Current Issues
Analysis, February 1990

Maj. F. Andy Messing Jr.

El Salvador: Tet II

El Salvador is a land of extremes: unbelievable beauty and horrible ugliness, the very rich and the sickly poor, the powerful and the helpless. Understanding the country's historic and cultural aspects gives clues to the present conflict.

In fact, a current upsurge in military action in El Salvador was predicted in detail a year ago. In an op-ed article for the Los Angeles Times dated January 29, 1989, Allen B. Hazelwood, a senior fellow from the National Defense Council Foundation, accurately outlined the events that have happened since the start of the latest guerrilla offensive on November 11.

Hazelwood's observations and calculations result from several factors. His experience in Indochina as a Marine infantryman and later as a US Army Special Forces advisor helped, but 14 years in Central and South America as a Special Forces adviser (7 years in El Salvador) were a major factor in his foresight. Another key factor was that he examined the conflict in a multidimensional way, using formulae developed by Sun Tzu and the late Maj. Gen. Edward G. Lansdale. To both these men, warfare was complex and the killing of the adversary not the sole objective. Sun Tzu's premise was that "supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting." Lansdale realized during his efforts to defeat communist guerrillas in the Philippines in the late 1940s and early 1950s that "taking the cause away from the guerrillas was the essence of a counter-insurgency action." The merging of these concepts produces a comprehensive strategy that negates the "body-count" theory often applied to low-intensity conflict scenarios.

Two of the previous US ambassadors to El Salvador, Deane Hinton and Thomas Pickering, understood this approach. They developed a full-spectrum strategy to complement the visionary elements of Salvadoran President Jose Napoleon Duarte's government. This plan for economic reconstruction stressed the importance of political plurality, social justice, economic opportunity, low-key small unit action, civil defense, and civic action.

Then several events collided to derail the significant progress that had been accomplished by 1986. Two were man-made, two were natural disasters. The man-made elements were the consolidation of the communist Farabundo Marti National Liberation (FMLN) leadership and its subsequent change in long-term strategy, and the arrival of another US ambassador who allowed Duarte's plan to be amended. The natural disasters were the economy shattering October 1986 earthquake and the onset of terminal cancer in Duarte. These elements combined to disrupt the steady lowering of the violence. Accordingly, the stage was set for Hazelwood's warning of an impending guerrilla offensive.


The election of Alfredo Cristiani in March 1989 was the beginning of the "Lebanonization" of El Salvador because it further polarized the political environment. The socialist/communist political Left, called the Democratic Convergence Party, was resoundingly defeated in the election. This caused it to lose power to the extreme Left, led by Commandante Joaquin Villalobos, the central guerrilla commander who insists on a military victory by the FMLN. Simultaneously, within Christiani's own right-of-center party, ARENA, a nebulous faction dedicated to the same objective of crushing the enemy gained momentum. Both extremes have increased their brutality in a way they believe could shorten the war. Ironically, each act committed by either faction gives a temporary advantage to the opposite side or produces a national/international reaction contrary to what they wanted.

Cristiani's government is being battered from two fronts--the extreme Left and extreme Right. And, not unlike Duarte, Cristiani is finding himself politically isolated. A policy of trying to accommodate these extreme forces will only ensure that he will be one of the biggest losers.

One one hand, Cristiani is being pressured into making headway in negotiations with the communist-backed forces. On the other hand, he has to continuously pacify his own party's extreme elements, who believe it still possible to use the threat of a communist takeover to justify harsh action. At the same time, he must attempt to please an often manipulative US government.

The situation was further complicated by the unfortunate murder of six Jesuit priests. This, along with other acts against the church, will bring about a resurgence of Christian militancy in this conflict. El Salvador's Catholic leader, Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas, has long been a supporter of the right of the people to organize for improved social conditions. Religion, both Catholic and Protestant, will play an increasing role in pushing the government closer to negotiation, whether or not it is ready--a policy that the Salvadoran military and the extreme Right characterize as subversive.

