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The Contras' Master Strategy : With Covert Funds, They'll Go for a Beachhead and Legitimacy

July 20, 1986|DAVID C. Mac MICHAEL | David C. MacMichael, a former CIA analyst and counterinsurgency specialist, is a senior research fellow at the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

In the months before Congress voted military assistance to the anti-government forces in Nicaragua, CIA and Pentagon analysts conceded that the contra project had been an abject military and political failure. Their estimate was a stark one: It would take at least two to three years of training and re-equipping, at funding levels far higher than the Reagan Administration's current request, before the contras posed a realistic threat to the Sandinista government. Yet the House went on to approve $100 million for the contras. This amount may turn out to be only a fig leaf to enable the Central Intelligence Agency to pour an additional $400 million in covert funds into what still may be seen as a lost cause.

Is this, then, just money down a rat hole, or will it allow the contras, within some reasonable period, to achieve President Reagan's real goal of overthrowing the Sandinistas? And does it increase or diminish the chances of direct U.S. military involvement?

The new funds should produce little immediate change in the contras' moribund military situation, except to boost morale among crucial mid-level leadership elements who had feared U.S. abandonment and their own impoverishment. Priority will be on training--with the stress on special units and the officer corps--much of it now to be conducted openly in Honduras by U.S. Army Special Forces mobile training teams and Vietnam veterans working on contract. The contras' lack of access to any significant population inside Nicaragua will preclude any large-scale expansion of their numbers, although this will be claimed for propaganda purposes. New troops will come primarily through conscription among Nicaraguan refugees who fled border fighting by seeking shelter in Costa Rica and Honduras.

However, after six to nine months we can look for a new contra offensive inside Nicaragua, if for no other purpose than to demonstrate viability to a Congress that will be asked to appropriate ever larger sums. It can be expected that the push will have a political dimension: the seizure of some populated place for the installation of an alternative government that will seek U.S. recognition.

From the testimony of Edgar Chamorro, a former contra political leader, we know that establishment of an alternative government was the objective of the contras' failed 1983 drive into the Jalapa Valley. More than likely, this time the attempt will be made on Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast, probably at Puerto Cabezas or, less likely, at Bluefields.

The Atlantic Coast is a culturally distinct and geographically isolated region where the contras have been able to exploit traditional separatist sentiment and Miskito Indian discontent. Surface communications are poor, which reduces Sandinista ground-force superiority, while proximity to the coast and the Coco River frontier will allow a contra force equipped with high-speed craft to challenge the almost navy-less government forces. Any contra amphibious or coastal operation could count on not only U.S.-supplied vessels but also, in the event of any Bay of Pigs-like threat of failure, direct U.S. naval and/or air support.

A Puerto Cabezas beachhead would be far from Nicaragua's population centers; the contras would find it hard to project their power from there to significant military or economic objectives. However, it would allow them to claim, at last, that theirs is an indigenous struggle demonstrably based on Nicaraguan soil. It would permit the transfer of their main forces out of Honduras, to the great relief of that country, and it would enormously ease the problem of supplies, which could then be delivered by sea. From Puerto Cabezas, the contras would probably direct their attacks on the port of Bluefields, through which much of Nicaragua's strategic imports flow, or toward the mining districts around Siuna.

Given the political significance of a contra provisional capital and alternative government--regardless of the true military importance of the locale--the Sandinistas can be expected to employ every resource to prevent its establishment. Similarly, President Reagan, approaching the end of his term, would be equally determined that the contras succeed. The potential for air, sea and, possibly, ground clashes between the U.S. and Nicaraguan armed forces is great.

To predict the global or regional consequences of such hostilities is impossible. Any number of scenarios, most of them dire, can be construed. During the debate over contra aid, Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) stated: "If you think that all we are talking about is a tidy little war in Nicaragua . . . look at the classified annex which accompanies this bill and see what the Administration has in store if they win this vote today."

Although this projection of contra military and political strategy is necessarily uncertain, this much is sure: The vote for contra aid has destroyed the Contadora negotiations, has ensured continued death and suffering for the Nicaraguan people, and has made probable a widened Central American war in which the possibility of a costly (in terms of American lives), direct U.S. military involvement is greatly increased.

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