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The United States' Approach To El Salvador
AUTHOR Major Robert J. Coates, USMC
CSC 1991
SUBJECT AREA - National Security
                    EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
        THE UNITED STATES' APPROACH TO EL SALVADOR
    As the war in El Salvador enters its eleventh year, the
United States is confronted with the question of how to go
about bringing the war to an end.  The war represents a long
and massive experiment by the United States to defeat an
insurgency through a policy of providing advisors and
materiel support without committing United States ground
forces to combat.  The events of the 1970's set the stage for
not only the war in El Salvador but all of Central America.
    1979 saw the Sandinistas, with the support of the U.S.,
overthrow the government of Nicaragua and establish a Marxist
government.  The United States was confronted with the
prospect of El Salvador falling to a marxist revolution and
the likelihood that other nations in the region would follow
suite.  The U.S. formulated a policy to stabilize the
military situation first and then to institute reforms in
both the military and civilian government in El Salvador.
    The approach to El Salvador would differ with past U.S.
policies in that if there would be no commitment of U.S.
ground forces.  The immediate goal was set to expand,
re-equip, and forge a Salvadoran force capable of fighting
the insurgency on the battlefield.  Initially the war was
fought with conventional tactics in large formations.  In
1985, the insurgency recognized the fact that it no longer
could fight the Salvadoran Army conventionally, and so the
guerrillas adopted a new strategy and battlefield tactics.
    But, Salvadoran forces have not changed their tactics and
lack an overall strategy to bring the war to an end.  Since
1985 the war has been stalmated with the insurgency
demonstrating the ability to sustain its current strategy
indefinitely.  The leadership of the Salvadoran military is
not only faced with the challenges of the battlefield but
also the required reforms within their own leadership system.
    The United States must also examine our own approach to
the war in El Salvador as it will stand as the case study for
the type of war the United States will likely contend with in
the future.  The United States must recognize that conflicts
such as the one in El Salvador will be called many things,
but in the final analysis they are wars and should be fought
as such.
        THE UNITED STATES' APPROACH TO EL SALVADOR
                        OUTLINE
Thesis Statement.  The war in El Salvador represents a long
and massive experiment by the United States to defeat an
insurgency through a policy of providing military advisors
and materiel support without committing United States ground
forces to combat.
I.  Background
    A.  Historical Events of 1970's
    B.  U. S. regional interests
    C.  U. S. strategy for assisting Salvadoran forces
        1.  Role of U. S. advisors
        2.  El Salvador will fight the war without U.S.
            combat forces
II. Military Forces of El Salvador
      A.  Organization
      B.  Personnel
          1.  Officer
          2.  Enlisted
      C.  Equipment
      D.  Transitioning to combat operations
III.  Battlefield performance of the Armed Forces of El
      Salvador
      A.  Tactics
      B.  Enemy forces and capabilities
      C.  Civil defense
IV. U. S. Security Assistance
      1.  Congressional funding and influences
      2.  War Powers Act
      3.  U. S. personnel assignment policies to El Salvador
V.  Conflict Resolution/Conclusions
                THE UNITED STATES' APPROACH TO EL SALVADOR
    Armed Forces of the United States return home from one of
the greatest military victories ever, one that was achieved
with the ground forces overwhelming the fourth largest army
in the world in less than 100 hours.  Key to this victory was
the common theme of total victory and complete faith in our
military forces to execute a battle plan based on national
resolve and a battlefield strategy that attacked the will of
the Iraqi Army.  Now the time has arrived to apply this same
resolve to the war in El Salvador.  The war in El Salvador
represents a long and massive experiment by the United States
to defeat an insurgency through a policy of providing
military advisors and materiel support without committing
United States ground forces to combat.
    There are many differences between the war in El Salvador
and the war that was just prosecuted against Iraq.  In both
cases, a military policy was formulated that integrated
military means with political, economic, social, and
diplomatic efforts that in the end would lead to the defeat
of the enemy forces.  In El Salvador, not only is the United
States attempting to defeat an insurgency, but also bring
about a successful end to the type of war that has long
frustrated our military and political leaders.  This war has
been compared to the American experience in Vietnam and is
the type of war most likely to be fought and involve American
interest in the future.
