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Quagmire in the Making
By Frank Smyth, June 3, 1988, The Progressive

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Only last year," said the U.S. official, was the army "willing to move more than nine to five. "I'd heard those same words two years before in the same room deep within the walls of the heavily guarded embassy in San Salvador.

Transforming the Salvadoran armed forces into an effective counterinsurgency force has been a perennial problem for U.S. officials. After seven years of training and more than $3 billion in U.S. aid to El Salvador, American policy is in shambles.

Army commanders have learned to mimic the rhetoric of "low-intensity warfare" but not the execution, and the U.S.-advocated strategy of winning hearts and minds has been abandoned for more primitive methods.

When the forces of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) took the initiative this year, a growing movement within the Salvadoran officers' corps demanded a ruthless response. El Salvador's lame-duck Christian Democratic government of Jose Napoleon Duarte was in no position to object. The newly ascendant right-wing ARENA party, which, took over the legislature in March, gave the green light for a crackdown"

The military command has warned that organizations, which “try to exploit the basic needs of people”, will be equated with the armed combatants of the FMLN. Since October, killings and disappearances of civilian activists have doubled.

El Salvador is returning to the days when civilian sectors of the population were the primary targets of the war. More carnage is to come.

Civic-action programs have been an integral part of U.S. counterinsurgency strategy since Vietnam. Pentagon advisers describe the task of getting the Salvadoran military to rethink its notorious policy toward civilians as the most important aspect of the counterinsurgency campaign.

Writing in a U.S. Army War College report dated January 1, 1985, Colonel John D. Waghelstein outlined three objectives for El Salvador "balanced development to negate the causes of the insurgency; neutralization to destroy the guerrillas armed element; and mobilization of the national resources (human and material) for popular involvement in progress."

But even Waghelstein was less than sanguine about the prospects. "Whether El Salvador and the United States have the vision and stamina to pursue this difficult task remains to be seen," he wrote.

By mid-1986, the Salvadoran military seemed to be following the U.S. blueprint. Not surprisingly, its strong suit was "neutralization." The Salvadoran army and air force completed a series of massive ground sweeps and aerial bombings designed to penetrate and destroy the FMLN's traditional zones of control -- at much cost to civilian lives. The population in and around these zones was forcibly resettled.

At the same time, the Salvadoran military launched a civic-action program to win popular support. It was called "United to Reconstruct."

"Especially important to the campaign," the Salvadoran army said, "are psychological operations, the organization and training of civil-defense units, civic/military programs, and the active participation of the local population."

Echoing the words of the Waghelstein report, "United to Reconstruct" was to unfold in three stages: clean-up operations, consolidation, and reconstruction. The government, private business, trade unions, the Church, and the general population would all participate -- under military supervision -- in the last two stages of the plan.

"United to Reconstruct" was heavily supported by both the U.S. embassy and the U.S. Agency for International Development, which diverted funds designated for such private voluntary organizations as, Save the Children.

U.S. officials wholeheartedly endorsed the program, boasting that the Salvadoran military had finally come around to their way of thinking. The embassy pointed to the prominent role of young Salvadoran army officers in the plan as evidence that U.S. training and assistance had finally made a difference.

But neither U.S. advisers nor Salvadoran army commanders were able to explain how civic-action programs were supposed to work. They failed to demonstrate that psychological operations, civil-defense units, and "the participation of the local population" would offset joblessness, inequitable land tenure, infant mortality, or malnutrition.

The government was to provide social services, and the private sector was to provide jobs. Yet two years have passed, and no progress has been made. Besides constructing a dozen ill-equipped and under-staffed health clinics, "United to Reconstruct" has little to show for itself.

"United to Reconstruct" is still "the factor to attack the crisis," says Colonel Mauricio Ernesto Vargas, chief of operations for El Salvador's military command. But U.S. officials admit that except on paper, the plan no longer exists. This is a tremendously embarrassing concession: The most comprehensive attempt to implement U.S. counterinsurgency in the Americas is a failure

The reasons are not hard to come by. In theory, "United to Reconstruct" purported to recognize the "structural" roots of the crisis. But it did not address the link between poverty and high concentrations of economic and political power. The much-heralded 1980 land reform, for instance, remains stalled; fewer than 18 per cent of peasant families have been affected.

