Iraq and the El Salvador ‘Option’

Panic is setting in at the Pentagon. Ever bolder and ever widening, the Iraqi insurgency grows in firepower and tactical sophistication, as well as in sheer numbers, while the architects of what appears to be a looming stalemate are scrambling to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat with what is being called the “El Salvador Option.” Newsweek magazine set off a furor the other day with the revelation that top Pentagon officials are engaged in a furious debate over whether to unleash El Salvador-style “death squads” in Iraq. Presumably composed of Kurdish peshmergas and Shi’ite militia, these American-trained -and-funded Orcs would go after not only the predominantly Sunni insurgents, but also civilians who allow them to operate without turning them in to the occupation authorities. As one anonymous death squad enthusiast opined to Michael Hirsh and John Barry of Newsweek:

“The Sunni population is paying no price for the support it is giving to the terrorists. From their point of view, it is cost-free. We have to change that equation.”

The “experts” directing our war of “liberation” in Iraq are using the country as a laboratory in which to test their theories of counterinsurgency, and, in looking around for historical precedents, have latched on to what they view as the “success” exemplified by El Salvador. The advocates of the “Salvador Option,” it is safe to say, are operating from a series of assumptions, one of which is that the “death squads” defeated El Salvador’s insurgents. But that is clearly wrong, since El Salvador’s civil war ended in a negotiated settlement, not a military victory for the U.S.-backed government.

The El Salvador success was due, not to the death squads’ horrific campaign of assassination, torture, and mass intimidation, but to the cessation of such activities, as Ernest Evans pointed out in a 1997 World Affairs article:

“Another reason that systematic human rights abuses are so counterproductive in a counterinsurgency campaign concerns the critical issue of intelligence. In unconventional war, as in all war, good intelligence is key to victory, and therefore, for all of the reasons so forcefully stated by retired British general Richard Clutterbuck in a 1995 article, the torture and killing of suspected or actual rebels is inimical to the collection of vitally needed intelligence:

“‘Above all the British philosophy had been to secure the cooperation of the people in acquiring intelligence, the decisive ingredient for victory. …Torture, morality aside, would have been counterproductive; even if it had induced the victim to give information about the past or present, it would certainly not have secured future cooperation to enable the security forces to arrest or ambush the terrorists.'”

Evans goes on to demonstrate that the war began to tilt in favor of the pro-government forces just as soon as death-squad activity was ameliorated if not entirely stopped, concluding with words the architects of Abu Ghraib – and this new plan to unleash death squads on the Sunnis – would do well to heed:

“The issue of torturing and killing prisoners can perhaps best be summed up by recalling Talleyrand’s famous remark to his master, Emperor Napoleon, with respect to one of Napoleon’s actions: ‘Sire, it is worse than a crime, it is a mistake!'”

If pro-war conservatives are going to raise El Salvador as an example of a successful U.S. military intervention on behalf of “democracy,” then they are going to have to disappear the entire recorded account of that country’s popular rebellion down the Memory Hole and come up with an alternate history – not just a revision – of the Salvadoran civil war. Because the catalyst for peace and democracy in that troubled region was not U.S. military intervention, but regional negotiations and – worst of all, from a neocon perspective – the United Nations.

El Salvador, long ruled by a small oligarchy that controlled most of the land, was shaken, in 1979, by a general revolt led by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Movement (FMLN), representing the unified military command of five separate guerrilla groupings that had up until then operated largely on the margins. Political killings, carried out by the government’s paramilitary secret police, skyrocketed: in 1980, over 1,000 such murders were carried out per month, most by the government’s machinery of repression (although the guerrillas were guilty of a smaller share). The assassination, by a rightist death squad, of Archbishop Oscar Romero, in 1980, shook the nation and turned the country’s devoutly Catholic populace against the government – which reacted with renewed savagery. This murderous campaign was underwritten by the U.S. government to the tune of hundreds of millions, and the cost in lives was horrendous: over 75,000 were killed, most of them civilians, over half of whom perished in the first four years of the war, the “death squad era.”

In the end, this strategy led to increasing political support for the FMLN guerrillas in El Salvador and abroad, including official diplomatic recognition from Mexico and the Europeans. In military terms, the FMLN had stalemated the government of Jose Napoleon Duarte, a Christian Democrat, who had been propelled into the presidency by elections from which the guerrillas and their sympathizers were excluded.

