In separate articles, William Raspberry {"Cut Off Aid to UNITA," op-ed Sept. 12} and Leon Dash {"Blood and Fire; Savimbi's War Against His UNITA Rivals," Outlook, Sept. 30} assailed Dr. Jonas Savimbi, leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola.

In the articles, individuals previously allied with Savimbi were cited as authoritative proof that the leader of the 15-year-long Angolan insurgency is an opponent of democracy given to burning babies and other unspeakable crimes. Dash, in particular, resurrected threadbare claims of Savimbi-sponsored torture and witch-burning that both the House and Senate intelligence committees denounced last year as baseless. Rep. John Rowland (R-Conn.) put it on the House floor on Oct. 12, 1989: "One issue that we have looked at in depth is the allegation of human rights abuses by UNITA ... We found no information that substantiated the allegations ... that Dr. Savimbi has tortured or killed close associates."

The message of the anti-Savimbi campaign is clear: The Luanda regime is no worse than UNITA. In addition, its proponents would have us believe that dealing with the Marxist government of Angola is a more certain means of bringing about democracy and structural economic reform than is continued support for Savimbi and his resistance forces.

Also familiar was the timing of these revelations. Raspberry's article appeared the day the House Select Committee on Intelligence was scheduled to vote on President Bush's FY '91 request for a reported $60 million in "covert" assistance to UNITA. When the committee agreed to support the Bush administration aid level, the stage was set for a showdown on the House floor. That vote, likely to take place next week, occurred as Savimbi came to Washington to meet with officials in the executive and legislative branches.

There is one other thing that makes the campaign against UNITA so familiar: the futility of the alternative course it recommends. If the extraordinary events of the past year teach anything, it is that Communist regimes do not relinquish power absent concerted, and frequently even violent, pressure.

Where given an out, however, such regimes invariably opt for it -- typically prolonging the suffering of people subjected to their misrule. Year after year, the Angolan regime has stalled on implementing democratic reforms. Instead, the Communists in Luanda have sought to destroy the opposition.

Just last spring, for example, Angolan government forces -- backed by significant numbers of Soviet advisers and formidable military hardware -- mounted the largest offensive in the history of the conflict. It was only with the defeat of this operation that Luanda has expressed renewed interest in a negotiated settlement. Even so, the government has yet to agree to a certain date for free and multiparty elections. Similarly, it has refused to recognize UNITA as a legitimate political party that could compete in such elections.

Should Washington now choose to stand by UNITA and settle for nothing less than an early, free and fair vote in Angola, it will give possibly critical impetus toward a real and democratic solution to this terrible conflict. If, on the other hand, the United States heeds the all-too-familiar carping about the alleged deficiencies of its friends, it will simply give a new lease on political life to those in Luanda who disdain human rights and democracy.

-- Frank J. Gaffney Jr. The writer is the director of the Center for Security Policy in Washington.