Foreign observers of the Rhodesian elections now taking place will be asked a lot of the wrong questions. One is whether the election will stop the fighting. The answer is that the war will continue, whatever the election result. The conflict has become so highly militarized that a purely political or diplomatic process is unlikely to end it. But criticism of the election on this ground misses the point.

So does the claim that the vote is meaningless when the Patriotic Front is excluded from the ballot. The issue is not who wins, but how big the vote is. The election is only a measurement, in very crude terms, of the current balance of forces by people who have to live with the result and want to be on the winning side.

What should be asked is whether the election indicates that the "internal settlement" is workable-or could be. A relatively large vote would suggest that the answer is yes, while a small vote points the other way. But the vote itself is not an ideal way to make this judgment.It artificially freezes the balance of forces at a particular moment in time. A second problem is that the government should have many advantages in an election process that it controls and supports with all available resources. A third is the ambiguous position adopted by Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe, the Patritic Front leaders. On the one hand, they have threatened disruption and an escalation of violence; on the other, they have let it be known through their supporters that people can vote if they are pressured to-the election is a non-event anyway. Unsure of the outcome and their own ability to coerce, the external leaders want to have it both ways.

This means that the best we can hope for from foreign observers and press reports is a crude impression of the value of the "internal settlement", filtered through the bias common to all mortals. we are, in a word, forced back upon our own reading of recent Rhodesian history. Different people have different ways of judging what works.

Some would argue that the key question is whether Rhodesia's new constitution offers a fair deal to the African majority. They proceed to compare it, unfavorably, with Western democratic principles or to the Anglo-American proposals put forward in 1977 as a basis for negotiation between the warring parties.

That misses the point. The 1978 internal agreement provides both for substantial change toward African control and for substantial guarantees and safeguards for the white minority. It represents a new phase in a gradual process of change-a compromise between black and white parties that need each other. We should not compare it with an ideal vision of some burgeoning black democracy thriving under the rule of law and enlightened social policies. No such alternative exists, to be imposed on Rhodesia. Nor would it be likely to emerge as a result of a Patriotic Front military victory. The settlement may be imperfect, but what are the alternatives?

A second test is whether a post-election, multiracial government can survive politically when no one recognizes it. It would depend almost completely on South African support, and confront the hostility not only of the PF guerrillas but also of their Soviet, Cuban and East German advisers and the neighboring African states. Is it not inevitable that internal black support for the new government would evaporate once it became clear that sanctions were still in force, diplomatic isolation still almost universal, and the government unable to generate new resources for development and black advancement? The answer is "probably," but these questions stack the deck. They are a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Current Western policy in the Rhodesian conflict is not "neutral"; it denies support and legitimacy to some parties while also suggesting that the others, their sworn opponents, are perfectly entitled to receive arms, money and diplomatic backing from the outside world. That policy made sense while whites continued to monopolize economic and political power and showed no sign of movement toward African rule. After the election, however, it may be the surest possible formula to drive Salisbury still further into the arms of South Africa, while legitimizing communist intervention.

The third issue is military. A few weeks ago, a senior American official stated publicly that only "massive U.S. military support" could save the interal parties. That is wrong, and the current military balance in Rhodesia as well as the history of warfare in Africa demonstrates as much. We are trying to scare ourselves out of doing something we might otherwise wish to do-take another look at the internal settlement-by describing it as futile. For the past 14 years, Western policy-makers have consistently underestimated the staying power of the Salisbury government; bleak forecasts continue to help sustain current policy.

The position of Salisbury has never depended on massive outside forces or large amounts of fancy military technology. Rather, it has depended on smart tactics, good intelligence, superior morale (both black and white), and the active or passive involvement of many Africans on the government's side. The 4 percent white minority would have been ousted many years ago if this were not the case.

Today, a complex stalemate exists, with the government continuing to hold the edge in military terms. It is in Botswana, Zambia and Mozambique, not Rhodesia, that one can expect to see the development of a vacuum of military power. In the months ahead, the key military questions will be who, if anyone, fills those vacuums and who wins the internal race to organize, train, feed and arm the many uncommitted black Rhodesians.

So we return to the question of elections. However insignificant they may be as a model of free political competition, they may be the closest Rhodesia will ever come to one. Simply by happening , they will make a difference to all parties-perhaps a decisive differnce-in the struggle to maintain momentum and sustain morale. Election observers and the people who listen to them have a heavier responsibility than they may know.