Duarte defied hardliners in Washington – including many of the same neocons who infest the policymaking councils of this administration – and tried on three occasions to initiate peace talks with the guerrillas, but to no avail. The neocons in D.C., and the hardliners among the guerrillas, successfully sabotaged Duarte’s peace plans. At the initiative of Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, however, the five Central American heads of state met at Esquipulas, Guatemala, and the seeds of a regional solution to the problem were planted, although they did not spring out of that bloodstained soil until the later part of the 1980s, after Duarte and his Christian Democrats had been supplanted by Arena, the party of the death squads. It took until 1989 for the regional solution to take root. In that year, the Cold War was waning, and the FMLN launched its November offensive, which deployed thousands of rebel combatants against a wide variety of urban targets, convincing El Salvador’s middle-class and elite sectors that it was time to start negotiating.

While hardliners on both sides – including in Washington, D.C. – resisted it, the process begun at Esquipulas was allowed to resume. A key catalyst was the murder of six Jesuit priests and two of their servants at the Central American University campus in San Salvador, which led to the cut-off of American aid to the government forces. FMLN representatives went on a diplomatic offensive, asking the United Nations to take a more direct role in bringing about a negotiated settlement. A joint letter endorsing UN mediation was signed by then-Secretary of State James Baker, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, and UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar. The UN sent in a team of observers before a cease-fire was even in place, with a staff of over 100 and a budget of $23 million: the UN played a key role in mediating the details of the agreement, known as the Chapultepec Accord, which was signed on Jan. 16, 1992.

The Accord, a complex document of 100 pages in book form, including nine chapters and two series of annexes, was mediated at every level by the United Nations – down to such a fine level of detail that it included over 100 specific deadlines related to implementing the agreement. The Salvadoran state was de-militarized, and every branch of government revamped. Land reform, human rights enforcement, and the punishment of prominent death squad leaders – all of this and more was agreed to in advance. The UN also closely monitored the preparations for the scheduled elections – the results of which were not contested by the defeated FMLN. The Arena party, shorn of its pro-death-squad ultra wing, took the presidency, and El Salvador’s long civil war came to an end.

By bringing the guerrillas into the political process, the Accord brought peace and some measure of democracy to El Salvador. But not before setting into motion a complete reform of the political structure that had nurtured and protected the death squads, and not without at least getting a running start in healing the great damage done by years of systematized barbarism.

In Iraq, the El Salvador option – the real one, that is – has been effectively ruled out by the Bush administration. There is no hint of negotiations, and all serious efforts by the Sunnis to join the electoral process – such as a recent proposal by the Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni clerical council, for the U.S. to set up a timetable for troop withdrawal – have been rebuffed.

The guerrilla war in Iraq, of course, is fundamentally different from what happened in El Salvador in that the U.S. never invaded and conquered the latter, but only attempted to do so via surrogates – such as the death squads – wisely never allowing more than 50 or so American “trainers” (never advisers, since that was too reminiscent of Vietnam) in the country at a time.

Yet there are some similarities. The upcoming Iraqi election bears a striking resemblance to El Salvador’s 1984 poll, which the Reagan administration used to overcome congressional opposition to funding counterinsurgency efforts. In that campaign, Duarte faced ultra-rightist RobertoDeath SquadD’Aubuisson, a favorite of Senator Jesse Helms. Rightist violence continued after Duarte’s election, and the death squads inaugurated a reign of terror. The Left boycotted those elections, just as the Sunnis are likely to do at the end of this month, and this exercise in Iraqi “democracy” is likely to have a result similar to El Salvador circa 1984: civil war.

But it is the differences with the Salvadoran example that are most likely to intensify the violence and scope of the Iraqi conflict: El Salvador’s was a class-based war, the rural poor against the urban elites, but in Iraq the divisions are religious and ethnic – and therefore far more volatile. The introduction of death squads into this explosive mix is likely to result in a regional conflagration – with U.S. troops caught in the crossfire.

