Thursday, January 13, 2005

Death squads and US military perspectives on El Salvador

David Adesnik at Oxblog has some comments on my earlier piece, so now I'm going to comment further, while making some clarifications and quite a few additions. Unfortunately, this has turned into a monster post, so be forewarned.

First of all, I think Adesnik's right that this is probably very sloppy reporting. The Newsweek journalists write that the "still secret" strategy of the U.S. was to support "nationalist" forces, which "allegedly" included death squads. Who could that be other than ARENA, as in Alianza Republicana Nacionalista?

True, the U.S. Republican Party did help ARENA get its act together as a party in the early 1980s, and the godfather of ARENA was Roberto D'Aubuisson, believed by the CIA and everyone else to be behind alot of the death-squad activity, including the murder of Archbishop Romero. But that somehow the U.S. government was behind the death-squad strategy is still far-fetched.

The U.S. did aid the Salvadoran intelligence apparatus in the 60s and 70s (including ANSESAL, which D'Aubuisson came out of) as I believe Mike McClintock points out in great detail, but I don't think there's any evidence the U.S. government was behind non-armed forces violence, i.e., that it was a U.S. strategy. I suppose, critics will say, "well, that's why it's a 'still-secret' strategy!"

What we know thus far, however, is that U.S. had little direct control, and not nearly the influence they would have liked, over violence carried out by the Salvadoran military in the early 1980s. The reasons were numerous, but the U.S. chose sides pretty quickly, and the Salvadoran military knew they were needed for the "war on communism", so they knew they could do pretty much anything they wanted without suffering a cut off of aid (grossly stated, of course, and all of which would change with the Jesuit case, of course).

Granted I haven't yet read Cindy Arnson's chapter on Salvadoran death squads based on declassified documents that appears in a new book on the global death squad phenomenon, but we also know that death squad violence was apparently not sufficiently of U.S.-design that it could prevent them from turning against US officials (murder of AIFLD advisers in 1980, which turned out to be elements of the National Guard, and numerous threats against US Embassy officials).

Doug Farah's take on the death squads of the early 1980s -- and Doug focused on this issue perhaps more than any other reporter in memory, publishing a long piece in the Washington Post, which most assuredly helped him win a correspondent position by 1992 -- is that the U.S. tolerated the death squads in the early 1980s, because fundamentally they were fighting international communism. Only when things got out of hand did the Reagan administration start to reign them in.

So perhaps Adesnik and Farah were right about the early 1980s, although there are lots of people out there commenting on this story who feel like Newsweek not only has a good scoop, but is also not telling us anything we don't already know. I think the latter commentators are way off the mark, and this is why.

U.S. military thinking about the "Salvador Model"

Let me give you my alternative theory, one which I hinted at in my previous post, but didn't put forth very clearly. When I first read the Newsweek story, mentally I think I discarded the stuff about the early 1980s (because of the above), and assumed it was sloppy reporting. To most journalists, the war was about the early 1980s--that's when El Salvador was a front-page story in the U.S. But of course the war didn't end until 1992. I would speculate that, in fact, the U.S. military guys interviewed were not referring to the early 1980s, but that what they described about possible options in Iraq sounded to those reporters like the early 1980s, so that was the descriptive filler that got put in.

In fact, what U.S. military people are likely going to refer to when they talk about El Salvador is not the early part of the war, when the U.S. had yet to greatly assist the Salvadoran Armed Forces, but rather about the entire trajectory of the war, and especially the latter part when their efforts began to bear fruit.

But why call it a "secret," then, you might ask. That's what's new with the Newsweek article, that it was previously thought of as a secret. Well, first of all, it may simply be the way these military guys talk and think. For example, look at this line from an article in the March-April 2004 issue of Military Review, written by a Major General and Colonel in the U.S. Army:
Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush supported a small, limited war (from a U.S. perspective) while trying to keep U.S. military involvement a secret from the American public and media. (my emphasis)
The point of this article is to argue for why U.S. involvement in El Salvador should be a model for U.S. involvement in Colombia, thus they talk up the "El Salvador Model." Let me quote at length as to what that such a model might contain (again, any emphasis is my own):
The El Salvador Model

United States support to El Salvador began in 1981. Three mobile training teams (MTTs) of military advisers provided infantry, artillery, and military intelligence instruction.2 Service support advisers on 1-year tours augmented these limited-duration (3- month) MTTs. Typical service branches were infantry, Special Forces (SF), and military intelligence officers, usually majors, captains, noncommissioned officers (NCOs), or warrant officers with linguistic capabilities. Some were Latin American foreign area officers, and most SF personnel had served exclusively in Latin America.

