Monday, January 10, 2005

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Death Squads

Reader, and frequent commenter, Avedis has pointed to an article appearing in the most recent issue of Newsweek that has touched off a bit of controversy. The article claims that Bush administration officials and Pentagon insiders have been considering adopting a plan that has been termed "the Salvador option."

...the Pentagon is intensively debating an option that 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....

Following that model, one Pentagon proposal would send Special Forces teams to advise, support and possibly train Iraqi squads, most likely hand-picked Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shiite militiamen, to target Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers, even across the border into Syria, according to military insiders familiar with the discussions. [emphasis added]
As the article notes, this strategy has increasingly been defended by conservative policy makers as an example of an effective means to employ when faced with a certain set of circumstances relating to insurgencies.

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.
Predictably, Glenn Reynolds (via Kevin Drum) is rushing to the defense of the Bush administration - sort of. He starts off on a tangent criticizing Newsweek for conflating El Salvador with Nicaragua, even though he misses the connection between El Salvador and Iran-Contra that Kevin describes. Although Reynolds claims to find merit in arguments for and against the El Salvador model, he seems to be employing a legal device known to litigators as pleading in the alternative (which involves offering two seemingly contradictory defenses at once so that if one fails, there is another that can be employed in its stead).

In the updates, Reynolds approvingly links on the one hand to stories that seem to suggest that Newsweek got the story wrong, due to bias, and that the death squads in El Salvador received no real support from the Reagan administration (a dubious claim considering the CIA's tactics and methods elsewhere in Latin America, and the levels of financial and military support and coordination between the United States and El Salvador at the time, unless we are to assume that such aid was provided in willful ignorance and with no strings attached). In the alternative, he links to stories advocating the position that the El Salvador model was a successful strategy and the tactics, although unsavory, were actually more humane than other methods and weapons that would lead to more collateral damage. So, according to these seemingly conflicting accounts, we didn't support the counter-insurgency operations in El Salvador in the first place, and, at the same time, it was good that we did support them because our strategy worked and therefore we should employ a modified version in Iraq. They are stuck between taking credit and denial.

Aside from, and including, the internal contradictions on the Right, these revelations raise a series of questions and problems. First, if the Bush administration adopts or even discusses the adoption of the El Salvador model - employing paramilitary forces involved in assassinations and other military actions - does that mean that conservatives will finally admit that the death squads existed and were part of our foreign policy in the region in the first place? Or will the cognitive dissonance allow for the argument, described above, that we should adopt the El Salvador model because it was successful in certain regards, even though it never existed in the first place.

Second, unlike El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and other nations in Central America in the 1980s, the world will be watching Iraq intently with constant international scrutiny - particularly from areas that we consider extremely important from a strategic point of view (namely the Muslim world). In a war of ideas with propagandists like Bin Laden, this will not serve our side well. Much of what went on in Central America during the 1980s occurred under a relative state of darkness - able to be denied, spun, and dismissed (witness the current level of dissimulation and denial even now). There will be no such opportunity this time, at least beyond the higly polarized home front, and this could effect what some argue would be the efficacy of such operations.

If we are attempting to sell our values and our image to groups of people that we are simultaneously encouraging to undertake the daunting task of making wholesale changes in world view and societal alignment, we must approach them from a position that is admirable, enviable, and inspirational. It will not be enough to say that our paramilitaries are different than Saddam's Fedayeen because the groups we sponsor are trying to establish democracy. Such distinctions will be lost on the innocent civilians and observers impacted by these forces. We must act in a manner that is more exemplary if we want to usher in such monumental changes, especially when dealing with a population that is already resigned to a certain level of cynicism and anti-American bias.

Finally, and perhaps most problematic, is the fact that the paramilitary groups will be composed of Kurdish Peshmerga and fighters from Shiite militias, and they will be primarily employed in the terrorizing of the Sunni population. Although some have suggested that these operations would not target the Sunni population as a whole, that would appear to be contradicted by the stated purpose of the mission.
One military source involved in the Pentagon debate agrees that this is the crux of the problem, and he suggests that new offensive operations are needed that would create a fear of aiding the insurgency. "The Sunni population is paying no price for the support it is giving to the terrorists," he said. "From their point of view, it is cost-free. We have to change that equation." [emphasis added]
In addition, recent estimates of the level of support for the insurgency (200,000 which includes 25-50,000 active fighters and 150,000 or more supporters) suggest that any effort to dissuade this large a group would require large scale crackdowns that would inevitably, and somewhat intentionally, affect the Sunni population at large.