Those frivolous dilettantes over at National Review who think we ought to take the “El Salvador option” wouldn’t know the history of that country from a Star Trek novel or the latest episode of The Simpsons. It’s hard to suppress a horselaugh when Jonah Goldberg matter-of-factly informs us:

“Our special forces were not sent to El Salvador to train anybody to murder people. They were sent to help stop the widespread civil chaos and murder being perpetrated by others. They largely succeeded.”

No, they failed. The UN and, most of all, President Arias succeeded. Furthermore, U.S. “advisers” trained the Atlacatl Brigade, killers of those Jesuit priests at Central American University. Several graduates of the notorious School of the Americas carried out a series of massacres in El Salvador, and they were trained right here in the good old US of A. Goldberg’s historical revisionism is laughable.

What isn’t laughable is the course our government has taken in Iraq, which shows every sign of repeating all the mistakes we made in El Salvador – without any prospect of an eventual UN-sponsored or regional resolution.

The lesson of El Salvador is that guerrilla insurgencies arise and gain ground only when all other avenues of protest are closed. The U.S., in refusing to negotiate with a complex array of guerrilla groups it indiscriminately labels “terrorist,” and rejecting out of hand the Sunni demand for a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal, is fueling the insurgency rather than effectively fighting it. With the election results fairly certain to impose a Shi’ite-dominated government on the rest of the country, Brent Scowcroft’s speculation that an “incipient civil war” is in the works is hardly a shocking conclusion. I would go further and stipulate that the civil war is not necessarily limited to Iraq, but is likely to go regional.

Scowcroft and allied realists, such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, well-meaning fellows that they are, regard this civil war scenario with horror, but one can’t help but wonder if that wasn’t the intention of the architects of the invasion all along. So where’s the postwar plan, cavil the liberal skeptics, who have now gone antiwar in a big way. Well, I have news for them: civil war, chaos in the Arab world – “creative destruction,” as neoconservative guru Michael Ledeen so piquantly puts it – that is the plan. The neocons are just getting started: Syria is next on their agenda, and beyond that Iran, Saudi Arabia, and even Egypt is not safe, apparently.

The only alternative is taking the El Salvador option – not death squads, but a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal, to begin with, followed by a regional solution brokered by a consortium of the U.S., Europe, and Iraq’s neighbors, mediated by the UN and also involving the main guerrilla factions (excluding the extremists). What provided the major breakthrough in Central America was the Arias plan, the foundation of which was the end of foreign (i.e., U.S. and Soviet) intervention. Foreign jihadists are already widely resented in Iraq, including among the Iraqi resistance groups: an agreement based on the principle of noninterference and premised on U.S. troop withdrawal would split the indigenous fighters from the al-Qaeda-affiliated foreigners. Not only would it get us out of Iraq – where we never should have gone to begin with – but it would also strike a blow against our real enemy, Osama bin Laden.

We have one more chance, as the Iraqi elections approach, a plastic moment when the U.S. could grasp the opportunity for peace, instead of the nettle of war. Will George W. Bush take it? Clearly, the neocons are worried. At the moment, a terrific power struggle seems to be going on inside the Pentagon and the White House itself. Whether the voices of reason will prevail, or the neocons will continue their stranglehold on American foreign policy in the post-9/11 era, remains to be seen.


Here’s some fascinating fallout from my Jan. 12 column from Steve Clemons’ must-read The Washington Note:

“What I find interesting is that the debate that is buzzing around Washington since Scowcroft’s and Brzezinski’s comments is mostly happening among and between conservatives, while progressives for the most part are voyeurs in this battle, but not contributing much to the substance of discussion.

“Justin Raimondo at also captures this trend in a piece today that has had some influence in interesting circles.

“I heard from a source I cannot name that a digested version of Raimondo’s article with some additional comments from the text of the Scowcroft/Brzezinski presentations made it into a widely read but classified daily report that is read by the commissioners and senior staff in the European Commission and also by top officials in other European governments. They may have gotten the unclassified version via Maureen Dowd or this Web site – but the point is people around the world are paying attention to this battle that is going on inside the beltway.”

It’s good to know that I’m having some modest amount of influence, but I wonder if these guys are paying any attention to all the highly uncomplimentary stuff I’ve written – and will continue to write – about the EU. Alas, probably not….

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].