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S. Africa Sees Rebel Defeat in Namibia

July 22, 1987|MICHAEL PARKS | Times Staff Writer

OSHAKATI, Namibia — After fighting the South-West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) for two decades in one of the world's longest guerrilla wars, the South African army believes that it has won the military battle. But it knows too that it could still lose the more important political struggle for the future of Namibia, Africa's last colony.

The SWAPO guerrillas, who have been fighting since 1966 for the independence of Namibia, or South-West Africa, have been reduced by an intensified South African counterinsurgency campaign to little more than hit-and-run attacks that are virtually suicide missions.

The South African army would like to claim victory, a major achievement since modern insurgencies have proved difficult to defeat and SWAPO appeared to be winning 10 years ago. But it knows that the real battlefield in Namibia is the political arena, where SWAPO remains strong.

"This is a political war," Col. As Kleynhans, a senior intelligence officer, said at military headquarters in Windhoek, the Namibian capital. "The military aspect is only a small component . . . but a military defeat for the enemy creates the opportunity of a political victory for us."

The costs of this war, long forgotten by most of the world and eclipsed in the last three years by the turmoil within South Africa itself, have been horrendous.

More than 10,000 SWAPO insurgents have been killed over the last decade, according to South African figures, and reported civilian deaths totaled more than 1,500. Over 20 years, nearly 25,000 are believed to have been killed. In a population of only 1.2 million, these casualties are nearly on the scale of those in the last years of the Vietnam War.

Peace Is Unknown

Although South Africa has been increasingly able to replace two-thirds of its forces with troops recruited from Namibia itself, it keeps several battalions of white draftees "on the border." The war still costs Pretoria an estimated $1.5 million a day and nearly that much again in economic assistance. Such sums are punishing for a country with its own urgent needs.

And life here in Ovamboland, where half of Namibia's population lives and where most of the fighting occurs, has been on a war-footing for so long that people have difficulty conceiving what peace would be like.

Ovamboland lies in the extreme north of Namibia and borders Angola.

A permanent state of emergency is in force here. Soldiers and police seem to be everywhere in their armored vehicles, and a dusk-to-dawn curfew is in effect. Land mines make many roads a risk. Children are abducted from their classrooms to become guerrillas. Village headmen and other leaders are still targets for assassination, and police counterinsurgency units track suspected SWAPO guerrillas and supporters with a frightening ruthlessness.

SWAPO Fights On

"A guy here sits between two fires, either of which can destroy him," said Maj. Jock Seaward, an intelligence officer at the army's Oshakati operational headquarters. "He's never been too keen on us, but I think he's not so keen on SWAPO any longer. . . .

"SWAPO has lost its strongman image through the beating we gave it in the past four or five years. It still has considerable support among the Ovambos, but not on the scale or of the same intensity."

But the ever-resilient SWAPO fights on, putting more of its efforts now into broadening its political base throughout Namibia and into seeking international support for free elections that it is convinced it would win despite its military setbacks.

Time, in SWAPO's view, is on the insurgents' side, says Anton Lubowski, a SWAPO spokesman in Windhoek.

"The more time we have over the next two to three years, the better it is for us," Lubowski, a white lawyer, argued. "We want to strengthen and restructure our grass-roots organizations and to increase our recruitment and mobilization of the people throughout the country, not just in Ovamboland.

"While there may have been some setbacks in the armed struggle, it is only one form of struggle, along with political and diplomatic efforts, intended to put pressure on South Africa to withdraw and finally give Namibia its independence. . . ."

But South African commanders, who have become students of counterinsurgency campaigns around the world, are persuaded that they are winning where most others have failed.

"Time is generally on the side of the insurgent, but that is not so here," Kleynhans said, adding that local residents, once SWAPO supporters, are providing security forces with most of their intelligence now. "SWAPO can see that time is running out on them in terms of the support of the people, who won't follow losers."

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