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No end in sight for El Salvador's war, study reports

An analysis of United States military policy in El Salvador, based on interviews with US advisers and officials stationed in El Salvador, paints a pessimistic picture of progress in the war and overall US abilities to fight counterinsurgency wars in the third world. The study was written by four lieutenant colonels in the US Army while they were recent National Security Fellows at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

The March 22 study, made available to The Christian Science Monitor, contrasts starkly with generally more optimistic official predictions by the US Embassy and the Salvadorean military's claims that the guerrillas are militarily weak.

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While the study acknowledges that success has been achieved in converting the former ``nine-to-five'' Salvadorean Army into a powerful military force, it says the Salvadorean government has failed in the more important, and more difficult, task of addressing the ``root causes'' of the insurgency - the social, economic, and political problems that spawned the rebellion.

``Victory required first redressing the grievances of the Salvadorean people,'' the study states. ``The government had to transform itself into an institution perceived as effective, impartial, and committed to bringing about genuine reform. Meaningful implementation of this concept has eluded the Salvadoreans and their American advisers.''

``The FMLN remains a formidable foe, its attacks exacerbating the deterioration of the Salvadorean economy,'' the study continues, referring to the Farabundo Mart'i National Liberation Front, an umbrella group of five rebel organizations.

``The FMLN - tough, competent, highly motivated - can sustain its current strategy indefinitely. The Salvadoreans have yet to devise a persuasive formula for winning the war.''

``By most estimates, the war in El Salvador is stuck; unhappily, the United States finds itself stuck with the war,'' the study concludes.

While US officials once predicted the guerrillas would be isolated in remote parts of the country within two years, they now project the war lasting six or seven more years. Foreign diplomats and foreign military analysts say the war could easily last a decade more and that the final winner isn't at all certain.

The guerrillas were on the defensive in 1984 and 1985 when massive US military aid was rushed in and the Salvadorean Army expanded rapidly. By the end of 1985 the guerrillas had adapted, breaking down their large columns, reverting back to classical guerrilla tactics and increasing their use of land mines, which continue to cause heavy casualties to government troops.

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``Since 1984, FMLN tactics have changed radically,'' the study notes. ``The guerrillas now operate in smaller units and emphasize hit-and-run attacks, mostly against economic targets, while avoiding confrontations with the Salvadorean Army except on their own terms.''

The study complains that the ``Salvadoreans are using conventional tactics to fight an unconventional war.'' It says greater emphasis must be placed on the ``other war'' - psychological operations, civil defense, civic action, and the coordination of civil and military activities to effect reform. Yet the Salvadorean Army's psychological operations are portrayed as crude and ineffective. And the study says efforts to expand the Army's paramilitary civil defense units have been unsuccessful, especially in zones of conflict.

The Kennedy School study chronicles the failure of the US-designed National Plan and its successor, United To Reconstruct, both of which urged Vietnam-style counterinsurgency plans that use the promise of development projects to ``win hearts and minds.''

The authors argue that part of the problem rests with the US military, which with its focus on the conventional war scenario of stopping Soviet tanks on the plains of Europe, gives counterinsurgency short shrift. Irregular warfare and specialized units, such as the Green Berets, were promoted by President John Kennedy. But stung by the defeat of Vietnam, the Army ``all but abandoned counterinsurgency,'' according to the study.

The study says the US Army penalizes officers who take the time to develop skills needed to be effective in fighting guerrilla wars in the third world, such as learning language skills and becoming more sensitive to the local culture. And it describes many of the US advisers who end up in El Salvador as ``mediocre'' although it noted several exceptions.

While the study has impressed foreign diplomats as well as foreign and Salvadorean political analysts who have read it as perceptive and realistic, the authors seem to leave unaddressed the most important point - how to create a functioning government that could win the population's allegiance.

The study seems to assume that Army handouts of food and medicine, or even the building of a bridge, will win the allegiance of poor peasant families. Access to land and credit are what are needed, the diplomats and political analysts say, not Army handouts.

The study seems to reflect a dilemma the US often faces when it considers reforms. Such reforms can conflict with the interests of the monied elite, often traditional US allies.

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