The Reagan Administration's gamble four years ago that it could link independence for Africa's last remaining colony to a withdrawal of more than 20,000 Cuban troops from the region is looking more and more like a bad bet, say critics of the policy.
Once-confident Administration officials have stopped making predictions about when they will achieve independence for Namibia, although they maintain that they are still making progress.
But after four years, Namibia (South-West Africa) remains firmly under South African control, and the critics say that Angola, which harbors the Cubans, has been so weakened by a South African-backed insurgency that it cannot afford to let them leave.
Chester A. Crocker, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, thinks the policy that he helped construct will still work, but he says he has stopped making predictions because "predictions have a way of catching up with you."
Sees Bungled Job
Donald McHenry, the former U.N. ambassador who was the official closest to the issue under President Jimmy Carter, thinks the Reagan Administration bungled the job and may not even care that it has.
"I think the Namibia settlement is tertiary for this Administration," he said in an interview. "They primarily wanted the Cubans out and the Angolan government changed. They have followed a policy, however, which has ensured that the Cubans stay."
At hearings now underway on the issue, the Democratic leadership of the House Foreign Affairs African subcommittee has voiced concern that by linking independence to a Cuban troop withdrawal, the United States has given South Africa a new excuse to delay independence for Namibia.
Namibia is a nation of 1 million blacks and a handful of whites in extreme southern Africa. It borders on South Africa, which has ruled the country since 1920 even though both the United Nations and the World Court have declared its rule illegal.
Rights Abuses Charged
Crocker told the House subcommittee that South Africa has made a Cuban troop withdrawal from Angola a condition for granting independence to Namibia.
But the panel chairman, Howard Wolpe (D-Mich.), said it was the Reagan Administration that first proposed linking independence to a Cuban troop withdrawal, which Crocker didn't deny.
Wolpe said he has not seen "any significant progress" toward independence for the past several years, while the people of Namibia continue to be "subjected daily to the violence of South Africa."
Crocker acknowledged to the subcommittee that there are significant abuses of human rights in Namibia by the apartheid government of South Africa.
But in an interview, Crocker defended the link to a Cuban withdrawal, expressing the Administration concern about the spread of Marxism in the region. "From our standpoint, we made no bones about it, we don't see any reason why there ought to be Communist forces in southern Africa, none whatsoever," he said.
Other Issues Solved
Asked if that is fair to Namibians still subject to harsh South African rule, Crocker said, "We are not saying it's fair, or a question of juridical doctrine. . . . We are trying to solve a practical problem, and I think we are entitled to ask the critics, what would you have us do?"
Crocker said that all other remaining issues that would prevent independence have been resolved.
The Administration had hoped to produce a Namibia independence agreement as one of Reagan's major foreign policy accomplishments of his first term. Then Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. said in 1981 it would happen in 1982. But it didn't.
McHenry believes South Africa was on the verge of granting independence to Namibia during the Carter administration--without any link to the Cubans in Angola--but quickly changed course when it saw that Reagan might be elected president, anticipating that it would get more favorable treatment.
Clashed With Angolans
After Reagan took office, South Africa undertook an agressive policy, which was not criticized by Washington, of sending its troops into Angola in pursuit of forces of the Namibian rebel movement known as the South-West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO). Frequently, however, the South Africans ended up clashing with Angolan troops as they ranged hundreds of miles into the Angolan interior.
McHenry said in an interview that the Administration's strategy has only weakened the Angolan government, making it more dependent on Cuban troops to fight South African-backed rebels headed by Jonas Savimbi.
While U.N. resolutions setting up an approved formula for Namibian independence make no mention of the Cuban troops in Angola "we insisted on the linkage with the Cuban withdrawal," even though most other nations opposed the linkage, McHenry said.
Most Allies Oppose Linkage
Crocker acknowledged that most U.S. allies did oppose the linkage and said it took between 18 months and two years of his time "to establish legitimacy of the Cuban issue.
"There was massive resistance among our allies, the Africans, everyone, that we were overly complicating something," he said. "But by the time we were finished people began to see that what was an obstacle could also become a solution."
He said Angola now agrees that Cuban troops should be withdrawn as part of a Namibia settlement. But the Angolans are proposing a withdrawal that extends over several years, while South Africa wants a pullout in a matter of several months, a big gap that Crocker said has to be bridged and which critics say may be difficult to do.