The Rule, Not the Exception -- The "Salvador Option" in Context

Newsweek reports that the Pentagon is considering having U.S. Special Forces train death squads in Iraq, modeled on U.S. death squads in El Salvador.

What Newsweek fails to note is that:

  1. This policy represents standard U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine, employed around the world since the 1960's.  
  2. Two suspicious kidnappings in Iraq last year suggest that death squad activity may already exist in Iraq.
  3. The "Salvador Option" is not an extreme option being considered by a few neo-cons at the Pentagon, rather it reflects a policy that could easily develop bipartisan support, and which John Kerry may have been hinting at during the presidential campaign.
  4. The leak of the "Salvador Option" may be a conscious attempt to test the waters regarding public sentiment about Iraqi death squads and to pad the impact of later revelations about U.S. actions in Iraq.
Sometimes the problem isn't that the mainstream media misses a story, but rather that it missed the forest for the trees.

As Andrew Grice and John Eden have noted,, Newsweek reported last weekend that:  

" the Pentagon is intensively debating an option that dates back to a still-secret strategy in the Reagan administration’s battle against the leftist guerrilla insurgency in El Salvador in the early 1980s. Then, faced with a losing war against Salvadoran rebels, the U.S. government funded or supported 'nationalist' forces that allegedly included so-called death squads directed to hunt down and kill rebel leaders and sympathizers. Eventually the insurgency was quelled, and many U.S. conservatives consider the policy to have been a success—despite the deaths of innocent civilians and the subsequent Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal. (Among the current administration officials who dealt with Central America back then is John Negroponte, who is today the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. Under Reagan, he was ambassador to Honduras.   [ . . .}Following that model, one Pentagon proposal would send Special Forces teams to advise, support and possibly train Iraqi squads, most likely hand-picked Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shiite militiamen, to target Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers, even across the border into Syria, according to military insiders familiar with the discussions. It remains unclear, however, whether this would be a policy of assassination or so-called 'snatch' operations, in which the targets are sent to secret facilities for interrogation. The current thinking is that while U.S. Special Forces would lead operations in, say, Syria, activities inside Iraq itself would be carried out by Iraqi paramilitaries, officials tell NEWSWEEK."

These "revelations" certainly come as no surprise to anyone with even the most basic understanding of U.S. counter-insurgency actions in Latin America.  But by failing to put the "Salvador Option" in context, Newsweek ignores the reality that this plan represents the rule and not the exception in U.S. counterinsurgency operations, and that rather than being a controversial and extreme proposal it reflects the bipartisan desire for a policy that can shift the burden of killing and dying from U.S. soldiers to Iraqis.

DEATH SQUADS, TOTALITARIANISM, AND COUNTERINSURGENCY DOCTRINE

As Michael McClintock documented in his seminal work [ Instruments of Statecraft: U.S. Guerilla Warfare, Counterinsurgency, and Counterterrorism, 1940-1990 http://www.statecraft.org ], during the Cold War the U.S. developed counterinsurgency policies based on the model of Nazi suppression of partisan insurgents that emphasized placing the civilian population under strict control and using terror to make the population affraid to support or collaborate with insurgents.

The legacy of this counterinsurgency doctrine is clear in the Army's new counterinsurgency manual, FM 100-20 / AFP 3-20 Military Operations in Low Intensity Conflict.  The manual explains that "Population and Resources Control" (PRC) is essential to keep the civilian population from providing a base of support for an insurgency, while noting that such operations are highly contraversial and wherever possible the U.S. should farm them out to troops from the "host country."  According to the manual:

"PRC measures can include--

-- Suspension of habeas corpus.
-- Curfews and blackout.
-- Travel restrictions.
-- Excluded or limited access areas.
-- Registration and pass systems.
-- Declaration that selected items or quantities of items, such as weapons, food, and fuel, are contraband.
-- Licensing, rationing, and price controls.
-- Checkpoints, searches, and surveillance.
-- Censorship."

Such tactics were developed as part of the "strategic hamlet" system in Vietnam, and have been widely implemented by U.S. client states -- most recently by Israel in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and by Colombia in areas such as Arauca and certain neighborhoods of Medellin.

In areas seen as hotbeds of resistance, such as Fallujah, the Army is toled to escalate from "Population and Resources Control" to "Consolidation Operations" which include:  

"Destroying, dispersing, or clearing insurgent tactical forces from the area.

Locating and destroying elements of the insurgency's supporting base area system.

Identifying and apprehending members of the insurgency's political infrastructure. "

"The insurgences supporting base area system" includes networks of support the insurgents have built in the community.  "Identifying and appeshending members of the insurgency's political infrastructure" suggests rounding up people who support the insurgency's political goals -- a slightly more politically correct way to discuss taking out labor organizers, community leaders, human rights workers, and independent journalists.  Incredibly, the manual openly refers to the use of paramilitary forces in carrying out "Consolidation Operations."

The Nazis pioneered the use of indigenous paramilitary forces to root out insurgents and sympathizers through the creation of forces such as the Croatian Ustashe.   The U.S. first implemented the tactic in Colombia in the early 1960's.  According to McClintock, following a 1962 visit to Colombia, Gen. William Yarborough wrote:

"[A] concerted country team effort should be made now to select civilian and military personnel for clandestine training in resistance operations in case they are needed later. This should be done with a view toward development of a civil and military structure for exploitation in the event the Colombian internal security system deteriorates further. This structure should be used to pressure toward reforms known to be needed, perform counter-agent and counter-propaganda functions and as necessary execute paramilitary, sabotage and/or terrorist activities against known communist proponents. It should be backed by the United States."