                        SETTING THE STAGE
    The situation in El Salvador today is mostly a result of
the events of the 1970's.  Until the out-break of the war, El
Salvador never was much of a concern of the United States nor
considered in our interest.  El Salvador is a nation of five
million people and the size of Massachusetts.  Its economy is
one based upon commodity exports with a work force composed
of unskilled farm workers.  El Salvador had been owned and
administered by the Fourteen Families since the days of
colonialization by Spain.  These families completely own the
distribution of land and wealth.  They instilled an
authoritarian government in partnership with the military
establishment. (4)
    During the 1970's, the Armed Forces of El Salvador (ESAF)
maintained the status quo for the Fourteen Families, and
through tolerated forms of corruption, the military
leadership lived and retired quite comfortably.  The military
was regulated to conduct most civil functions thereby
preventing the formation of any strong civil service or
responsive civil government.  By doing so, this removed any
threat to the Fourteen Families of any future popular
revolutions or legal political movements.  The ESAF was a
garrison force that maintained a high profile among the
population but was mainly ceremonial in nature.  The ESAF
leadership was very politized and saw its role as the final
arbiter of political power, always ensuring its best
interests.
    None of this concerned the United States until the
successful revolution in Nicaragua in July 1979.  The United
States was quick to recognize that the stage had been set in
the entire region.  All nations in Central America had the
same political , economical, and social conditions of
Nicaragua and now more likely to be the subject of
revolution themselves by Marxist guerillas.  The fear of
Central America becoming a strong sphere of Communist
influence now threatened the interests of United States'
security.  1979 brought lower commodity prices on the world
market for El Salvador, which in turn lead to disenchantment
with the landed Fourteen Families.  This, combined with a
middle-class who had no faith or confidence in harsh and
incompetent successive military governments, set the stage
for an outbreak of a civil war.  A civil war that still
prevails today, twelve years later.  (4)
                        PASSING THE TORCH
    President Carter had suspended all military aid to El
Salvador in the late 70's due to the performance of the
Salvadoran government concerning their human rights issues.
At the same time, he directed arms shipments to the
Sandinistas in Nicaragua.  Concurrently, the Sandinistas
poured arms and munitions into El Salvador to the growing
insurgency while the leadership of the insurgency was being
trained in Cuba, Vietnam, and East European countries. (9)
    During 1980, the insurgency had grown to about 12,000
men with the ability to operate freely in large formations
throughout the countryside.  The insurgency consisted of five
separate groups but finally united under an agreement
orchestrated by Fidel Castro in Cuba.  The united front would
become the Fairbundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN)
and would not only receive support from now the Marxist
government of Nicaragua but also from the entire communist
block of the world.  The FMLN forces were quick to
demonstrate the incompetence of the ESAF forces on the
battlefield.  The shortcomings of the ESAF forces relegated
them to guarding the major cities conceding the initiative
and the countryside to the insurgency.
    The Reagan administration now was facing the prospect of
a second nation falling to a Marxist revolution in the region
as well as a likelihood that other nations in Central America
would be subject to "exported" revolution across its
boarders.  With ESAF on the verge of defeat and the FMLN
conducting its final offensive to seize the government, the
United States not only initiated its policy to reverse the
trends in Central America but also to the tide of the battle
in El Salvador.
    The approach to El Salvador would differ with past U. S.
attempts in dealing with insurgency in that there would be no
commitment of U. S. ground combat forces.  The plan was, and
still is today, to provide U. S. military advisors who would
concentrate on training Salvadoran units, provide materiel
and equipment, and offer strategic advice and intelligence
support.  The immediate goal was set to expand, re-equip, and
forge a force capable of fighting the FMLN on the
battlefield.  With the U. S. advisors maintaining a low
profile, the period of 1982 - 85 saw heavy fighting on a
conventional level.  The ESAF forces held their own.  With
the introduction of airmobile operations and increased
proficiency at conducting sustained field operations, the
ESAF forces were able to mass against the large insurgency
formations, thus causing the rebels to rethink their tactics
and strategy. (1:6)
    The FMLN realized that it no longer could confront the
Salvadoran Armed Forces on the battlefield.  It now adopted a
strategy of a protracted, prolonged war with the tactics of:
         1.  Organization of the masses or villages.
         2.  Breaking its military forces into small units,
             so as not to confront the ESAF directly, but to
             choose raids and targets of high visibility.
         3.  Target the economy.
         4.  Terrorism.
The strategy is one in which the mere existence of the FMLN
United States not only initiated its policy to reverse the
trends in Central America but also to the tide of the battle
in El Salvador.