U.S. military advisers populated the entire ESAF from joint headquarters to brigades. Two officers (operations and intelligence) were assigned to each of the six ESAF infantry brigade headquarters in six geographical areas of the country. Personnel were also assigned to the ESAF artillery headquarters, the logistics center, and the national training center. Their mission was to support their Salvadoran counterparts in establishing training programs and to assist in the military decisionmaking process and in staff and operational matters. In San Salvador, El Salvador's capital, U.S. Army combat and combat support majors and lieutenant colonels supported key ESAF joint staff elements while quietly and discreetly prosecuting the war operationally and with intelligence.

As early as 1983, the Salvadoran military intelligence effort received-
- Target folder packages from the Central American Joint Intelligence Team of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
- Aerial platform intelligence support from Howard Air Force Base in Panama and Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras.
- All-source intelligence analysis from the U.S. Southern Command J2 through its liaison officer at the U.S. Embassy.
- Intelligence from an advisory team assigned to the Salvadoran J2.3

These elements worked in harmony to produce actionable intelligence from within and outside El Salvador in direct support of the ESAF.

Reagan and Bush pulled out all the stops when it came to ESAF unit and collective training. Entire Salvadoran immediate reaction infantry battalions went to Fort Benning, Georgia, and Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for advanced infantry training. Another battalion trained at the U.S. and Honduran training facility in Puerto Castillo/Trujillo, Honduras, until a training center was established at La Union, El Salvador. Also, SF personnel trained ESAF infantry battalions and brigades in country. Many Salvadoran officers and NCOs went to the former School of the Americas (now the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) at Fort Benning to learn the basics of warfighting-from U.S. Army staff planning doctrine to infantry tactics.

The U.S. Army sought to improve ESAF professionalism by emphasizing the importance of an NCO corps. As an experiment, cadets from El Salvador's military academy were assigned to platoon leader or sergeant positions in their last 2 years of school so they could apply leadership skills in the field. Those who survived became officers with degrees and 2 years of combat experience. They eventually became the colonels and generals of El Salvador's postpeace-process military. This full-court press from a committed U.S. administration produced rapid improvement of the ESAF's combat capabilities and effectiveness.

The Commander, U.S. Military Group (USMILGP), San Salvador, assisted by a deputy commander, operations officer, and U.S. Army section chief, managed the robust security assistance program and supervised the military advisers assigned to the USMILGP and the American Embassy. The USMILGP operations officer and senior U.S. operations adviser coordinated the military advisers' day-to-day activities. Lieutenant colonels assigned to the Salvadoran Joint Command Headquarters and who worked with their ESAF counterparts assisted the USMILGP as needed.

To ensure that the U.S. Army did not exceed its in-country advisory force structure, the U.S. Congress placed a 55-man cap on U.S. personnel permanently assigned to the program. The cap did not include temporary duty (TDY) personnel. At times as many as 250 U.S. service members, most of them on TDY, responded to legitimate host-nation requests for support that permanent personnel could not provide (medical, mine detection, or antiterrorist training support). This small support package sustained the war effort from 1981 until the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the Salvadoran government signed peace accords in December 1992.
Still, one might argue that all this is bull, and that it just blithely ignores all the other dirty stuff the U.S. was doing vis-a-vis the D'aubuisson-led death squads.

But my point is that this is a very good reflection of how the U.S. military currently considers the Salvadoran "model," or "option," or whatever you want to call it. Also, notice how they considered this strategy "secret" and had to be prosecuted "quietly" and "discreetly," but also how the U.S. support produced "actionable intelligence" -- meaning military actions that can be taken as a result of, say, locating insurgent hide-outs -- "inside and outside El Salvador," which in the Salvadoran case probably meant Honduras (at a minimum), but in Iraq this is paralleled with talk of going into Syria.

