PROSPECTS for a political settlement in troubled southwestern Africa are looking up. Angola, Cuba, and South Africa have formally endorsed a broad set of principles to guide the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola and Namibia's transition to independence; the action is a key forward step. Still, major obstacles remain. A massive gap lies between the Angolan-Cuban plan for a phased, four-year withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola and the one-year withdrawal of South African troops from Namibia envisioned under UN Resolution 435. South Africa has reneged on similar promises in the past. Angola and Cuba, too, could easily have a change of heart. The accord makes no mention of how to resolve Angola's long civil war.
United States Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker, chief broker of the agreement, deserves credit for perseverance. He carried the talks from London, to Cairo, and to New York, involving all major players in the solution:
The Soviet Union. Though not officially involved, Moscow is a key actor and has been kept closely informed. Indications are that the Soviets, as in Afghanistan, may be tiring of the political and economic cost of their continuing support for Cuban and Angolan troops.
Cuba. Its forces in Angola, estimated at 50,000, increased by one-fifth during the last year. Cuban troops are in the forefront of the fighting and recently moved into southern Angola, where they have inflicted numerous casualties on South African troops. The Angolan-Cuban team now has the military initiative and a new confidence.
Cuba still refuses to pull back its troops without a simultaneous pullback of South African troops and an end to US and South African support for Jonas Savimbi's rebel forces in Angola.
Angola. It, too, wants South African troops out of both its territory and Namibia as the Cubans go. Angola also demands an end to foreign aid to Mr. Savimbi; the US insists that such aid is a separate issue. Yet Angola's new position of military strength may enable it to dictate some of the final settlement terms. Sure to fare better under a Dukakis administration, Angola may even decide to wait out the US election.
South Africa. The regional conflict has taken a heavy economic and military toll on Pretoria. But South Africa has yet to make good on several promises to leave Namibia, a territory it has administered for 73 years under a now-void League of Nations mandate. After agreeing in the late '70s to UN Resolution 435, a plan for a cease-fire and elections, South Africa reneged when Jimmy Carter was replaced by a friendlier Ronald Reagan.
This time Pretoria may be agreeing in hopes of warding off renewed US sanctions and other tough measures. South Africa's ruling Nationalist Party is under strong pressure from the right not to yield on neighboring Namibia. The longtime concern is that free elections would produce a ``communist-influenced'' government.
Another round of talks is slated in Geneva for early August. Secretary Crocker speaks optimistically of a negotiated settlement before the end of the year. As South African Foreign Minister Roelof Botha correctly notes: ``We are still at the foot of the mountain.'' We hope that the three nations involved decide that the climb is worth the effort.