A Strategic View of Insurgencies: Insights from El Salvador

By Manwaring, Max G.; Prisk, | McNair Papers, May 1990 | Go to article overview

A Strategic View of Insurgencies: Insights from El Salvador


Manwaring, Max G., Prisk,, McNair Papers


IN THE LATE 1970s, chronic political, economic, and social problems created by a self-serving military-supported oligarchy began to generate another crisis in a long list of crises in El Salvador. During that time, General Carlos Humberto Romero came to power, brought by those who thought that he would be able to establish a regime strong enough to protect the interests of the oligarchy and to control the various forces agitating for change. Yet by 1979, the situation was beyond control by repression.

The catalyst that ignited the violence in El Salvador was the military coup of October 1979 that ousted Romero as the last protector of the interests of the obligarchy. After Romero, the history of the country breaks into four clearly defined periods. The period immediately after the coup was one of almost complete disarray. None of the three major actors in the conflict--the military, the insurgents, and the United States--was ready for the aftermath of 50 years of authoritarian government. Then from the end of 1981 to the end of 1984, the Salvadoran revolutionaries seemed to unify and appeared to be well on their way to a military victory and the assumption of political power in their own right. Clearly, the insurgents were ascendant. By the end of 1984, however, the armed forces had taken the best the insurgents could give and were beginning to regain control of the political-military situation. Perhaps it is still too early to tell, but the period 1985-87 appeared to be the beginning of the end of the idea that Salvadoran revolution comes only from the "barrel of a gun." The war changed direction. In the period from 1987 to the present, nothing really decisive seems to have taken place. There have been some spectacular events, but the revolutionaries have been deprived of their military victory. The United States-backed Salvadoran forces have not won either. The Salvadorans have an impasse within a protracted war.

This following commentary is an exploration of the overwhelming need to maintain a strategic perspective in fighting an insurgency, illustrated by close examination of the continuing insurgency in EL Salvador. We believe that in EL Salvador, as in all other insurgencies of this sort, three strategic considerations must be kept in mind: The insurgent is dedicated to total victory and all his actions must be judged accordingly; the fundamental goal of the insurgent is not military, but political, namely to undermine the legitimacy of the government; and finally, conducting a counterinsurgency strategy cannot be done in a business-as-usual manner--a special organization and tactics are necessary.

The Context of the War

Examining the military-historical divisions of the Salvadoran conflict and the major insights derived from each requires consideration of the context of the struggle to provide an elaboration of the central strategic problem that permeates the entire war. The guerrilla war in El Salvador began in the early 1960s in response to the abusive and repressive nature of the successive governments that had been essentially at the service of the Salvadoran oligarchy. Through the efforts of the Salvadoran Communist Party (PCES), the National University became a center for agitation and change. The PCES, after converting the university, began to successfully promote the Marxist-Leninist ideas of preparing the people, subverting the political parties, disrupting the functioning of government, and agitating through demonstrations. This militant but relatively nonviolent strategy seemed to be working when the coalition of the PCES, the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR), and Christian Democratic Party (PDC) won the 1972 presidential election. But, when the election was taken away by fraud the PCES strategy fell apart and a new set of more combative radicals began to espouse violent armed confrontation. As the resultant demonstrations, riots, strikes, and chaos grew in intensity, the government became more repressive. …

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