Even if the stated mission were narrow in scope, consider how hard it is to restrain the impulses of highly trained regular forces in the chaotic arena of conflict - let alone irregular militias. Some well-trained career soldiers inevitably lose control, commit atrocities, and go beyond the bounds of accepted behavior, allowing themselves to fall victim to the psychological pathologies of war. In the present context, we will be dealing with paramilitary organizations with less training, oversight, and restraint than proper forces. Add to that already volatile mixture the fact that they will be ethnically delineated: with Shiites and Kurds acting against a Sunni population whose leaders in the Baath Party were responsible for countless atrocities and brutalities against their own people just months earlier. That is a recipe for ethnic cleansing, atrocities, and large scale "reprisals" which could trigger a full blown outbreak of the nascent civil war already gathering steam.

If such ethnically charged violence were occurring under the watchful eye of Iraq's many Sunni neighbors, this would provoke an even increased level of foreign involvement from outraged Sunni emigres - not to mention an even greater level of anti-Americanism in a region of the world that we can ill afford such a trend. A regional crisis of this scale could have the potential for wider implications, triggering strife between Sunni and Shiite sects from Pakistan and Iran to Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Syria (some of which is already rearing its ugly head, as in Pakistan).

While we are debating the wisdom and efficacy of the El Salvador program, let us not forget about just how brutal and murderous this period was, lest we fall prey to the seductive appeal of euphoric recall. Speaking of the French Revolution, author Milan Kundera said that time mitigates all crimes, "For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit. In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine."

Billmon has broken his prolonged silence to provide a brief and partial list of some of the incidents that should add glint, sharpness, and blood to the proverbial "guillotine" which has grown increasingly alluring through the distant perspective time has afforded.

US Immigration services:
During 1982 and 1983, approximately 8,000 civilians a year were being killed by government forces. Although the figure is less than in 1980 and 1981, targeted executions as well as indiscriminate killings nonetheless remained the policy of the military and internal security forces, part of what Professor William Stanley of the University of New Mexico has described as a "strategy of mass murder" designed to terrorize the civilian population as well as opponents of the government.
From the UN truth commission:

On the Afternoon of 10 December 1981, units of the Atlacal Rapid Deployment Infantry Battalion (BIRI) arrived in the village of El Mozote, Department of Morazan, after a clash with the guerrillas in the vicinity . . .

Early next morning, 11 December, the soldiers reassembled the entire population in the square. They separated the men from the women and children and locked everyone up in different groups in the church, the convent and various houses.

During the morning, they proceeded to interrogate, torture and execute the men in various locations. Around noon, they began taking the women in groups, separating them from their children and machine-gunning them. Finally, they killed the children. A group of children who had been locked in the convent were machine-gunned through the windows. After exterminating the entire population, the soldiers set fire to the buildings.
As recounted by

On Monday, 24 March 1980, the Archbishop of San Salvador, Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez, was celebrating mass in the Chapel of the Hospital de la Divina Providencia when he was killed by a professional assassin who fired a single .22 or .223 calibre bullet from a red, four-door Volkswagen vehicle. The bullet hit its mark, causing the Archbishop's death from severe bleeding.

Former Major Roberto D'Aubuisson gave the order to assassinate the Archbishop and gave precise instructions to members of his security service, acting as a "death squad", to organize and supervise the assassination.
Also from the UN Truth Commission:

One especially horrid incident from one conflict involved the rape and murder of three US Roman Catholic nuns and a lay worker by National Guard troops in El Salvador in 1980. Last week, the New York Times reported that four Salvadoran troops, serving 30-year prison terms for the crime, have implicated top commanders of the Salvadoran Army as ordering the executions . . .

A New York-based human rights group is demanding the US government investigate the incident again, to determine why a former head of the Salvadoran National Guard, Colonel Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, was allowed to come to the United States and settle in Florida.
And another incident involving the clergy:

On the night of November 16, 1989, the unthinkable happened. Twenty six members of the Salvadoran military — nineteen of whom were trained at the U.S. Army School of the Americas — raided the Jesuit residence at the UCA, pulled Fr. Cortina's six Jesuit brothers and two women co-workers from their beds, and brutally murdered them in front of the rectory.
On the lighter side (though not Unbearably so), Tim Dunlop offers a witty recounting of the shifting goal posts and rationales for the invasion of Iraq in light of the El Salvador revelations - complete with Cliff Notes for those in need.

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