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The Salvador Option (Part 3)
Lending Money to a Gambler
June 18, 2007

For the past two weeks, I've set the groundwork for discussing the so-called "Salvador Option" in Iraq, by pointing out that both the RAND Corporation (see my Weekly commentary from June 4th) and a former military advisor to the Salvadoran military (June 11th) described our efforts at counterinsurgency in El Salvador as failures. Despite this, numerous conservative commentators, many with links to the Reagan administration (John Negroponte, Elliott Abrams, Otto Reich, John Poindexter, as well as Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz), considered the El Salvador experience an unqualified success, and believed it could provide a template for victory in Iraq.

This led to the development of the Salvador Option, as it came to be known, for dealing with the Iraqi insurgency. This was reported in two major news outlets, Newsweek and the New York Times Magazine, with slightly different emphases.

The Newsweek report appeared in January, 2005, and claimed that the Salvador Option as it had already become known was as yet not operational, but had the vigorous support of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. The plan would call for the training by American Special Forces of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shiite militiamen for "commando-type" operations modeled after the Salvadoran government's efforts during its civil war with leftist guerillas to "decapitate the insurgency" (a term borrowed from the Nazi occupation of Poland) by capturing, interrogating (often through torture), then killing members of the opposition or its supporters. As critics of the plan noted, the key is the targeting of "supporters." The Salvadoran death squads targeted priests, teachers, social workers, journalists, anyone who expressed dissatisfaction with the government, and in the end were responsible, by the UN's estimate, of approximately 85% of the 40,000 civilian deaths during the civil war. (This strategy also went by a different name—"Drain the sea"—from the Maoist precept that if one wants to kill the fish (the guerillas), one must drain the sea, i.e., eliminate the culture of support the guerillas enjoy. In other words, in the name of supporting democracy, we endorsed a military establishment that openly modeled its counterinsurgency on the tactics of two of the most murderous totalitarian regimes in the twentieth century.) Despite the slaughter of innocent civilians, conservatives largely lauded the Salvadoran effort, deemed it a success, and openly encouraged its use in Iraq. As one military source noted, the November 2004 battle for Fallujah (the second in six months time) had not "broken the back of the insurgency" as claimed by Marine Gen. John Sattler, but simply spread it out, and it was broadly recognized that the US had to go "on the offensive."

The second report was written by Peter Maass for the New York Times Magazine, and appeared in May 2005. Maass noted that in truth, a version of the Salvador Option had already been in place by the summer of 2004. American advisers Jim Steele, who had been in charge of the US Military Group in El Salvador in 1985-1986, and Steve Casteel, a veteran of the DEA's counter-narcotics efforts in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia, oversaw the establishment of commando units comprised of former Baathists. The commandos began to exert themselves in the field, enjoying successes the Americans envied, but also employing methods American troops shunned, especially in the aftermath of the Abu Graib scandal.

Both Steele and Casteel adamantly denied that they in any way gave a green light to death squads, torture, or other human rights violations; they may well have been sincere. But matters spiraled murderously out of control when Shiites dominated the elections of January 2005 and took over for the Interim Government: Shiite death squads, linked to the Badr militia but acting under the aegis of the Ministry of Interior, soon began systematically hunting and killing Sunni men, creating a sectarian bloodbath that continues to tear the country apart. American calls for transparent investigations of the murders have netted little in the way of results.

Meanwhile, the escalating bloodshed has caused, among countless other troubles, the dislocation of millions of refugees, especially among the professional classes who are most needed for the civil development so necessary for the economic and political normalization Iraq will need to defeat the insurgency.

But the Salvador Option had another incarnation, as it turns out. This is revealed in Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq by Thomas E. Ricks. The proponent was Kalev Sepp, a retired Special Forces officer who had served as an advisor in El Salvador, but had come away with a distinctly different impression than fellow-advisor Maj. Robert J. Coates, USMC (see my Weekly commentary for June 11th) regarding the strategic assessment of that effort.

Sepp, in a paper he wrote in May 2005 for Military Review opined that El Salvador was a "success," though he characterized that success in no greater detail than to state that our counterinsurgency effort managed to force a negotiated settlement with the Marxist guerillas in 1991. This is a curious standard for success, since the guerillas had proposed a negotiated success ten years earlier, but the Salvadoran government, with the enthusiastic support of the Reagan administration, had rejected negotiations, instead pushing for complete victory—a victory they were never able to achieve, for the very reasons identified by RAND and Maj. Coates, as well as four American lieutenant colonels whose paper, "American Military Policy in Small Wars: the Case of El Salvador," similarly faulted our counterinsurgency strategy in that country's civil war. They noted that a successful counterinsurgency required the genuine implementation of social, political, economic, and military reform with an "honest and responsive government" as partner. But the four colonels argued (as did Maj. Coates and Benjamin Schwartz, author of the RAND study) that the corruption so endemic to both the Salvadoran military and its government prevented any such success.

