You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Flash Back

Salvador in Iraq.

In April, when the Senate begins considering John D. Negroponte's nomination as the nation's first intelligence czar, much of the hearings are likely to focus on his role in Central America's "dirty wars" of the 1980s. Questions abound over just how much Negroponte, who was ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985, knew at the time about death squads and other abuses in the region, and Democratic Senate staffers have promised to grill Negroponte about this history.

The answers they uncover promise to have more than historical relevance. For, in recent months, references to Central America in the '80s have started to pop up in the most unlikely of places: Iraq. As the insurgency there has ground on, and Washington has scrambled to find new tactics to combat it, the Bush administration has shown signs it is borrowing from the cold war Central America playbook. This pairing of Mesoamerica and Mesopotamia first came to light in mid-January, when Newsweek and The New Yorker reported that the Pentagon was considering pursuing something called the "Salvador option" in Iraq. During El Salvador's bloody twelve-year civil war, which ended in 1992, the United States had used American trainers and vast amounts of cash to strengthen the Salvadoran military in its battle against leftist guerrillas. It had also allegedly supported the use of right-wing paramilitaries and death squads to liquidate the leaders of the rebellion. And it was this latter policy, the articles claimed, that was now being contemplated for Iraq: the creation of elite commando units, trained by American Special Operations Forces, and made up of Shia militiamen and Kurdish peshmerga, to hunt down leaders of the Sunni insurgency. When asked, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stopped short of categorically denying the Salvador option, but refused to comment further.

Although Rumsfeld isn't talking, others close to him have, and their comments suggest that the Salvador option may be on the table—an ominous sign for Iraq. In resurrecting El Salvador—one of the darkest episodes in recent U. S. history—as a model of a successful counterinsurgency, the Pentagon and hawks close to the administration have relied on faulty history and wishful thinking. Contrary to conservative conventional wisdom, U.S. policy in Central America during the '80s was seriously misguided, and—other than contributing to the death of tens of thousands of civilians—ultimately ineffectual. If applied in Iraq today, the results could be even worse.

DESPITE RUMSFELD'S TEPID denials, enthusiasm for using El Salvador as a precedent for Iraq runs deep in Republican foreign policy circles. Prominent hawks close to the administration have publicly touted the benefits of this approach. Max Boot, of the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that U.S. policy in Central America was "tremendously successful" at putting down local insurgencies and that "everyone agrees" it is the model to follow. And Eliot Cohen, director of the Strategic Studies Program at Johns Hopkins—and whose last book was reported to be bedtime reading for President Bush—has said, "We did counterinsurgency very well in Salvador."

Apparently the White House agrees. Despite the fact that El Salvador's civil war killed 70,000 people on both sides and featured widespread torture and the deliberate targeting of civilians, Vice President Dick Cheney has recommended applying this type of strategy in Iraq. Large parts of the uniformed brass seem to feel the same way, according to numerous senior military officers I spoke with. Explains Andrew Bacevich, a former Army colonel and now a professor at Boston University, "In the institutional memory of the military, it [El Salvador] is viewed as a success. That's the place we got counterinsurgency right."

To be fair, there is some ambiguity over exactly what is meant by the Salvador option today. Boot, for one, argues that it has nothing to do with paramilitaries. "I can tell you what is not meant by the El Salvador option," he tells me: "death squads." Instead, he argues, El Salvador is simply an example of a war in which Washington deployed a small number of American troops to train a large, effective local counterinsurgency. According to this interpretation, the Salvador option is relatively uncontroversial, calling for nothing more sinister than Iraqification of the effort—accelerating the training of the Iraqi army so it can take over the job of fighting the insurgency. This goal is already stated American policy.

The problem with this innocuous take, however, is that many historians and policy veterans think it seriously mischaracterizes what actually occurred in El Salvador during its civil war. Experts agree that Boot is technically correct—the United States did not directly back death squads—but they insist that one cannot ignore the large role the paramilitaries nonetheless played. Thomas Pickering, who was ambassador to El Salvador from 1983 to 1985, says that, while it was U.S. policy to publicly denounce the death squads, their "kind of tactics [were] tacitly supported by the U.S. government, even though [they] were freelance." Other analysts are more blunt. "We did back the guys who went after the bad guys," says Lawrence Korb, assistant secretary of defense from 1981 to 1985. "And [we] defined 'bad guys' pretty broadly." According to William LeoGrande, a professor at American University and the author of a major study of the conflict, Washington knew that the intelligence it passed to the Salvadoran government eventually made its way to the paramilitaries. "We did support the guys who organized them," he says, "so it's a little precious to deny that we supported the death squads themselves."

