The commander of U.S. military forces in Latin America said U.S. support for the contras is the "cheapest and most effective way" to keep Nicaragua's Sandinista government from subverting its neighbors.
In an interview, Gen. John R. Galvin said U.S. assistance and training have transformed the Nicaraguan insurgents from "an absolutely ragged" band of rebels into a disciplined guerrilla force capable of winning the five-year-old war.
But he said the contras are under undue pressure to perform quickly to impress Congress before an expected September vote on $105 million in new aid for next year.
"When you start telling a guerrilla that it has to be done quickly, it costs lives because the essence of guerrilla warfare is slow, careful planning," Galvin said.
"I don't think there's a contra out there that is not aware that he had better get some good action done by September. . . . That is why I hope we not only support the contras but we will give some indication that we're going to sustain that support for some time."
To Take Command of NATO
The 58-year-old four-star Army general spoke to The Times late Monday at his tropical hilltop headquarters of the U.S. Southern Command. He ends a two-year tour next month to become commander of North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces and will be replaced here by Gen. Fred F. Woerner Jr.
During the two-hour interview, Galvin said a negative vote in Congress will be "a disaster for Central America," but he opposed direct U.S. military action against the Sandinistas. He acknowledged that the Iran-contra hearings in Washington might affect the vote as much as the rebels' own performance, but he insisted that sustained funding is vital both as a sign of reliability to U.S. regional allies and as a deterrence to an expanded Soviet Bloc arsenal in Nicaragua.
"How long are we committed to stability in the Western Hemisphere?" he asked. "Just for this year? Or are we committed forever?"
The general made these other points:
--Human rights abuses in Central America are unevenly reported, with more emphasis on violations by the contras than on those by leftist Salvadoran guerrillas or the Sandinista government. "The atrocities in their bulk have been committed by the other side," he said.
--He personally inspected the Salvadoran army garrison at El Paraiso two weeks before guerrillas attacked it March 31. He found the base to be well protected but said the army "got cocky" and let its defenses down. He criticized the press for seizing on that raid as evidence of new guerrilla strength and underplaying an unsuccessful garrison attack by the rebels the following month.
--A Costa Rican plan to bring peace to Central America is "overly idealistic" because it calls for a cease-fire in Nicaragua before any concessions by the Sandinistas. The five Central American presidents are scheduled to meet next month to discuss the plan.
--Increased U.S. assistance is needed to keep foreign debts, leftist guerrillas and drug traffickers from undermining new democracies throughout Latin America. "If we don't get wise to the fact that these countries face a terrible threat," he said, "we'll end up living in a hostile hemisphere."
The Southern Command oversees U.S. military operations in 16 Latin American countries. While the CIA and not the Pentagon directs the contras' insurgency, Galvin said he has twice visited Nicaraguan rebel camps in Honduras to monitor their progress.
The contras say they are fighting to overthrow the Marxist-led Sandinistas, who came to power in 1979 by defeating President Anastasio Somoza's National Guard in their own guerrilla insurgency.
Galvin, like other U.S. officials, said the United States is backing the contras to try to force the Sandinistas to negotiate and adopt a more democratic system.
"I think the contras, if they are sustained, are capable of bringing about that kind of change," he said.
If U.S. aid stops, he added, "The contras won't have the wherewithal to fight at the levels they are now. The Sandinistas will have more time to undermine their neighbors, and that's what they will do.
"The contras are the cheapest and most effective way that we can achieve our goals and protect our allies in Central America. There's no way we could contain the Sandinistas at a cost of anything like $100 million a year.
"It would cost 10 times that, at least," he said, to enlarge armies in neighboring countries and station more U.S. troops in the region. "But that would be barking up the wrong tree," he added, because the Sandinistas would attack with ideological "subversion" rather than conventional warfare, and "You cannot contain that by putting military forces on their border."
12,000 Rebels in Nicaragua
Since U.S. aid was resumed last October after a two-year cutoff, most of the contras have infiltrated back into Nicaragua from camps in Honduras. Galvin said 12,000 rebels are now in Nicaragua, twice the number the Sandinistas estimate.
He said the number of monthly clashes has risen from 125 two years ago to 300 now, with the contras sabotaging economic targets while avoiding large-scale combat with the Sandinista army.
"It's an entirely new war that's going on now," he said. "The contras are all over the place. They are learning to fight like guerrillas."
Noting that the Sandinista insurgency was 15 years old when it triumphed, Galvin said the contras need years to develop. But he contended that their ability to get food in rural areas of Nicaragua shows they already have a degree of popular support.
Throughout the war, the contras have been accused of stealing food and killing civilians with land mines and assaults on cooperative farms. Galvin said their recent U.S. training has emphasized a military code of conduct.
"We have not put pressure to stop them from using mines," he said. "We have put pressure to use them the right way. We've told them: 'If you use a mine, it is to be used to fight the enemy, not to fight women and children.' "
The general said the Soviet Union "is not anxious to become overly involved" in Nicaragua and would "back off" if the war turns in the contras' favor.
He also said the United States should not intervene with its own forces if the contras fail. "It is not something the present Administration, the Congress or the American people want," he said. "I don't think that's going to happen."