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Repeating Errors of History

The U.S. counterinsurgency tactics used in El Salvador are at best a case study in how to prolong an insurgency, not end it. And it won't be any different in Iraq.
 
 
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On Jan. 8, Newsweek revealed that the Bush administration is "intensively debating an option that dates back to a still-secret strategy in the Reagan administration¹s battle against the leftist guerrilla insurgency in El Salvador in the early 1980s." The "option" under consideration: the use of death squads to kill Iraqi insurgents.

The plan more closely resembles a dark and desperate homage to the murderous legacy of Salvadoran ultrarightist Major Roberto D'Aubuisson than anything likely to bring lasting peace to Iraq. But, as Newsweek reports, since many on the American right downplay El Salvador's scores of dead civilians when they equate counterinsurgency "success" with U.S. actions in El Salvador (graciously described by the magazine as an instance where "the U.S. government funded or supported nationalist forces that allegedly included so-called 'death squads'"), the notion of using U.S. Special Forces teams to "advise, support and possibly train Iraqi squads to target Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers" makes perfect sense.

This latest bit of news may be the best indicator to date as to just how far around the bend the current crop of Pentagonistas has gone in their straw-grasping attempts to check the insurgency-they-never-thought-could happen. The plan should be a cause for alarm, and not just because Pentagon hawks are apparently still rationalizing away the murder of scores of Salvadoran citizens. It¹s also disturbing because the U.S. military's own scholarship over the past 20 years holds that that the military and political counterinsurgency efforts in El Salvador are at best a case study in how to prolong an insurgency, not end it.

Success? What Success?

In a 1991 paper for the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College, Maj. Robert J. Coates characterized the conflict – then in its twelfth year – as an ongoing "insurgency to be defeated." In other words, not quite the "success" that the Bush administration now claims it was. Having been a U.S. military advisor to the El Salvadoran Armed Forces (ESAF), Coates was certainly in a position to know just how well things were going on the ground: Contrary to rosy reports about the ESAFŒs "improvements," Coates characterized its officer corps as one so "riddled with corruption" and inhumane to its own soldiers (where "officers view the enlisted men as a replaceable commodity") that it was "detrimental to the war effort" – so much so that it had actually "aided the insurgency¹s ability to prolong the war."

Coates' report was, however, really only a shorter, updated version of a 1989 report, titled "American Military Policy in Small Wars: The Case of El Salvador," by the conservative quartet of Andrew Bacevich, James Hallums, Richard White and Thomas Young, all of whom were U.S. Army lieutenant colonels at the time. Their considered opinion: a decade of billions of dollars in U.S. military and civil aid had done little but preserve a wretched status quo with no end in sight.

Unlike many who start from the errant presumption that fighting a counterinsurgency is primarily a military, rather than political, affair, the colonels held that U.S.-backed military efforts should not be the primary strategy of a counterinsurgency operation, but that the real focus should be on genuine social, political, economic and military reform – and should be conducted only with a "honest and responsive government" as a partner.

In El Salvador, the officers found, U.S. aid in the name of counterinsurgency had produced two results. The first was the creation of a better equipped and slightly better trained Salvadoran army that, in taking the fight to the FMLN, merely encouraged the rebels to disband into smaller units – units that the Salvadoran army refused to engage, opting instead for "search and avoid patrols," as one U.S. officer derisively put it. The second outcome was the strengthening of a corrupt and repressive oligarchy, financed by billions of dollars justified by wishing-will-make-it-so rhetoric about reforming El Salvador's government. Only too aware of the American obsession with not losing a country to communism, the government felt free to flout U.S. demands for progressive change and let its paramilitary terrorists run rampant. "The failure to revitalize the government," the officers wrote, "further accounts for the existing stalemate and poor prognosis for the future."

With nothing to lose, the Salvadoran military and its proxies pursued a campaign of "lavish brutality, fail[ing] to distinguish between dissenters and revolutionaries," killing tens of thousands of citizens (many of whom had nothing to do with the FMLN), all of which added up to a "U.S. policy built on a foundation of corpses." So concluded Benjamin Schwartz, the RAND Corporation analyst tasked with assessing El Salvador policy for the Department of Defense, in December 1998's Atlantic Monthly .

Schwartz noted that the "dirty little secret" to maintaining a perpetual stalemate was that "death squads worked." Looking back with revulsion, Schwartz summed up "counterinsurgency" in El Salvador as a policy that in theory "demanded nothing less than that America effect fundamental changes in the country's authoritarian culture, its political practices, and its economic, social and military structure. Such a project used to be called, presumptuously, 'nation-building¹." In reality, "for a decade American policymakers in Washington and American civilian and American military personnel in El Salvador consorted with murders and sadists." And it was mass murder that received bipartisan authorization, with Republicans "greatly exaggerating" the human rights achievements of what they knew was a perpetually "homicidal regime" and Democrats pursuing a policy of "meaningless threats," getting the occasional unenforceable condition attached to aid that they would never block lest they be perceived as too leftist.

The Moral of El Salvador

As Schwartz and others have noted, the end of the war in El Salvador had little to do with a triumph of military counterinsurgency or the effectiveness of U.S. "nation-building" efforts, but with the end of the Cold War. With the collapse of the mighty Soviet Union, the Salvadoran government knew that Tio Sam would no longer be so generous with aid or as accommodating of murder. And so the government sat down and negotiated a peace with the FMLN. The end result illustrated on of many lessons about the U.S. efforts endeavor in El Salvador: "American involvement in counterinsurgency," observed the Army War College's Steve Metz, "is often like lending money to a chronic gambler – it postpones real resolution of the problem rather than speeding it."

So what then are the real parallels between El Salvador and Iraq? First, in terms of its ability to fight, the Iraqi military is just as bad, if not worse, than the Salvadoran military. Second, given the Sunni boycott of the upcoming elections, Iraq's not going to have a truly legitimate, representative government anytime soon. Third, despite the Bush administration's rhetoric about its plans to provide a better future for the Iraqis, any U.S.-backed government in Iraq will, in light of current circumstances, likely be allowed to be as ineffectual, brutal or corrupt as it wants. As was the case in Salvador, the imperative of staving off the guerillas – now that fighting terrorism rather than communism is our prime national security objective – will trump all other considerations.

There may be some optimists in the White House – as well as Democratic enablers in Congress – who think the U.S. can still use the Salvador model without repeating its errors. But for that plan to work, the U.S. government and its army will need a modern counterinsurgency doctrine and training regimen – which it didn't have it in El Salvador, and which it doesn't have now. Pray that fortune favors the foolish.

Jason Vest is a contributor to The Nation and the Village Voice .