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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