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The Salvador Option (Part 2)
A U.S. Advisor Speaks Up
June 11, 2007

As I noted in last week's commentary, a number of commentators on the right—most visibly Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz—continue to analogize our foreign policy efforts in 1980s Central America with those in the current Middle East, claiming in particular that our "success" in El Salvador can point the way to "victory" in Iraq.

This optimism is undermined not merely by events on the ground in Iraq, but by both the history and present-day reality of El Salvador. I've discussed at some length the history of our involvement in El Salvador (for a list of links to my previous postings, click here], and last week discussed a RAND study from 1991 that was invoked by Lieutenant Manuel A. Orellana, Jr., of the U.S. Naval Reserve, in an article that appeared in Military Review in 2005, in which he specifically analyzed how it was not our success but our failure in El Salvador that was the lesson we might bring to Iraq.

RAND was not alone in its jaundiced assessment of U.S. policy in El Salvador. Major Robert J. Coates, USMC, then with the Marine Corps University Command and Staff College, also weighed in on the matter, with some credibility: He was one of the military advisors sent to train the Salvadoran military. In an article titled The United States' Approach to El Salvador, Maj. Coates noted that the then recently completed and impressive victory in the first Gulf War should inspire American policymakers to demonstrate the same level of resolve in their prolonged "experiment" in El Salvador, in which advisors were deployed in lieu of ground troops.
Note: I disagree with Maj. Coates on a few points. I think his historical analysis is overly narrow, his understanding of the sequence of events is inaccurate, and, in at least one place—where he claims that the Carter administration provided military assistance to the Marxist Sandinistas, and that the Sandinistas "poured" arms into El Salvador—it is contrary to virtually everything I've read about this time and place in history (see in particular William LeoGrande's Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992, specifically pages 29-32). I also find it disappointing that, given the critique he musters of the Salvadoran officer class and the interests it served, he does not call into question the very premises on which the counterinsurgency effort was based. That said, I think he has a unique and immeasurably valuable perspective on the facts of the U.S, training effort and the lessons to be taken from it.

Maj. Coates early on admits the unique and difficult nature of the task in El Salvador, its historical antecedent, and its relevance to future conflicts:
[N]ot only is the United States attempting to defeat an insurgency, but also bring about a successful end to the type of war that has long frustrated our military and political leaders. This war has been compared to the American experience in Vietnam and is the type of war most likely to be fought and involve American interest in the future.

If only the Rumsfeld Pentagon had accepted this analogy sooner, the Iraq insurgency might have been more effectively combated in the crucial 2003-2004 time frame. But the very word "insurgency" was banished from official pronouncements about the war—not just by Rumsfeld, but Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and even President Bush, with his infamous "Bring it on" challenge—despite the private urgings of Gen. Jack Keane and others, who personally confronted Rumsfeld about the true nature of the war, but were ignored.

Maj. Coates had no illusions about the Salvadoran officer corps:
The armed forces of El Salvador (ESAF) maintained the status quo for the Fourteen Families [a sprawling group of families who controlled virtually all of the country's wealth], and through tolerated forms of corruption, the military leadership lived and retired quite comfortably.

He also notes that the guerillas quickly demonstrated the military inferiority of the ESAF forces on the battlefield, which left the country's armed forces consigned to defending major cities, and leaving the majority of the countryside to the insurgency. The U.S. devised a strategy, unique up to that point in time, of sending advisors but no U.S. ground troops (largely because of Democratic opposition in Congress, fearing another bloody quagmire such as that from which America had only recently emerged in Southeast Asia).

With the training provided by U.S. advisors, and the rapid increase of arms and men that American aid permitted, the nature of the battle changed. After a pattern of conventional warfare from 1982-1985, the guerillas realized they could not defeat the increasingly capable ESAF troops. They accordingly, according to Maj. Coates, changed their strategy to:
  • Organization of the masses or villages (in truth, this had been taking place since the early 1970s).
  • Breaking the guerilla forces into smaller units, with highly planned raids against high-visibility targets.
  • Terrorism against economic targets.

This was in essence a strategy of attrition, where the mere existence of the insurgency was seen as a victory, and the failure of the ESAF to eliminate the insurgency was considered a defeat. This strategy effectively succeeded.