    The approach to El Salvador would differ with past U. S.
attempts in dealing with insurgency in that there would be no
commitment of U. S. ground combat forces.  The plan was, and
still is today, to provide U. S. military advisors who would
concentrate on training Salvadoran units, provide materiel
and equipment, and offer strategic advice and intelligence
support.  The immediate goal was set to expand, re-equip, and
forge a force capable of fighting the FMLN on the
battlefield.  With the U. S. advisors maintaining a low
profile, the period of 1982 - 85 saw heavy fighting on a
conventional level.  The ESAF forces held their own.  With
the introduction of airmobile operations and increased
proficiency at conducting sustained field operations, the
ESAF forces were able to mass against the large insurgency
formations, thus causing the rebels to rethink their tactics
and strategy. (1:6)
    The FMLN realized that it no longer could confront the
Salvadoran Armed Forces on the battlefield.  It now adopted a
strategy of a protracted, prolonged war with the tactics of:
         1.  Organization of the masses or villages.
         2.  Breaking its military forces into small units,
             so as not to confront the ESAF directly, but to
             choose raids and targets of high visibility.
         3.  Target the economy.
         4.  Terrorism.
The strategy is one in which the mere existence of the FMLN
on the battlefield while avoiding direct confrontation with
ESAF is considered a victory; whereas the inability of the
ESAF forces to eliminate the FMLN from the countryside is
considered a defeat. (9)
                        FIGHTING FOR TIME
    ESAF have three branches, Army, Air Force, and Navy.
Additionally, infantry battalion organizations are inherent
to the National Guard and National Police.  The nation is
broken into six brigade zones with a number of small areas
designated as departments.  Each brigade will have three to
five battalions assigned to its headquarters and is
responsible for conducting day to day tactical operations
within its assigned geographic boundaries.
    The ESAF have two type of infantry battalions.  The ones
assigned to the brigades are known as Biat (battalion
infantry anti-terrorist).  This battalion has 250 men broken
down into three companies.  The second type of battalion  is
a Biri (battalion infantry reaction immediate).  There
are six of these battalions and they are controlled by the
Salvadoran National Command.  The Biris are considered a
national asset and their employment is never restricted to a
geographical location as is that of the brigades.  Biris are
used as fire brigades, and receive priority in all respects.
Their size can number from 600 to 1500 men depending on the
battalion.
    The enlisted men who compose the ESAF are generally
drafted, but due to the high unemployment of the country,
people look to the military as a source of employment.  Most
men are between the ages of 14 to 18 years old and have
little or no formal education.  The majority worked as farm
workers and because of this, are accustomed to field
conditions and the harshness of the environment.  The
greatest resource that the Salvadoran forces have is their
enlisted men.  They are extremely hard working, eager to
learn and, when properly led, extremely capable on the
battlefield.  The enlisted men bear the brunt of war and the
casualty list as well.  On numerous occasions this author had
the honor to observe the personal bravery and sacrifices of
these men on the battlefield.  These men have little in life,
and if they become a mine casualty, have no veteran programs
or educational programs to look forward to.
    The officer corps is an entirely different situation.  If
the insurgency is to be defeated, the officer corps is the
key to victory.  The officer corps is primarily sourced from
El Salvador's own military academy, an institution that has
produced a leadership that has been detrimental to much of
the war effort, and aided the insurgency's ability to prolong
the war.  The academy instills a style of leadership that
undervalues training, betrays a dangerously cavalier attitude
toward combat operations, and demonstrates little concern for
subordinates.  This attitude borders on neglect.
    Most have received extensive training at U. S. schools
and can recite from memory how to win the war from our own
field manuals.  The officers see their roles as warlords
well-versed in the traditions of social graces.  Most officers
avoid the battlefield, the war is low in their priority.  The
officers view the troops as lost souls and feel it is
their inherent destiny to rule the enlisted men.  Enlisted
men are thought to be for personal servitude and expected to
be grateful to their seniors.  Officers view the enlisted men
as a replaceable commodity putting little trust or confidence
into the NCO ranks.
    Morever, enlisted men have little desire to become NCO's
due to the daily abuse from the officer leadership.  On the
battlefield, the NCO has all the responsibility in the world
primarily because the officers choose to absent themselves.
However, upon return to garrison, the NCO can not even draw
cleaning supplies.  The ESAF failure to develop their NCO
ranks to their potential is a great loss of a true combat
multiplier.  The nature of a protracted war requires strong
small leadership at a decentralized level.
    Many reforms have been implemented within the ESAF forces
over the last 10 years with the transition of a garrison
force from 8000 who abused civilians to a force of 50,000
that sustains itself in combat operations in the field.
