Angola, fighting two intertwined wars that have laid waste to its southern provinces, believes that a settlement in the first, most visible fight --against South Africa -- would end its troubles with the guerrillas who have tenaciously prolonged the second.
For the Angolans, Jonas Savimbi's Western-oriented National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), now strongly entrenched in the country's Cuando-Cubango Province, is composed of South African "puppets" -- the only name used for the UNITA forces in Luanda.
In attributing any gains by UNITA to South African aid, the Marxist government here clearly hopes to reinforce the repudiation of Savimbi by most of black Africa, while at the same time discouraging the West -- particularly the United States -- from heeding UNITA's frequent requests for assistance.
By the Angolan account, the UNITA forces have little strength independent of South Africa -- or at least far less than the West might believe. Lt. Col. Pedro Foguetao, commander of Angolan forces in the southern region, told a visiting U.S. congressional delegation in Lubango last month: "UNITA practically does not exist."
Foguetao dismissed the guerrillas as bandits, saying, "In every country of the world there are people committing crimes."
It is clear, however, that Savimbi's guerrillas have created serious problems for the Angolan government, with or without South Africans. Savimbi himself has denied that South African aid is crucial to his effort, and American journalists visiting his stronghold have not seen evidence of significant amounts of South African aid.
Although this is a war characterized by conflicting, exaggerated and unverifiable claims, it is known that the vital Benguela Railroad, which used to carry copper from Zaire and Zambia to the Atlantic port of Lobito, has hardly operated since independence because of UNITA'sattacks.
Savimbi claims to have forced the closing of the country's iron ore mines at Cassinga in the south. They have been shut since the major South African invasion of 1975, but the government announced this month that the mines will reopen early next year.
Savimbi also maintains that his forces operate above the Benguela Railroad line, far from his stronghold in sparsely populated Cuando-Cubango.
It is difficult to travel far outside Huambo, the main city in the populous central plateau, because of violent incidents. Just how much of this is caused by UNITA is un-certain, however -- last month Huambo hosted some events of the Second Central South African Games without disruption from the insurgents, who could have caused considerable embarrassment to the government by attacking.
"Sometimes one wonders how much of the activity is UNITA and how much is plain robbery for lack of food," a relief official said of the central plateau.
Whatever the cause, the region has been flooded with displaced persons. It is estimated that as many as 500,000 Angolans are now refugees, out of a total population of only7 million. This is distinct from about 75,000 refugees from other nations housed elsewhere. These immigrants are mainly Namibian, but also come from Zaire and South Africa, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Although incidents have tapered off in recent months, the International Committee of the Red Cross stopped trucking food supplies to villages within a 125-mile radius of Huambo in March because of security problems. The Red Cross now flies the food to air strips and then uses government vehicles to distribute it to about 30,000 people.
It was impossible to arrange a trip to Huambo this month for a first-hand view, because all government activities were centered on combating the invading South African forces in southern Angola.
Washington Post correspondent Richard Harwood visited the province in June and July and saw the control UNITA had in some of the area, including Mavinga, the second-largest town in Cuando-Cubango.
Savimbi told Harwood that he has 15,600 troops under his command and that his forces occupy territory containing about 40 percent of the country's population.
It was impossible to verify or disprove those claims, and it is clear that the diplomatic community in Luanda does not believe them, although the diplomats have no access to the area, either.
For the Angolan government, the key to defeating Savimbi is ending the South African connection. The Angolans believe that the South Africans back UNITA, in part, because they would like to install UNITA forces in a salient through southern Angola and thus disrupt the activities of the Angolan-supported Southwest Africa People's Organization (SWAPO), which is fighting for the independence of South African-controlled Namibia.
The Angolans are thus pressing for a solution to the Namibian conflict that would end South Africa's interest in the SWAPO bases. But Luanda acknowledges that the settlement it seeks is dependent on the West, particularly the United States.
In the meantime, Angola is continuing its charges of UNITA's complicity with the South Africans -- a tactic that has helped aggravate UNITA's most serious problem.
"Puppet" is a label that is hard to discard in African politics, and UNITA's association with South Africa has in fact destroyed its credibility with most black African nations. South Africa's intervention on UNITA's side in the 1975-76 civil war was a kiss of death for Savimbi.
The Organization of African Unity was evenly divided over whether to condemn Soviet-Cuban intervention on the side of Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) during the civil war until the extensive South African tie to UNITA was disclosed.
Nigeria then led the OAU nations in recognizing the MPLA government, and it was not long before most other African nations had followed suit. This shift was followed around the world -- except in the United States and China, which backed UNITA, the losing side.
Now, even though some African nations have been hesitant to criticize the Reagan administration's new policy on the continent, most black African leaders have condemned sharply any possibility of U.S. assistance to UNITA.
Nevertheless, the Reagan administration, emphasizing the presence of Cuban troops in Angola, has asked Congress to repeal the 1976 ban of U.S. military aid to Angolan forces -- a move that would open the way for possible aid to UNITA.
There is no evidence of any direct Cuban involvement against either UNITA or the South Africans. It is believed that the Cubans are working behind the lines, freeing more Angolans for the fighting.
Most of the Cuban troops are believed to be in and around Huambo, where the UNITA guerrillas are active, or in Lubango. A large convoy of about two dozen Cuban trucks was seen driving back to Luanda from Huambo on a recent Sunday.
While most diplomats here feel that the support Savimbi gets from South Africa is significant, they do not necessarily share the the Angolan perception that UNITA would disappear as a threat if there is a Namibia settlement and South Africa no longer sends its forces into Angola.
Analysts assume that even if there is a Namibia settlement that removes the South African military from the border area, Pretoria will leave vast quantities of weapons with UNITA in an effort to keep Angola preoccupied with its operations.
"They think all their problems will be solved by peace," another diplomat said of the Angolans. "They may be wrong, but that's what they think."