Egypt is training Afghan rebels in guerrilla warfare and plans to arm them and send them back to Afghanistan to combat Soviet intervention forces, the Egyptian defense minister disclosed today.
The Egyptian assistance, announced by Gen. Kamal Hassan Ali at a news conference, underscores President Anway Sadat's growing willingness to play an active role in U.S.-led security cooperation against Soviet moves in the Middle East and South Asia.
It fits into an increasingly well-defined pattern of Egyptian eagerness to help pro-Western forces in these regions as well as in Africa, combined with an expanding U.S. commitment to outfit the outdated Egyptian military machine for Sadat's regional ambitions.
"It is time to look around us," Ali said, mentioning the end of Egypt's 30-year state of war with Israel and the change this has effected in Egypt's defense needs.
Ali refused to reveal the number of Afghans being trained on Egyptian bases or what kind of arms they are being taught to use. Analysts in Cairo expressed belief that only a limited number of rebels are involved.
Weapons likely to be useful and practical in Afghanistan include rocket-propelled grenade launchers, recoilless rifles and shoulder-fired antiaircraft missles such as the Soviet-made SAM7 that Egypt possesses in abundance, they said.
In addition, the rebels have urged friendly nations to ship them modern rifles and ammunition. Particularly prized is the Soviet-designed AK47 assault rifle, which is the main Egyptian infantry weapon and for which Egypt manufactures its own ammunition.
Even in large quantities, however, such weapons are unlikely to change the overwhelming superiority enjoyed by the estimated 90,000 Soviet troops in Afghanistan matched against disorganized and ill-equipped bands of rebels.
But aside from its practical import, Egypt's help to the rebels dramatizes the new perspective Sadat has adopted in viewing Egypt's military needs and the sources of danger facing Egypt now that peace with Israel is a reality.
Asked to enumerate the dangers that led Egypt to seek modernization of its Army, Ali pointed to Soviet-influenced South Yemen, to the pro-Soviet government of Ethiopia on the Horn of Africa and to the current Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. He said Egypt needs sophisticated weaponry to meet these threats and, once again underlining Egypt's new vocation as a regional force, added:
"Thus Egypt will be able to defend its own territory and also any other Arab country when this support is needed and when this support is asked for."
Sadat's government expressed willingness to train Afghan rebels during his summit meeting with Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel at Aswan, upper Egypt, in the second week of January. Ali's remarks, however, marked the first disclosure that rebels actually are receiving training and that they will be armed and returned to Afghanistan.
He did not say how the rebels would be returned to Afghanistan. Since Egypt does not have good relations with Iran, which borders Afghanistan on the west, the likeliest reentry route appeared to be through Pakistan.
Other, similar gestures made by Sadat recently include arms and ammunition for King Hassan II of Morocco for use against Polisario guerrillas fighting for the independence of the Western Sahara and an agreement with Zaire for officer training, arms and ammunition for President Mobutu Sese Seko's forces. In addition, Egyptian and U.S. Air Force personnel cooperated recently in joint training exercises in which two U.S. radar planes used Egyptian air bases.
In return, Egypt clearly expects the United States to update the worn Egyptian military machine. Washington already has agreed to provide $1.5 billion in military aid as part of the peace treaty deal and is asking Congress for an additional $1.1 billion over the next three years.
This is to include M60 tanks and F16 jet fighters and, and Ali indicated today, possibly F15s as well. Egypt already has received a small number of F4 Phantoms and is negotiating for licenses from U.S. firms to manufacture the less sophisticated F5.
"We estimate that within a year we will be able to get a license to manufacture the F5," Ali said.
This would help provide revitalization for the Arab Organization for Industrialization, a Saudi-financed arms manufacturing group whose backing was withdrawn because of Saudi anger over the peace treaty with Israel. Several U.S. Defense Department envoys have visited AOI factories here during negotiations over Egypt's bid to build the F5.
Ali indicated Egypt would like to receive from the United States an open-ended commitment for complete modernization of the Egyptian armed forces. At the same time, he made it clear the United States is insisting on a more limited commitment, or at least one with a timetable attached to it.
"We will have to make a compromise on the two ideas," he said.
A high Defense Department official is expected here next week for further negotiations on the Egyptian requests, including the search for F15s as well as F16s.
"Hopefully, we'll get both of them," Ali said. "Let us hope that the Congress will approve both of them."