The reason for the success lay largely in the intransigence of the Salvadoran officer corps and the elite interests it served. This was in distinct contrast to most of the military's infantrymen, who by and large were draftees:
Most men are between the ages of 14 to 18 years old and have little or no formal education. The majority worked as farm workers and because of this are accustomed to field conditions and the harshness of the environment. The greatest resource that the Salvadoran forces have is their enlisted men. They are extremely hardworking, eager to learn, and when properly led extremely capable on the battlefield. The enlisted men bear the brunt of the war and the casualty list as well. On numerous occasions this author had the honor to observe the personal bravery and sacrifices of these men on the battlefield. These men have little in life, and if they become a mine casualty, have no veteran programs or educational programs to look forward to. (emphasis added)

On the other hand:
The officer corps is an entirely different situation. If the insurgency is to be defeated, the officer corps is the key to victory. The officer corps is primarily sourced from El Salvador's own military academy, an institution that has produced a leadership that has been detrimental to much of the war effort, and aided the insurgency's ability to prolong the war. The academy instills a style of leadership that undervalues training, betrays a dangerously cavalier attitude toward combat operations, and demonstrates little concern for subordinates. This attitude borders on neglect. (emphasis added)

Most have received extensive training at U.S. schools and can recite from memory how to win the war from our own field manuals. The officers see their roles as warlords well-versed in the traditions of social graces. Most officers avoid the battlefield, the war is low in their priority. The officers view the troops as lost souls and feel it is their inherent destiny to rule the enlisted men. Enlisted men are thought to be for personal servitude and expected to be grateful to their seniors. Officers view the enlisted men as a replaceable commodity, putting little trust or confidence into the NCO ranks. (emphasis added)

This last point was crucial. Few men saw the point of aspiring to NCO rank, given the abuse from the officers. And given that the officers absented themselves from the battlefield, this meant there were no effective leaders in battle.

Compounding the problem was the bleak prospect of reforming the officer corps. Although Maj. Coates believes many reforms of the ESAF had been accomplished, mainly the transformation of the army from a garrison force of 8,000 to a battle-ready force of 50,000. Nevertheless:
[T]he biggest challenge has been that of an Officer Corps riddled with corruption that has no desire to sacrifice what is required on the battlefield. The Office Corps is an institution incapable of rapid change and will require long term rehabilitation starting with its military academy. (emphasis added)

Maj. Coates also understood that the counterinsurgency would never succeed if the core problems—"the grievances of the Salvadoran people"—were not addressed. The Officer Corps' "National Campaign Plan" to win popular support of the population, however, had been largely ineffective, since the officers had largely contented themselves to "chasing the insurgency." The Officer Corps also constantly requested enhanced weaponry and technology, something Maj. Coates argued against, since these requests largely took the place of a tactical presence and patrolling on the battlefield.

Maj. Coates took issue with several restraints on advisors asserted by Congress and the War Powers Act, arguing that they limited what the advisors could actually accomplish vis-a-vis the men they were trying to train and the institutions they hoped to reform. But his major calls to action concerned, not surprisingly, the Salvadoran Officer Corps, and he had no illusions of the difficulty of the task, given the entrenched self-interest the Salvador officers enjoyed and would fight to perpetuate:
The military must become apoliticalized [sic] and subordinate itself to civilian authority. The military must be taught to respect the human rights of its people, which is essential to winning the support of the countryside. The military must examine its system among its officers that weeds out incompetence and awards success. Currently, there is no incentive to excel, and widespread corruption is tolerated. (emphasis added)

As for the future and American involvement in counterinsurgencies, Maj. Coates argued that:
  • The United States must outline a policy with clear-cut goals that have the support and absolute consensus of both the legislative and executive branches. (One might argue as well that this consensus should be achieved without distortion of the available intelligence.)
  • One person must be appointed to coordinate all agencies involved in achieving the policy goals ("unity of command," in military parlance—a precept tragically unobserved in Iraq, when Paul Bremer at the CPA and Gen. Ricardo Sanchez rarely if ever consulted, and by all reports actively despised each other).
  • The military must commit itself to studying small wars. (The lack of counterinsurgency training and operational direction in Iraq put American forces at a distinct, bloody disadvantage in Iraq from 2003 through 2006).

And he concluded by stating:
If our national leadership will not commit our national resolve to wining the war in El Salvador as it did in [the first war in] Iraq, then we should stop experimenting with our advisors' lives and the lives of the indigent citizens.

It takes a distinctly obstinate form of delusion to fashion from an analysis such as the foregoing that our effort in El Salvador was a "success" worthy of emulation in Iraq. Worse, where Maj. Coates made specific proposals for learning from the Salvadoran conflict in order to apply those lessons in future conflicts, virtually every such recommendation was ignored in the current Iraq war. The continuing efforts by the neoconservatives to perpetuate this insidious fantasy is one of the great travesties of our current foreign policy—and, given the cost in lives, both those of U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians, evidence of an ideological indifference to the consequences of war that can justly be deemed not just disingenuous but criminal.

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