Still, the biggest challenge has been that of an Officer
Corps riddled with corruption that has no desire to
sacrifice what is required on the battlefield.  The Officer
Corps is an institution incapable of rapid change and will
require long term rehabilition starting with its military
academy.
    The war years before to 1985 saw tactics that massed
large combat formations against each side.  But by 1985, the
benefits of United States' training and equipment gave the
upper hand to the ESAF.  The result was that the FMLN had to
change its strategy and tactics as previously mentioned.
Now, with the military situation stabilized, the ESAF
continued to chase the insurgency instead of focusing on the
cause and root of the insurgency.  The ESAF refuse to
comprehend that victory will only be achieved first by
addressing the grievances of the Salvadoran people.  The
military leadership enjoyed its new growth and capabilities,
but its "National Campaign Plan" to win popular support of
the people has been largely ineffective. (3)
    Since early 1985, the war has settled into a fixed
pattern.  One in which the FMLN will attempt a raid against a
target that will embarrass the Salvadoran government, or lead
to the deterioration of the Salvadoran economy.
Understanding the threat it now faces from the ESAF, the FMLN
will undertake operations that have been well-planned.  It
will be spectacular in nature but well-rehearsed in another
country.  Three months prior to execution, FMLN personnel
infiltrate ESAF forces, gather additional intelligence, and
study patterns around the target. One such example was the
attack at the Forth Brigade Headquarters at El Paraiso in
1987.
    This raid inflicted moderate casualties, however, it
demonstrated the FMLN capability to strike at an ESAF
strongpoint.  But most importantly, it undermined the
crediability of the ESAF in forces; the FMLN remains on the
battlefield and seems able to sustain its current strategy
indefinitely.  Its existence is proof that the Salvadoran
government remains ineffective and has yet to implement a
strategy for the winning war that has stagnated since 1985.
(7)
    The civil defense is another example of wasted potential
on the battlefield in El Salvador.  The adopted strategy of
the FMLN has forced the ESAF to deploy its forces to defend
static economic targets.  Not only does this fix the ESAF
forces but it detracts from the number of troops that are
available to patrol and remove the freedom of movement from
the insurgency on the battlefield.  An attempt has been made
at the formation of civil defense units to free ESAF forces.
There is little incentive for anyone to participate in the
civil defense program, as it is destined to contribute little
since it receives little support from the ESAF.
    Security assistance is one of the biggest tools the
United States has to help an ally.  In the case of El
Salvador, it is being used for something it was not
intended:  to support a war.  It is subject to yearly
approval from Congress which in effect does not allow the
formation of a long range strategy funded through
implementation. (6)  The uncertainty of continued funding
encouraged the ESAF to hoard essential materials to the
detriment of warfighting.  Congress has also removed the
control of the funds from the Department of Defense, thereby
surrendering any influence by U. S. advisors with their ESAF
counterparts. (1:21)
    However, some success has been made through the security
assistance program.  The Salvadoran infantryman today can
subsist in the field and fight effectively.  Ten years ago,
he would have had an old G-3 rifle, but today he has a new
M-16.  Small arms ammunition for training and for battle is
in plentiful supply.  Additionally, ESAF today has jungle
boots, rations, and field gear along with a casualty
treatment system.  The ESAF distributions breaks down with
regularity but does manage to maintain its forces in the
field.
    The ESAF have been equipped primarily with U. S.
equipment ranging from the UH-1B helicopter to the M-16
rifle.  For the most part, the ESAF have all the equipment
required to win on the battlefield and have the ability to
maintain it.  Despite the lack of education among the troops,
U. S. weapons and equipment do not present an obstacle to
them.  The ESAF officers are continually requesting state of
the art weapons such as the F-18 or "8" howitzer.  They feel
that new gadgets or technology can be substituted for sound
tactical presence and patrolling on the battlefield. The
United States must avoid the introduction of inappropriate
technology and keep it within the maintenance abilities of
the Salvadorans.
    Another Congressional restraint that hinders U. S.
advisors is the War Powers Act.  President Bush chose to
overcome this resolution during the Iraq War, but it will tie
the hands of our military's ability to respond in a
low-intensity conflict situation.  Past administrations chose
not to challenge the congressional resolution:  to approach
the Salvadoran war as if it were not a war at all.  As a
direct result, U. S. advisors deploying to assist an allied
army on the verge of collapse found themselves forbidden to
take any action that might result in a disadvantage to the
enemy.  Like in Iraq, future involvement in low-intesity
conflicts should require explicit congressional approval.