The ultimate goal of civic action, however, is not social reform but the improvement of civilian-military relations. In this regard, the architects of "United to Reconstruct" were hopelessly naive. It is hard to imagine how an army clown passing out balloons in a small pueblo in war-torn Chalatenango would be able to make up for a century of institutionalized violence.

While the plan has failed to win support from the civilian population, it has swelled resentment in the ranks of the military. The Salvadoran armed forces have watched uneasily as the guerrillas succeeded in organizing a wider rural and urban base. Predictably, as the army has found U.S.-advocated civic action to be ineffective, soldiers have increased their abuses of civilians.

Many of the same officers who initially supported "United to Reconstruct" are now demanding more independence from U.S. military strategists. Bolstered by the overwhelming victory of the ultraconservative ARENA party in March, the hard-liners within the military may soon have their way. Most of these officers are associated with La Tandona, the Salvadoran War College class of 1966, the largest ever to graduate from the military school. Members of the class now command 90 percent of El Salvador's field brigades. Within the past year, the Tandona has moved farther away from U.S. policy and the Duarte government.

The turning point came Monday, September 28, 1987. In an all-day meeting at the National Palace, members of the, Tandona threatened President Duarte with a military coup. The hardliners were unhappy with a proposed amnesty for leftist political prisoners and upset about an impending trial against two military officers implicated in the massacre of nineteen peasants in 1983. The Salvadoran President was not deposed, in part because he pardoned (with only two exceptions) military officers and members of El Salvador's rightist death squads for more than 40,000 documented killings of noncombatants since 1979.

"We no longer need a coup because we already have power," said Juan Orlanda Zepeda, chief of intelligence for the military command and a Tandona member.

The influence of the hardliners is now completely unchallenged. Still, a crude military approach to the insurgency is unlikely to succeed. From January 1986 to October 1987, the Salvadoran military launched wave after wave of counterinsurgency sweeps. With such reminiscent names as "Operation Phoenix" and
"Operation Concord," these offensives involved up to 40,000 troops -- 80 percent of armed-forces personnel. But except for breaking the FMLN base camp on Guazapa Volcano near the capital city, these operations have failed.

The military did succeed in inflicting 7,879 casualties by its count. Nearly all of those involved civilians living in contested zones.

Massive forced displacement of civilians was the only other "success" of the 1986-1987 counterinsurgency operations. The army subsequently could not understand why the population did not embrace "United to Reconstruct."

When government troops cross into FMLN-dominated territory in the northeastern province of Morazán, they enter as an occupying force. The rebels' civilian support network is extensive and well organized, although it is disguised to avoid detection. Government battalions rarely find or engage the enemy, and the guerrillas have learned to leave deadly minefields in their wake.

In the north central province of Chalatenango, the FMLN has followed the Morazán model. It cannot stop the army from penetrating into rebel-controlled territory, but it prevents the army from maintaining a stationary presence.

East of the province capital in Chalatenango, the massive military presence which permeates much of the rest of the country suddenly disappears. I encountered only one heavily armed government patrol on a two-hour hike into the interior. The only other sign of war was an occasional white flag tied to a bamboo pole flapping in the breeze.

Eight kilometers east of the town of Chalatenango is the village of Los Ranchos, home of 585 settlers. They are part of a group of 4,200 Salvadorans repatriated from the U.N. refugee camp in Mesa Grande, Honduras, last October, after fleeing military repression in 1980. Villagers explain that the white flags flying above Los Ranchos are intended to impress the government.

Yet the residents of Los Ranchos refuse to accept aid distributed by the armed forces, and they receive no help from the government. Officials of the Duarte government are busy, however, trying to document the settlers. Jorge Alberto Caraventes from the Ministry of the Interior was present in March, preparing to issue identity cards to every resident. "If they don't have their card," he said, "they will be taken for guerrillas."

The residents at Los Ranchos are afraid of the armed forces. An elderly woman said that soldiers frequently enter the camp and planes fly overhead once in a while. "They haven't dropped any bombs yet," she added, "but we're scared."

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