These facts, along with the intelligence community's inability to predict the guerrilla offensive, are cause for alarm. Clearly, the task of knowing the enemy lies squarely with the US supported Salvadoran intelligence services. One could ask how, after 10 years of experience, more than 1,000 insurgents could infiltrate the capital of San Salvador, let alone tap into tons of prepositioned stocks of ammunition and weapons. Part of the answer lies in preoffensive optimistic assumptions by the US Embassy and the Salvadoran military that the guerrillas had been reduced to roving bands of rebels--a miscalculation that led to a gross underestimation of the number of insurgents the FMLN could mobilize.

Many liberal US politicians will use such an oversight to justify the call for an immediate review of US involvement in El Salvador, hoping thereby to sharply reduce the level of aid. They will surely rebel against the past concept of throwing in hundreds of millions of dollars to buy time.

The US Embassy claims that the major objective of the FMLN was to gain a popular uprising. It points to the fact that the people did not support offensive as proof that the guerrillas are failing. This is an exercise in wishful thinking. After the 1981 "final offensive" failed, the insurgents became fully aware that 70 percent of the Salvadoran people are indifferent to the struggle and do not support either the military or the guerrillas. This fact favors the FMLN in the conduct of the war, as the war-weary populace will eventually turn to any solution that offers an easing of violence.

The election of Alfredo Cristiani in March 1989 was the beginning of the "Lebanonization" of El Salvador because it further polarized the political environment.


External events have also affected the efforts for peace and led to the current turmoil. For example, Hazelwood points out that diplomatic efforts to settle differences with the guerrillas have gone nowhere. Nearly 11 years of intermittent efforts culminated in the much-celebrated Equipulas II peace plan signed by the Central American presidents, but as Duarte told his cabinet, "Equipulas has only succeeded in killing off the Contras." He maintained that the flawed "peace plan" had resulted in an increased flow of equipment and matérial to the communist forces in El Salvador. Thus, the reequipping of the combat elements of the FMLN (with everything from AK-47 assault rifles to SA-7 ground-to-air missiles) should come as no surprise.

Furthermore, the increasingly merged efforts of the FMLN and Nicaragua's Sandinistas are reflected in their parallel vacillation between political and military strategies. As the old adage says, "You are known by your friends." On November 11, 1988, the communist dictator of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, met with the top North Vietnamese general, Nguyen Giap, in Managua. Friendly advice on Giap's part would logically be to win against the United States; the Sandanistas and their allies (such as the FMLN) would have to switch back and forth between political and military acts. Simply put, this is the time-proven tactic of talk, fight, talk, fight, a gambit successfully used by the North Vietnamese.

To be most effective, the fighting must maximize public attention, even at the risk of great losses--as in the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam. This would activate Bush's political opposition in Congress and across the country, the controversy-seeking media, and the international community, thus generating support for the Marxist cause. The Sandinistas and the FMLN adopted this winning tactic. Exactly a year later, the Salvadoran FMLN began its offensive.

Compressing the situation and stimulating an increase in Sandanista and FMLN activity is the contraction of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. The crumbling of the Berlin Wall and the associated problems of their guardians, particularly the Soviets, must make the Sandanistas and the FMLN nervous at best and bordering on reckless at worst. Their time line, and that of other nonentrenched communist organizations worldwide, is reduced significantly in a logistical and political manner. One could almost visualize the men and women in the combat planning center in Managua working around the clock to speed up developments favorable to their side.

This may explain some of the continued battle action on the part of the FMLN, in spite of casualties estimated as high as 50 percent in November's offensive. Considering the situation, the FMLN is only going to be able to operate in an accelerated mode for a few more months--especially without the support of the general populace, which actively tries to practice neutrality between both sides. It will then be forced to reduce its size to continue the war. Even if its external supply chain is broken, the FMLN will continue to function. The organization has very flexible operating procedures. It can rely on its past tactics of battlefield acquisition and purchase materiel from arms merchants with money obtained from their criminal activities and numerous international support organizations.

The obstacles to an insurgent victory are that El Salvador is a relatively small country and the US-supported armed forces are better equipped and served by an impressive logistical system. US support by itself is not enough, however, to prevent a possible insurgent takeover. The United States, it must be remembered, also supported South Vietnam and maintained military facilities in Cuba prior to Fidel Castro's takeover.