As we can see, military discourse about the Salvador model has everything to do with what happened in the mid- to late-1980s, not the early 1980s at all. This is what I was trying to get at in my post last Sunday with the Joya Martínez story -- admittedly one of the few examples that we have of U.S. support for intelligence units that also carried out these kind of "death-squad" style assassinations. (JM did say US officers held the money bags for such units, but the Military Review article wouldn't dispute that.) By the late 1980s, violence was much more selective, yet there was still enough of a steady trickle of political assassinations to keep the FMLN on its toes.

So it seems more likely that U.S. military sources were referring to nothing that's really secret at all, but rather focusing on what they think worked in the Salvadoran context. Of course, if I'm right about this, that just means the Newsweek reporters connected far too many dots in their interviews with Pentagon sources, ending up with a very confusing and lousy story.

Was the "Salvador" model a success by U.S. military standards?

Jason Vest over at Alternet makes light of military commentators who noted that the Salvadoran military, on the whole, was never really reformed, and there's no denying that. But what Vest ignores is that the U.S. did have some success with certain units, especially the Air Force and others who engaged, for example, in long-range reconnaissance patrols. (See Tom Long's comments at end of this blog entry back in March about the paratroopers of the Air Force.)

In fact, Vest totally overstates his case when he says that 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." That's just sloppy scholarship on his part.

Vest cites a rather pedestrian classroom paper by one Major Coates as evidence that the US military establishment doesn't view El Salvador as a success. Apart from the fact that such a paper can hardly be considered a serious part of official military scholarship, I think Vest misinterprets the paper, which also says:

But by 1985, the benefits of United States' training and equipment gave the upper hand to the ESAF. The result was that the FMLN had to change its strategy and tactics as previously mentioned. Now, with the military situation stabilized, the ESAF continued to chase the insurgency instead of focusing on the cause and root of the insurgency.

In Coates' view, "the ESAF [El Salvador Armed Forces] refuse to comprehend that victory will only be achieved first by addressing the grievances of the Salvadoran people."

Like many military classroom papers of the time, this paper relies on a rather infamous monograph written by four lieutenant colonels, done while they were at the Kennedy School. Vest dates the Lt. Colonels' report as 1989, but it was published in 1988, having been written based on a field visit to El Salvador in the fall of 1987, the date being important to situate chronologically the criticism they were making. (The report was published as Bacevich, A.J. et. al. American Military Policy in Small Wars: The Case of El Salvador, Washington, D.C.: Pergamon-Brassey’s, 1988, but it is out of print.)

Similarly, as Michael Massing noted in an essay published in 1989, the report's authors -- while admitting to a military stalemate -- also argued that the point of counterinsurgency involved much, much more if it was to succeed. Massing:
Noting that winning a guerrilla war presumes an "honest and responsive" government, the four lieutenant colonels observe: "The government of El Salvador did not manifest those qualities when U.S. involvement in the war began. Unfortunately, neither does it manifest those qualities today. This failure to revitalize the government further accounts for the existing stalemate and the poor prognosis for the future."

This, of course, is the same problem that the United States faced in Vietnam. Despite all the aid we provided that country–the tons of food distributed, the miles of roads paved, the school houses and health clinics built–the government in Saigon never succeeded in winning the support of its own citizens. As a result, when the United States pulled out, the whole structure came tumbling down.
As we know, the U.S. didn't pull out, the government "responded" with neoliberal economic policies but also with a peace process, and the structure didn't come tumbling down. In fact, the same ARENA party that negotiated the peace has now been in power over 15 years; by the time the current government leaves office, ARENA will have governed a full two decades, making it the most successful conservative Latin American political party of our times.

In fact, not only did the structure not come tumbling down, and despite the fact that the Salvadoran made the biggest political blunder of the war during the 1989 offensive by killing six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter, "the structure" any empire really cares about in a post-war setting --the social and economic structure -- remains essentially intact.

Is it beginning to become more clear why the U.S. considers El Salvador a "success?"