    Until then, the assignment of U. S. advisors in lieu of a
combat forces is the right decision.  The goal is to build
and reform a government that will be responsible to its
people.  This is why it is paramount that the U. S. Advisors
be of the highest quality.  All too often the selection
criteria for duty in El Salvador is at the convenience of the
personnel system.  Many priorities are put upon the system,
but in the end the person selected is a result of who is
available for a PCS move.  The Marine Corps does not have a
system to screen or train personnel for such an assignment.
If the Marine speaks the language, he will be found qualified
for the assignment. (5)
    A former CINCSOUTH stated, "You don't need a lot of
people to fight these type of wars", but was quick to
emphasize that the few you do send better be good ones.  The
low profile that the U. S. will invariably seek to maintain
in small wars places a premium on having advisors of the
highest caliber.  Here, there is no room for the second team.
                        WHAT MUST BE DONE
    Reform of the Salvadoran military's view of its own role
in El Salvador will challenge their tradition and threaten
perogratives and privileges that the officers hold dear.
ESAF officers will not be inclined to see their status or
lifestyle diminished.  The military must become
apoliticalized and subordinate itself to civilian authority.
The military must be taught to respect the human rights of
its people, which is essential to winning the support of the
countryside.  The military must examine its system among its
officers that weeds out incompetence and awards success.
Currently, there is no incentive to excel, and widespread
corruption is tolerated.  An officer moves up through the
ranks with his year group, advancing at intervals regardless
of any evidence or individual competence or lack thereof.
His career is secure through the rank of Colonel.  The
officers must create a battlefield presence and share the
burden of the war with his soldiers.  The officers need to be
made responsible for the battlefield as well as their own
professional conduct. (3)
    Before the United States becomes involved in small wars,
it must outline a policy with goals that has the support and
absolute consensus of both the legislative and executive
branch.  Once that has been accomplished, appoint one
individual who has the authority to direct and coordinate all
agencies involved in achieving policy goals.  Our own defense
establishment must make a firm commitment of supporting the
implementation of the campaign.
    Furthermore, our military school system must teach and
study small wars.  It is a wonder that we can wage massive
campaigns successfully, yet have so much trouble dealing with
insurgencies.  Our forces did well in Vietnam in dealing with
insurgencies on a tactical level, but you never hear of it.
Assign our brightest personnel for duty as advisors and allow
them the latitude to get the mission accomplished.
    Ultimately, the United States must deal with the war in
El Salvador as it did with the War with Iraq.  Small wars
will have many other names but it still must be treated for
what it is:  a war.  For so long our approach to small wars
has been one of business as usual while we are at peace in
the United States.  This attitude frustrates and dissipates
the focus our advisors when they are deployed to a war zone.
Our president set the goals for victory in Iraq, and with the
support of Congress, the military executed its campaign for
victory.  The business as usual approach to small wars, as in
El Salvador, leads to incoherent incremental band-aid fixes.
If our national leadership will not commit our national
resolve to winning the war in El Salvador as it did in Iraq,
then we should stop experimenting with our advisor's lives
and the lives of the indigent citizens.
                        Bibliography
1. Bacevich, Halums, White, Young.  "American Military Policy
       in Small Wars:  The Case of El Salvador", Kennedy
       School of Government, March 1988.
2. Coates, Robert J. Capt, USMC, U. S. Military Group,
       El Salvador, 1986 - 1987.
3. Corr, Edwin Gharst, Ambassador of the United States of
       America to El Salvador.  Personal Interview about
       El Salvador, San Salvador, El Salvador, 1986.
4. Duarte, Jose Napoleon, President, The Republic of
       El Salvador, Personal Interview about El Salvador,
       San Salvador, El Salvador, 1986.
5. Ellerson, John C. Col, United States Army, Commanding
       Officer, United States Military Group El Salvador,
       Personal Interview about El Salvador, San Salvador,
       El Salvador, 1987.
6. Hockstader, LEE.  "Cut In Aid To El Salvador Likely To Be
       Felt Politically"  Washington Post, October 21, 1990
       Section A, p. 27.
7. Kamen, Al. "El Salvador's Factions Say Civil War May Be
       Nearing Resolution"  Washington Post, April 7, 1991
       Section A, p. 24.
8. Powell, Morgan.  "Inside Look At Salvador's U. S.
       Advisors"  The Chronicle, 1987, p. 1.
9. U. S. Congress, United States - Salvadoran Relations and
       the Consolidation of Democracy in El Salvador.
       Ambassador Corr's Speech before the 100th Congress,
       1st Sess, Dec 86.



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