On the other hand, one factor preventing the Salvadoran government from obtaining a victory is the exceptional insurgent leadership and discipline. Another factor may well prove to be the US Congress. Still another is the old practice of the Salvadoran and US governments' being reactive to events. This strategy must be changed by looking for ways to shape events rather than sitting back and being controlled by guerrilla initiatives.

FMLN leaders are well aware that the key to success lies in the development of strong, widespread support. This translates into a rich reservoir of manpower and logistical support for the guerrilla forces, a crude but effective communications system, and a low-cost but highly superior combat intelligence network.

As Hazelwood wrote, "The FMLN has educated the people to a steady theme of rampant social injustice under corrupt civilian and military officials. At the same time, the guerrillas have prevented the government from providing long promised social and economic changes in the lives of the people."

Breaking the cycle of violence will require an inordinate amount of effort on the part of the Salvadoran government. Restoring confidence in a government under duress is a difficult process. As a result, the time required to bring about peace can be as long as the insurgency in Malaysia, which just ended after 41 years. This grim prospect can be reduced by the US and Salvadoran governments' return to an integrated effort of political, social, economic, and security actions.


Some of the things that can be done to bring El Salvador back from the brink of "Lebanonization" are:

In general, a return to the 1983 plan would be essential. Furthermore, some immediate actions required include the following:

In the next few months, the FMLN will continue its effort to gain international attention. The use of SA-7 missiles will become routine, and there will be an increase in assasinations of key government personnel by the guerrillas, according to a prominent journalist who is well connected to the FMLN. Conversely, the other extreme will increase its effort to neutralize the leftist infrastructure and the guerrilla leadership.

Mistakes being made in this current crisis include the following:

  • That the Salvadoran army was the agent in the killings of the priests and thier workers, when in fact the murders may have been done by autonomous elements on the extreme Right or even the extreme Left.

  • That Casolo is guilty of assisting in in caching FMLN military equipment. The FMLN has a history of excluding individuals from its actions for various reasons.

  • That the FMLN has, as US Ambassador William Walker states, "shot its wad."

  • That Congress will not reduce or restrict military and economic aid.

  • That the US government will keep US troops out of El Salvador. As an administration official just stated, "US military forces could be called in if more Soviet arms are uncovered in FMLN caches and if the attacks on US houses and foreign embassies continue."

  • That the source of arms for the FMLN can be controlled by the Soviets.

  • That Americans will not be targeted in the future.

  • That the extreme faction of ARENA can be controlled by the Cristiani or that they can control him.

  • With each of these items, making the wrong choice can take reasonable people down the wrong roads. For example, the case for reducing or restricting aid could cause a measure of instability--not only for El Salvador, but for Central America as a whole--that could rival the turmoil caused in 1975 in Indochina. US Sens. Edward Kennedy and John Tunney sponsored amendments in February of that year designed to cut off an emergency ammunition for Cambodia. This action in turn caused the initial panic that led to the fall of Saigon in April of that year. The consequence of the aid reduction was continued violence at a higher rate. Should the US Congress take similar action again regarding El Salvador, a similar result could occur. In other words, a case can be made for maintaining and restructuring the military and economic package, but not for a cutoff.

    Another example is to discuss the possibility that the US government might send in troops. This is a conflict that must be primarily resolved by the Salvadorans themselves. Sending these types of signals will result in extreme elements using them for their advantage. They will manufacture events to cause things to happen.

    The legitimate Left and Right in El Salvador must publicly reject the extremes and work within a democratic framework.

    The FMLN guerrillas' objective of militarily challenging the Salvadoran government has been met. They accomplished a successful, if costly, "Tet" type of escapade. It will be interesting to see them deemphasize the military effort in favor of a political one in the weeks to come. The closer the Nicaraguan Sandinista election comes, the more political action by their Salvadoran allies will be observed.

    In this classic insurgent scenario, defeat and victory have changed places numerous times. Now, we are looking at a situation where an exhausted populace is desperate for peace.

    F. Andy Messing Jr., is executive director of the National Defense Council Foundation in Alexandria, Virginia.