American Counterinsurgency Doctrine and El Salvador

By Orellana, Manuel A., Jr. | Military Review, November/December 2005 | Go to article overview

American Counterinsurgency Doctrine and El Salvador


Orellana, Manuel A., Jr., Military Review


American Counterinsurgency Doctrine and El Salvador

The United States once again finds itself actively supporting a foreign government in its struggle against a violent insurgent force. For many, the defeat of a capable, determined Iraqi insurgency by coalition forces appears doubtful, and to frustrated U.S. personnel, the lack of an effective counterinsurgency (COIN) policy in Iraq makes the goals and outcome of U.S. policy in Iraq problematic.

Through bouts of criticism and perhaps despair, it is important to point out that the United States has been down this path before. Blueprints on how to better understand and even untangle the problems do exist. Benjamin C. Schwarz's American Counterinsurgency Doctrine and El Salvador provides one blueprint.1 In a RAND-sponsored study, Schwarz assesses the political and social dimensions of U.S. COIN policy in El Salvador circa 1991 and critiques the U.S.'s initial policy goals there.

How can this report about El Salvador's civil war help us understand Iraq? U.S. Government policy in El Salvador, which was designed to "fortify the national armed forces, to wear down the rebels in combat, and bolster democracy [so] as to weaken the rebel's claims," sounds a lot like current policy in Iraq.2 El Salvador thus offers a potentially insightful historical parallel to Iraq. A review of Schwarz's book might help identify which of the lessons U.S. personnel learned in El Salvador that we can apply today.

Despite a decade of civil war and committed U.S. involvement, El Salvador was still locked in a struggle against the highly motivated insurgency of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front in the early 1990s. Schwarz begins his assessment of U.S. COIN policy in El Salvador by reviewing U.S. doctrine in Vietnam. He then sets forth explanations as to why U.S. efforts to foster Salvadoran military and civic reform did not produce the desired results. The book concludes with an evaluation of the future efficacy and applicability of then-current doctrine regarding low-intensity conflict (LIC).

Schwarz asserts that by 1991 the United States had failed to reach its goal in El Salvador: a clear-cut victory for the Central American regime. Like a ghost of nationbuilding past, Schwarz points out that in El Salvador "the United States perhaps did not consider sufficiently that human character, history, culture, and social structure are highly resistant to outside influence."3

Schwarz effectively leads the reader through the historical and political background of the conflict, gradually building his argument with facts and logical conclusions. His report was compiled mainly from interviews with numerous press, state department, intelligence, and government officials, in many cases under the condition of anonymity.

America's Future Policies in El Salvador

According to Schwarz, in 1991 LIC doctrine failed for several reasons, foremost of which was the inability to fundamentally alter El Salvador's undemocratic culture. Schwarz states that U.S. strategy to defeat the insurgency required El Salvador's Government to establish a just and equitable society. This demand forced the United States to try to reverse centuries of military and government-sponsored abuse. …

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