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Another op-ed on the possiblility of an Iraqi "Salvador Option"
Are there parallels between El Salvador in the ‘80s and Iraq today? Maybe. But the ‘lessons learned’ by Washington are the wrong ones
By Christopher Dickey
Paris Bureau Chief, Middle East Regional Editor
Updated: 6:42 p.m. ET Jan. 11, 2005
Jan. 11 - Among the many tools used to build and defend pro-American democracies, murder is among the trickiest. But murder—yes, let’s insist on that word—is also quite common in the annals of nation-building, at least in my experience, and sometimes it’s been very effective. Now we hear that some of the Bush administration’s strategists are talking about what they call “The Salvador Option”, which seems to imply “death squads” (as the murderers were called in El Salvador and Guatemala) or “hit teams” (as they’ve been called in Israel).
Having watched the slaughter in El Salvador first hand during the early 1980s, having lost many friends and acquaintances to the butchers there—among them nuns, priests and an archbishop who will someday be sainted—and having been targeted myself, I have something of a personal interest in this notion. I’m not about to forget the bodies lying unclaimed in the streets, the families of the victims too afraid to pick them up lest they become targets as well. When I hear talk of a Salvador Option, I can’t help but think about El Playón, a wasteland of volcanic rock that was one of the killers’ favorite dumping grounds. I’ve never forgotten the sick-sweet stench of carnal refuse there, the mutilated corpses half-devoured by mongrels and buzzards, the hollow eyes of a human skull peering up through the loose-piled rocks, the hair fallen away from the bone like a gruesome halo.
Still, I’m prepared to admit that building friendly democracies sometimes has to be a cold-blooded business in the shadowland of moral grays that is the real world. The Reagan administration was just doing—or, more often, allowing to be done—whatever it took to defeat a largely Communist insurgency. I’m even prepared to believe that Arena, the political party founded by the late death squad leader, Roberto D’Aubuisson, has long since cleaned up its act. Salvadoran voters returned Arena to power last year for the third time since 1992. Its presidential candidate, Tony Saca, beat former guerrilla leader Shafik Handal by a landslide. Would El Playón’s voters have made a difference? Well, we’ll never know.
The question of the moment is not the state of play in El Salvador, however, it’s the disaster in Iraq. The Bush administration has a dismal record learning the wrong lessons from the wrong paradigms when it comes to Iraq. This was not the liberation of France, nor the occupation of Germany or Japan, and America’s war on terrorists is not the same as Israel’s war with the Palestinians. So, let’s take a real close look at what we’re talking about here when we discuss the Salvador Option.
For starters, what’s been written about the NEWSWEEK report by Michael Hirsh and John Barry goes far beyond what the story says. It doesn’t suggest for a minute, as the BBC reported, that the Pentagon is looking to create “paramilitary” death squads. It’s about the possible training of elite units to snatch or kill very specific insurgent leaders.
In fact, the policy could be a formalization of what's already taking place. “We are, of course, already targeting enemy cadres for elimination whether by capture or death in various places including Afghanistan and Iraq,” says Patrick Lang, former chief of Middle East analysis for the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. According to Lang, so many people in the Special Operations Forces have been caught up in efforts to do just that, there’s actually a shortage of Green Berets to do what they’re most needed for: training regular Iraqi troops. “Surely,” says Lang, “no one except the Jihadis thinks that we should not be hunting enemy leaders and key personnel.”
But that’s not the problem, quite. What those of us in El Salvador learned was that American policy might call for surgical action, but once the local troops are involved, they’re as likely to use a chain-saw as a scalpel. And that, too, can serve American ends. In almost any counter-insurgency, the basic message the government or the occupiers tries to get across to the population is brutally simple: “We can protect you from the guerrillas, but the guerrillas can’t protect you from us, and you’ve got to choose sides.” Sometimes you can win the population’s hearts and minds; sometimes you just have to make them more frightened of you than they are of the insurgents.
“That was part of the thinking behind Fallujah,” says a well-informed Coalition official, referring to the ferocious offensive that re-took the city in November. “We have only one of the tools so far. That is, ‘You can’t protect your people from us.’ In Fallujah they had a little Salafi state. Well, that’s gone now.” The city remains in ruins; at least 50 American soldiers lost their lives, as well as hundreds, perhaps thousands of insurgents and civilians. It was a mighty tough lesson to teach. In terms of toe-to-toe urban combat, “that was the heaviest fighting the U.S. has been involved in since 1968,” says the same official. Yet the Americans have not managed to protect the Iraqi citizenry from terror and intimidation by the guerrillas. “That’s not something we’re good at,” says the official.
His remarks were echoed by a senior U.S. embassy officer, who said the Americans just can’t begin to out-intimidate the guerrillas. “It’s a lesson we can’t teach,” says the embassy official. “We’re not capable of that.” Grabbing here and there for analogies, this guy started talking about what the late Syrian President Hafez Assad did to Sunni fundamentalists holed up in the city of Hama in 1982. Assad flattened a large section of the town. “Short of ‘Hama rules,’” the official asked rhetorically, “what do you do?”
In Iraq, in fact, as in many other places where the United States has tried to train ethical armies to fight dirty wars, the Iraqi troops are tacitly expected to do what American troops won’t. A fundamental purpose of the upcoming elections on January 30 is to create democratic legitimacy for whatever extreme measures the newly organized military decides to take.
Because we’re talking about the supposed Salvador Option, I figured I’d get back in touch with Joaquín Villalobos, El Salvador’s most brilliant guerrilla leader. Now at Oxford, he favored the Iraq war in 2003, but is dumbfounded by the direction the conflict has taken. Villalobos was dryly analytical, as ever. “The problem of repression and its possible effectiveness corresponds to five basic elements: proportionality, the scope of the conflict, time, a context that favors a multiplier effect or not, and the ability to control what you’re doing.” If so, a helluva lot more fine tuning is needed than we’re likely to see in Iraq any time soon. “If the generals think that with the hatred against the United States that exists in the region, with the divisions in Iraqi society, with Syria, Iran and others around, starting a dirty war is something that will give them an edge, they are totally and absolutely lost and desperate,” says Villalobos. “Invading Iraq without a post-war plan created chaos, subsequent mistakes converted the chaos into organized resistance, and if they keep blundering ahead blindly, they’ll convert the resistance into a real civil war.”
A U.S. official in Baghdad agrees. “We’re bleeding from so many self-inflicted wounds,” he told me the other day. The Salvador Option would be just one more.
© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.