DESPITE the euphoria resulting from independence in Namibia and prospects for negotiations in South Africa, another conflict in that region continues - and the United States is fanning the flames. The US government continues to arm UNITA, a rebel organization seeking to overthrow the Angolan government. Angola's civilians are the principal victims. Angola, with its large oil reserves, is potentially one of the richest countries in Africa. Yet thanks in large part to the chaos wreaked by UNITA, the country ranks near the bottom of the world's nations in providing its citizens with even the most basic needs. In 15 years of war since independence, over 200,000 Angolans have been killed and more than 20,000 children orphaned. UNITA's use of land mines has produced a gruesome statistic: over 50,000 Angolans have been left amputated, the highest per capita in the world. Many of these mines come courtesy of the US taxpayer.
UNITA's sabotage of highways and rail lines has severely disrupted the economy - already strained by drought - and has made it difficult to transport food and necessities to remote regions of the country. Even international relief workers are threatened by UNITA attacks as they try to get food to starving peasants.
Other African countries are damaged as well. The Benguela Railway, a favorite target of UNITA assaults, is the only outlet besides South Africa from mineral-rich areas of Zambia and Zaire. Indeed, these attacks force nations to depend on South Africa and its ports to move minerals to market, a result that motivates the apartheid state to join the US in supporting UNITA.
Unlike the contras of Nicaragua, UNITA has its roots in the anti-colonial struggle against the Portuguese. It has a popular base. However, this support comes almost exclusively from the minority Ovimbundo tribe. It's far from unanimous. UNITA's alliance with South Africa, their disruption of the economy and attacks have damaged their claim to be legitimate liberation movement.
While the Bush Administration and most of Congress have lauded UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi as a freedom fighter for democratic ideals, only a few years ago this Chinese-trained guerrilla leader was depicted as a Maoist terrorist. Though there's been much speculation regarding the reasons for Savimbi's flip-flop, it seems little more than crass opportunism. Savimbi's main interest is personal power.
Last year, with the assistance of 18 African countries, UNITA and the Angolan government signed a peace agreement providing an end to the fighting, and a framework for democratization and reconstruction. No sooner had the ink dried than Savimbi reneged and ordered his forces to resume attacks. Despite this violation of the Gbadolite Accords, US aid to UNITA continues.
Currently, among the minority of Americans who understand Angola there is little support for US policy toward that country. In addition to the peace organizations, church groups and intellectuals who normally raise questions about US intervention in the third world, opposition to US support to UNITA comes from less likely sources as well.
The conservative National Review has attacked UNITA as ``Leninist,'' and condemned it for its authoritarian organizational structure and ruthless treatment of internal dissidents. Major oil companies doing business in Angola have lobbied vigorously against US aid to the rebels, citing attempted sabotage by UNITA against their facilities. (The same investments were guarded from UNITA attacks for several years by Cuban soldiers.)
There's no logic to US support for UNITA other than a knee-jerk Cold War reaction - that if a government professes a belief in Marxism and receives support from the USSR it is simply illegitimate. Even this justification is outdated: the Soviets have cut back aid considerably, Cuban troops have withdrawn, and the Angolan government has pledged to build a free-market economy and develop a pluralistic political system when a cease-fire is permanent.
Supporting the overthrow of an established government - a member of the Organization for African Unity recognized by virtually all African countries - severely damages US relations throughout the continent. That such a policy directly allies the US with South Africa harms our credibility even more. Not only that, the US is alone among its Western allies in its refusal to recognize the Angolan government.
It's time Congress and the White House re-evaluated US policy in Angola. Interventions in third world conflicts, taken without concern for a region's complex and changing realities have repeatedly proven disastrous - for the countries on the receiving end, and the US.