Wednesday, January 12, 2005

# Posted 6:22 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

BE CAREFUL WHEN YOU SAY "DEATH SQUAD": Newsweek reports that the Pentagon has now developed a plan for Iraq described as "the Salvador option", which
Dates back to a still-secret strategy in the Reagan administration’s battle against the leftist guerrilla insurgency in El Salvador in the early 1980s. Then, faced with a losing war against Salvadoran rebels, the U.S. government funded or supported "nationalist" forces that allegedly included so-called death squads directed to hunt down and kill rebel leaders and sympathizers. Eventually the insurgency was quelled, and many U.S. conservatives consider the policy to have been a success—despite the deaths of innocent civilians and the subsequent Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal.
There are so many things wrong with Newsweek's statement that it's hard to know where to begin. First of all, the US military provided extensive aid to El Salvador's uniformed armed forces, which were fighting against Marxist insurgents. The reference to "nationalist" forces is therefore confusing, because it implies the US aided unofficial, paramilitary forces.

Especially during the first years of the war, the Salvadoran armed forces slaughtered peasants indiscriminately in provinces controlled by the guerrillas. The most notorious massacre was the one at El Mozote, reported by the NYT and WaPo, long-denied by the Reagan administraiton, and confirmed after the war by extensive forensic evidence.

In addition to murdering peasants, numerous special units within the Salvadoran military and national police forces devoted themselves to murdering anyone with a leadership role in the Salvadoran oppostion, civilian or guerrilla. There were also independent groups, not linked to the military but supported by wealthy businessmen and right-wing politicians, who also committed such murders.

These two types of organizations are properly known as death squads. Newsweek uses the word "allegedly" in connection with the death squads because the US government, in spite of knowing better, consistently denied that the Salvadoran military tolerated such behavior by its officers. Nonetheless, the role of uniformed officers was an open secret in El Salvador and the CIA had extensive knowledge of which Salvadoran officers and politicians were involved in such operations.

The biggest problem with the Newsweek article is its clear implication that the United States developed an intentional strategy of supporting the death squads. That is simply false. What one might say was that the Reagan administration's efforts to shut down the death squads were pathetically inadequate. As such, one might suspect that certain administration officials might have been glad to let the death squads do their dirty work for them.

However, US advisers were strictly prohibited from having anything to do with such illegal activities. Some might believe that American military advisers in El Salvador turned a blind eye to their pupils' extra-curricular activities, and David Holiday mentions one report to that effect.

David H. also writes that what the authors of the Newsweek article
Describe as a potential strategy is in fact what the U.S. government supported in El Salvador...

Now it seems that the U.S. military (or the CIA?) is finally and rather brazenly owning up to its role in the Salvadoran conflict. [Boldface in original]
If by "supported" David means "tolerated", then he is partially correct. Yet once again, there was no strategy to cooperate with or assist the death squads.

By the same token, it's hard to know what the Pentagon is "owning up to" by talking about a "Salvador option" for Iraq. That there were death squads in El Salavador? That the US turned a blind eye to their work? Or that there was active support for the death squads, an allegation for which there still is, to the best of my knowledge, no evidence?

Moving on, another misleading statement on Newsweek's part is that "eventually the insurgency was quelled". Actually, there was a negotiated end to the Salvadoran civil war, prompted in no small part by the rebels' spectacular assault on the capital in November 1989. On a similar note, David Holiday writes that the death squad strategy
Turned out to be quite effective in military terms in El Salvador, but it's also a morally abhorrent one.
Even if the death squads didn't win the war, they did kill thousands of actual guerrilla supporters. If those supporters were civilians who provided logistical support, that is abhorrent. Yet as David H. points out, many of the death squads' victims were urban commandos, who presumably were legitimate targets.

As David points out, one moral drawback to the death squad approach is that it's very hard to separate the logistical men from the urban commandos. But far more importantly, at least in El Salvador, the existence of the death squads helped create an environment of total impunity in which military officers could murder almost anyone for almost any reason.

That impunity led to the indiscriminate slaughter of peasants mentioned above. It also means that powerful officers could murder their personal enemies or operate massive crime synidcates. In the early 1980s, it was common to see fresh bodies, often multilated, lying by the side of major thoroughfares almost every morning

So what would it actually mean to have a Salvador option for Iraq? According to Newsweek,
It remains unclear, however, whether this would be a policy of assassination or so-called "snatch" operations, in which the targets are sent to secret facilities for interrogation.
One safe conclusion to draw is that naming this "the Salvador option" was one of the stupidest ideas ever, since it would inevitably generate highly misleading press coverage. If you are going to give this strategy a name, perhaps you could call it "the Israeli strategy", since it sounds a lot more like what the IDF does to Hamas than what the Salvadorans did to their guerrillas. But that's a whole 'nother ballgame.

UPDATE: For more on this subject, see Greg and Glenn.
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