Or, as the RAND study concluded, the US policy was "built on a foundation of corpses," in which "policymakers in Washington and American civilian and American military personnel in El Salvador consorted with murderers and sadists." The failure to win the hearts and minds of the populace or meaningfully reform Salvadoran institutions doomed the counterinsurgency to stalemate. Its only claim to success was the murder spree that did, indeed, decapitate the insurgency, but without killing it. (Even the decapitation strategy was only half successful, due to its targeting civilians; during the entire 12 years of the insurgency, the Salvadoran military never captured or killed a single guerilla field commander.)

Nonetheless, Schwartz in particular noted that the "dirty little secret" of the Salvadoran war was that the "death squads worked." They eliminated many civil opposition leaders, caused others to flee the country or go underground, and cowered those who might have supported the opposition but now saw too much risk and too little reward. This pacified the larger cities, which the government continued to hold throughout the conflict (though the capital, San Salvador, was at serious risk during the rebel offensive of November 1989). But out of cowardice, corruption, and incompetence, they surrendered the countryside to the rebels, thus the continuing stalemate that resulted in the negotiated settlement Sepp and others now typify as a success.

I would like to believe that American officials, in contemplating a Salvador Option for Iraq, did not have in mind the kind of Grand Guignol viciousness the Salvadoran death squads exemplified. It's hard to know for certain. There is a grim sadism that passes for hard-headed pragmatism in certain circles of power, and the realities of combat reliably dehumanize a great many people on every side of any conflict, military and civilian both. Some critics say American involvement in the training of Latin American militaries in the 1970s and 1980s included instruction in torture methods and extra-judicial killing. (See in particular the reporting of Allan Nairn, an example of which can be found here). I doubt such critics find Steele's and Casteel's disavowal of such methods credible. Regardless, the US continues to search for some viable strategy of counterinsurgency in Iraq three years after the Salvador Option was first conceived. It's noteworthy that Gen. David Petraeus, now in charge of that effort, endorsed the commando units advised by Casteel, and specifically brought Steele into the equation. Gen. Petraeus is by all accounts a good commander with a genuine grasp of the highly political, as opposed to purely military, nature of counterinsurgency. But again, one feels compelled to ask: If the El Salvador example is considered a success, what really lies ahead in Iraq? How long will we commit combat troops (which we did not have on the ground in El Salvador), especially since insurgencies routinely last five to ten years, until one side or the other, or both, are exhausted by the bloodshed? Will a negotiated settlement, rather than "crushing the insurgency," be deemed a victory?

What's striking about all this in the context of Sepp's paper was that it attempted to analyze 53 insurgencies during the Twentieth Century to determine what traits characterized successful versus unsuccessful counterinsurgency efforts, in order to draw up a strategic plan for Iraq. (He had been asked to do this by Maj. Gen. Stephen Sargeant, who was in charge of developing a counterinsurgency strategy in 2004. Sepp at the time was an assistant professor at the Department of Defense Analysis, Naval Postgraduate School, in Monterey, California.) As Ricks notes in Fiasco, Sepp's list of the nine traits that typified an unsuccessful counterinsurgency perfectly captured, sadly, the American effort in Iraq during 2003-2004. What's odd is that at least four of the same unsuccessful traits also typified the Salvadoran counterinsurgency strategy:

  • Primacy of military direction of counterinsurgency
  • Priority of kill-capture enemy, not on engaging population
  • Battalion size operations as the norm
  • Military units concentrated on large bases for protection

Why Sepp believes, despite his own analysis, that the Salvadoran effort was a success is something of a mystery. And it is especially puzzling given Ricks' description of him as a fundamentally thoughtful, honest, and thorough analyst.

What one comes away with is a sense that one key question is seldom if ever asked: If we are having to support a government that must fundamentally reform—and has historically resisted such reform often to the point of mass murder—not to mention whose populace must be won over by co-opting the grievances championed by the insurgents, perhaps the entire effort is misconceived. The government knows which side we've chosen—usually because of strategic military or economic considerations—and knows as well we fear compromise of those interests more than being tainted by secondhand corruption, sadism, and incompetence. They can wait out our flirtations with virtue and human rights; they know who we'll support to the bitter end.

Or, as the Army War College's Steve Metz has remarked: "American involvement in counterinsurgency is often like lending money to a gambler—it postpones real resolution of the problem rather than speeding it."

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