But to return to the notion of success in a military/counter-insurgency sense, let's see how other military sources characterize the Salvadoran case. In addition the article cited at length above, there are far more representative, and recent, articles than the four Lt. Colonel's report. Take the following three articles, for example.

First, here's a piece that argues for rethinking U.S. counterinsurgency stragegy, written by Steven Metz of the U.S. Army War College, published in 1995 in the Army journal Parameters:
Today, US counterinsurgency strategy continues to assume that the wisdom gained in Southeast Asia and Central America holds. El Salvador is thought to have proven the correctness of our strategy and doctrine. "The El Salvador experience," Victor Rosello writes, "generally validated the US Army's Foreign Internal Defense doctrine in countering insurgency." But future counterinsurgency may not emulate the past; the similarities between Vietnam and El Salvador may be much greater than those between El Salvador and what comes after it.
Second, post-war interviews with the FMLN confirmed at least the general impression of this overall sense of U.S. military success. Dr. James Corum, for example, writing in Aerospace Power Journal in the Summer of 1998 noted that U.S. support for the Salvadoran Air Force had been key:

According to former FMLN leaders, the improvement of the FAS played a major role in turning the initiative over to the government forces. The US-supplied O-2 light reconnaissance planes covered the country thoroughly. The rebels could no longer operate relatively openly in large columns. Larger formations made lucrative targets that could be easily spotted from the air and then subjected to attacks by aircraft or heliborne troops.34 Instead, the rebel forces operated in smaller columns, which would combine for larger operations such as the attack on El Paraiso. Rebel forces had to stay on the move, making it more difficult for the rebels to coordinate several columns to participate in an operation. However, the rebels learned to adapt to the increased danger of aerial attack. After the FAS was able to successfully insert company-sized reaction forces to deal with FMLN attacks, the FMLN—like the Vietcong before them—learned to spot likely helicopter landing zones and prepare them for ambush.

The Salvadorans by the mid-1980s had built up a group of small, well-trained elite units. Some functioned as light infantry patrol forces that could be inserted by helicopter to search out the enemy and establish outposts deep in enemy territory. If contact with the rebels was made, the FAS could quickly transport company-sized forces to reinforce the light troops and block rebel units. The helicopter force was the only practical means of transporting troops in much of the country due to the mountainous terrain and the bad roads. With effective reconnaissance and light heliborne forces, the government could, for the first time in the war, initiate combat at places of its own choosing.

...One of the FMLN leaders credits the greater airmobility of the army in the mid-1980s and the willingness of some army units to move by air deep into rebel country as having caused “a very significant turn in the war.”
Third, the U.S. military's assessment of the FMLN's strength by the end of war can be found here, in this 1999 thesis by an Air Force major:
Similar to the Viet Cong in the Tet Offensive of 1968, the FMLN rebels underestimated Salvadoran military capability. The FMLN exhausted its military capability in the “final offensive”, yet still maintained the ability to harass and deny El Salvador armed forces complete victory. Though the FMLN tried a second counteroffensive in 1990, their failure proved the FMLN was no longer a potent military threat. Realizing they had no capacity to physically overthrow the government, the insurgents adopted a “talk, talk, fight, fight”strategy, hoping to win political, if not military success.
Before I rest my case, and in light of this perspective of how the U.S. military considers El Salvador a success story (if you buy it), a very interesting counterfactual exercise would be to imagine what if the military had not panicked during the offensive, and had NOT killed the Jesuits. The military would then have successfully fended off a major FMLN assault, the US would have given them lots of intel to help them crush the rebels, etc.. Yet, I imagine the rebels wouldn't necessarily have budged. If the war had gotten worse, and the FMLN's military strength sapped a bit more, the rebels would have been in a bind, and likely even less inclined to negotiate, if only out of revolutionary pride. (Guatemala stands as a good example of this, where the rebels were militarily defeated in the early 1980s, yet didn't seriously negotiate for another ten years...)

The sad irony is that, in large part -- but not only -- because the Jesuits were killed, the US gained more leverage (i.e., political cover) for pressing hard on the military to end a war that the Bush administration had already decided it needed to wrap up anyway.

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