Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

El Salvador: not the success Ricks thinks

Counterinsurgency expert David Ucko von der Siftung Wissenschaft und Politik (Berlin) and der RAND Corporation posted this as a comment on Friday, but I think it is too good to just sit there. So I am promoting it to a guest blog. Take it away, David: I would gladly provide a longer blog post, though ...

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Counterinsurgency expert David Ucko von der Siftung Wissenschaft und Politik (Berlin) and der RAND Corporation posted this as a comment on Friday, but I think it is too good to just sit there. So I am promoting it to a guest blog. Take it away, David:

I would gladly provide a longer blog post, though I am afraid time is too limited to produce a structured piece. Let me however jot down a few thoughts on the matter.

First, I would recommend Benjamin Schwarz’s study on El Salvador for RAND, written in 1991. What Schwarz does is illustrate the critical weaknesses of the U.S. approach in El Salvador, most of which centre around its limited leverage: its inability to get the armed forces of El Salvador (ESAF) and the government (GoES) to do what the U.S. reforms asked of them.

That is to say, despite a daily expenditure of ca. $1.5m in military and economic aid to El Salvador, and the deployment of 55 advisers in country (more, at times), exogenous efforts at reform were only at best partially succesful.

What this meant in terms of the conflict is that while U.S. aid and assistance reversed the initial gains of FMLN, the end result, by the mid-1980s was stalemate. The U.S. and GoES could not defeat FMLN, and nor could FMLN threaten the overthrow of the government. That is why I suggest the indirect approach in El Salvador produced stalemate rather than success. Perhaps the biggest manifestation of this stalemate was the FMLN’s final offensive of November 1989, in which, through the launch of major offensive operations, they were able to penetrate the capital, temporarily seize some of its territory and produce a Tet-like psychological effect both on GoES and on its U.S. backers.

Of course the conflict has since been lauded as a successful transition from war to peace. Yet it should be recalled that FMLN was not defeated, which had been the aim under Reagan. Instead, given the change of strategic context with the end of the Cold War, and the election of George H. W. Bush (who was eager to extricate the U.S. from El Salvador’s stalemated conflict), the effort shifted from one of ‘victory’ to one of ‘compromise’. That compromise was successfully achieved at Chapultepec, though it should be said that there are important qualification to be made on this point too (see the great research by Charles T. Call on this topic).

So whether it was a success or not depends a little on your standards. In one sense, FMLN were no longer an armed threat, but the initial aims of the campaign, which had by this point lasted ten years, cost a hell of a lot of money, as well as 75,000 lives, were not met – and perhaps they could not be met, given the intransigence of GoES to conduct reforms and the continued inefficiency and inflammatory human-rights abuses of ESAF. In that sense, the U.S. effort in El Salvador was ‘saved by the bell’, if by bell we mean the significant changes in global politics around the end of the 1980s. Without this change in circumstances, the stalemate would likely have continued or, absent greater responsiveness to U.S. pressure, its aid would have declined (particularly given the mood within the U.S. Congress at this time), allowing for an outright eventual FMLN victory.

Again, no time for more carefully structured thoughts on this topic. I refer you to a forthcoming RAND publication on COIN, led by John Gordon and William Rosenau, to which I contribute a chapter on this very conflict and difficult question.

I find this comment interesting. But I gots to tell you, in the U.S. military establishment, $1.5 million a day is cheap cheap cheap. It would not buy you 15 minutes of the war in Iraq, or even half that, by my hurried calculation.  

Here is more on the Salvador option.

Jose CABEZAS/AFP/Getty Images

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1