As this suggests, the controversy over what really occurred in Central America is a live one, and, if Washington is now contemplating a Salvador option for Iraq, figuring out what actually went on there 20 years ago is of more than academic interest. While historians may debate the answer, moreover, many in the White House know the actual details, since several of the leading figures in Iraq policy today also played key roles in the earlier conflict. In addition to Negroponte, Elliot Abrams, now deputy national security adviser, was Ronald Reagan's assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs.

And the signs from Iraq suggest that, whatever these officials mean by the Salvador model today, it involves far more than just training a new regular Iraqi army. Reuel Marc Gerecht, an ex-CIA analyst now at the American Enterprise Institute, confirms that a version of assassination squads, Kurdish and Shia commando teams, have indeed been assembled to go after Sunni insurgent leaders. "[The Pentagon] is trying to expand these units and deploy them more aggressively," Gerecht says. And Stuart Herrington—a former Army intelligence officer who, during the Vietnam war, helped lead the Phoenix Program, an assassination campaign against Viet Cong cadres, recently visited Iraq as a counterinsurgency consultant to the Pentagon. The exact nature of Herrington's work in Iraq remains classified, but, he tells me, "When I was [in Iraq], I favored using Shiites and Kurds to go after the Sunnis."

ALL THIS RAISES two critical questions. Putting aside any moral qualms one may have about paramilitaries or death squads, did they actually work in El Salvador, and could they work in Iraq today? The answers, unfortunately, are no and no. Cheney and other champions of the Salvador option have their history wrong. Although El Salvador's paramilitaries and the U.S.-trained regular army proved very good at killing civilians during the '80s, they were much less effective at killing real insurgents. According to Mark Danner, author of a prominent book about the conflict, "The Salvador [military] killed the people who were easy to kill"—i.e., civilians. American military officers routinely derided their Salvadoran peers at the time for avoiding actual engagements with guerrillas. Larry C. Johnson, a former CIA operative, says the counterinsurgency in El Salvador "utterly failed." "What ended the war," he adds, "was the end of the Soviet Union, the drying up of support from Fidel Castro, and the fact that the Sandinistas in Nicaragua were no longer in a position to support the [insurgency]." LeoGrande agrees: "Precisely because the military failed to defeat the guerrillas, they had to go for a political settlement. This was not an army that won." Rather, the conflict stopped when the U.S. Congress "cut aid to the government [of El Salvador] by 50 percent" and "the U.S. pipeline came to an end."

The real history of El Salvador, meanwhile, bodes ill for the Pentagon's plan to replay its Salvador strategy in Iraq. Given the desire of both Washington and Baghdad for a lower U.S. profile, it is probably necessary to hand over more control of the counterinsurgency to Iraqis. And, as Richard Haass, director of the State Department's policy planning staff during Bush's first term, warns, "There are clear pros and cons whenever you give up control to local forces. Things will be done that will connect the United States with activities that will be hard for us to defend." Part of the problem is that the commandos may not be vetted carefully. As Haass warns, "We will lose control over methods." This means an increased probability of human rights abuses and wrongful killings. Factor in the difficulty of identifying just who the leaders of the Sunni insurgency are, and the danger of serious unintended consequences becomes very real. Factional militias may start pursuing their own agendas and liquidating their enemies.

These risks will be magnified, moreover, if the Pentagon sets up Shia and Kurdish hit squads to do the dirty work. Merely creating such teams would likely increase communal tensions, especially if coupled with the formation of a new government that largely excludes Iraq's Sunni minority, many of which boycotted the recent elections. As Larry Diamond, a former adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, explains, "The Sunnis already feel they got screwed politically." If militias "start picking off prominent but radical Sunni leaders," he says, "then one of the possible ultimate nightmares—ethnic civil war—becomes much more plausible." If you start killing people "who weren't really major players in the insurgency, then you'll have a geometric spiraling of violence," Diamond warns.

Given these dangers, the fact that the Pentagon is even contemplating the Salvador model is highly alarming. In fact, says Johnson, it's a sign "of sheer desperation on the part of the United States." There is, however, a glimmer of hope amid the growing storm clouds. Johnson, Diamond, LeoGrande, and other experts agree that the real lesson of El Salvador is that insurgencies are defeated through political means, not simply military ones. In this sense, the recent Iraqi election is a huge step forward, and, if the Bush administration avoids using factional forces to ramp up the counterinsurgency, there's still a chance it could get this lesson right. But, as the bloodshed continues, poor choices based on bad history could make the future even worse.