic costs are fairly modest -- even if related defense aid to a country harboring ``our'' insurgents is also counted.

More important to the insurgents is the mere fact of US political commitment. Because of that commitment, these regional battles have been projected into the broader East-West conflict -- with an implication that solid Western backing can be assumed.

But US support to insurgents also has meant a stiffening of Soviet support to the besieged governments. Afghan mujahideen have been faced with Soviet destruction of their rural support; successful Cuban- and Soviet-backed attacks have been mounted in Angola; there have been relentless Vietnamese offensives in Cambodia; and more sophisticated counterinsurgency equipment has been delivered to Nicaragua.

The fact is that all or some of these insurgencies could fail. If not utterly defeated, they could still fail to achieve their minimum objectives -- or at least cease to be a real burden to the regimes they have targeted.

Would it matter to the US and the West generally if the insurgencies fail? Of course, the answer is a hotly contested ideological issue -- and each insurgency has different features that should be judged separately. The more pessimistic views include the following:

Generally, the perception of the US as a reliable ally and backer would suffer. This effect would probably not be limited to the US's role as supporter of anticommunist insurgencies but would cover conventional defense relationships as well.

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Moscow's reputation would be correspondingly enhanced. Skittish neutrals such as Persian Gulf oil-producing states would avoid identification with Washington even more than they do now.

In Afghanistan, a defeat of the mujahideen would have undeniable strategic benefits for future Soviet military projection into the Persian Gulf, Iran, and Pakistan. It would also boost an impulse toward neutralism in Pakistan and reinforce the relatively tight Indo-Soviet military linkage. While the initial sting of defeat would irritate Islamic countries, ultimately it would mitigate tensions between Moscow and the Islamic world.

The effect of a decisive victory for the leftist regime in Angola is hotly debated. Without a doubt, such a victory would exacerbate the problems of South Africa internally and in Namibia, and in the process jeopardize strategic benefits that the West now receives from that country. This would tend to impel the South African government to adopt an even more adamant position against compromising apartheid, thus increasing the possibility of full-scale conflict in the area. Finally, it would reinforce socialist and pro-Soviet trends in other black southern African states.

In Nicaragua, defeat of the contras may, as asserted by the US administration, result in ``another Cuba.'' This could portend aggressive Nicaraguan policies in support of leftist revolution in Central America and even portions of Mexico. It would also encourage policies less accommodating to the US by those regimes now in power.

Of greatest seriousness, however, is that these immediate repercussions could lead Washington to decide that it no longer had an option other than direct military intervention in Nicaragua -- with consequent implications for regional stability, US-European relations, and domestic political divisiveness.

Victory for the Vietnamese-supported Cambodian regime over the coalition of rebels supported by China and the West could encourage Vietnamese adventurism. It would free Vietnam for destabilizing activity or attacking Thailand, which the US would be bound by a defense treaty to assist.

Because of these possible effects, increased pressures within China for direct military action against Vietnam would grow, and could potentially lead to conflict.

Communist victories in these disputed areas would, without a doubt, enhance Soviet military capabilities and foster an image of irreversibility of socialist victories. And the West would be correspondingly weakened -- although not disastrously.

But would such a result be critical?

The answer is not a simple yes or no. The greatest immediate danger from such victories is not merely an unmeasurable increase in Soviet status or power. It is, rather, the increased likelihood of expanded conflict -- fostered either by anti-Soviet countries in reaction to the victory, by the leftist victor in support of its international revolutionary goals, or by the Soviets themselves.

The writer was a government official for two decades before becoming a consultant on international affairs.

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