The Colombian military implemented Yarborough's suggestion under "Plan Lazo,"  creating the forerunners of todays AUC death squads.  The tactic has become the hallmark of U.S.-backed counterinsurgency operations from El Salvador to Guatemala to El Salvador to East Timor.

The purpose of the strategy is outlined in a 1962 Army Psychological Operations manual quoted by McClintock:

"Civilians in the operational area may be supporting their own government or collaborating with an enemy occupation force. An isolation program designed to instill doubt and fear may be carried out, and a positive political action program designed to elicit active support of the guerrillas also may be effected. If these programs fail, it may become necessary to take more aggressive action in the form of harsh treatment or even abductions. The abduction and harsh treatment of key enemy civilians can weaken the collaborators’ belief in the strength and power of their military forces."

The controversial nature of such operations requires that they be carried out covertly and that whenever possible they be carried out by surrogates -- such as local paramillitary groups.

Fr. Javier Giraldo wrote in his 1996 book, Colombia: The Genocidal Democracy, that:

"the keystone of a strategy of 'Dirty War,' where the 'dirty' actions cannot be attributed to persons on behalf of the State because they have been delegated, passed along or  projected upon confused bodies of armed civilians. Those committing the crimes are anonymous and easily definable as common delinquents who act and thereafter disappear into the fog. This covers up responsibility for acts which have no legal
justification or legitimacy, not even during times of warlike confrontations. The result is that they confound and complement two types of events: actions of military officers camouflaged as civilians and military action of civilians protected in a clandestine way by military personnel. Both types of procedures have the same objective: to provide impunity through cover ups."

Given this history and these doctrines how can anyone pretend to be surprised that the U.S. would use death squads to keep the population in Iraq?

THE BIPARTISAN CONSENSUS: FEWER US TROOPS, HARSHER CONTROL

Newsweek presents the "Salvador Option" as an extreme position being advocated and explored by neo-conservatives at the Pentagon.  But in reality, the "Salvador Option" reflects a position long advocated by Democrats -- turning over more of the military operations to Iraqis in order to relieve the burden on U.S. troops.  The Democrats have simply avoided discussing what kinds of forces and operations would really be necessary for the so-called "Iraqi government" to put down the insurgenc.

Indeed, there is reason to believe that a Kerry administration might have advanced a subtler version of the "Salvador Option."  During the campaign, Kerry proposed a significant expansion of U.S. Special Forces.  (See my October 4 aricle in Counterpuch.)  To the public this conjured up images of crack battalions of Chuck Norris-like soldiers.  But anyone familiar with the real mission and nature of U.S. Special Forces knows that essentially this would have meant leveraging military resources to use "trainers" and "advisors" to set up local forces that could engage in "dirty war" tactics too controverial for the U.S. to engage in directly.

ARE THERE ALREADY DEATH SQUADS IN IRAQ?

Indeed, reading the Newsweek report, I found myself asking -- is the Pentagon really just now beginning to implement a death squad strategy in Iraq?  Unanswered questions about the abductions of Simona Torretta and Nicholas Berg in Iraq last year lead me to wonder whether the death squads are already up and running.

McClintock cites the following passage from a 1962 Psychological Operations manual:

"Civilians in the operational area may be supporting their own government or collaborating with an enemy occupation force. An isolation program designed to instill doubt and fear may be carried out, and a positive political action program designed to elicit active support of the guerrillas also may be effected. If these programs fail, it may become necessary to take more aggressive action in the form of harsh treatment or even abductions. The abduction and harsh treatment of key enemy civilians can weaken the collaborators’ belief in the strength and power of their military forces. This approach, fraught with propaganda and political dangers, should be used only after all other appeal means have failed. And when used, they [sic] must be made to appear as though initiated and effected by the guerrillas themselves to reduce the possibility of reprisals against civilians."

He also cites an Army intelligence officer with experience in Vietnam who suggested in the following tactic in a 1966 study on counterinsurgency and psychological warfare:

"Using a pseudo-insurgent force, the govemment generates incidents among the population. These incidents are used to indicate to the people the need for government-sponsored population control for protection of the villagers."

There is an uncanny resonance between these passages and the circumstances surrounding the kidnapping of Simona Toretta.  Toretta was a staff person for an Italian NGO that opposed the U.S. war in Iraq, and had done work in Baghdad during the sanctions and the bombing.  In early September, Toretta and three collegues were kidnapped by alleged Iraqi militants.  But too many of the pieces of the story just don't fit.  Jeremy Scahill and Naomi Klein, who had met Toretta in Iraq, reported in the Guardian on September 16 2004 that:

"Nothing about this kidnapping fits the pattern of other abductions. Most are opportunistic attacks on treacherous stretches of road. Torretta and her colleagues were coldly hunted down in their home. And while mujahideen in Iraq scrupulously hide their identities, making sure to wrap their faces in scarves, these kidnappers were bare-faced and clean-shaven, some in business suits. One assailant was addressed by the others as 'sir'

"Kidnap victims have overwhelmingly been men, yet three of these four are women. Witnesses say the gunmen questioned staff in the building until the Simonas were identified by name, and that Mahnouz Bassam, an Iraqi woman, was dragged screaming by her headscarf, a shocking religious transgression for an attack supposedly carried out in the name of Islam.

"Most extraordinary was the size of the operation: rather than the usual three or four fighters, 20 armed men pulled up to the house in broad daylight, seemingly unconcerned about being caught. Only blocks from the heavily patrolled Green Zone, the whole operation went off with no interference from Iraqi police or US military - although Newsweek reported that "about 15 minutes afterwards, an American Humvee convoy passed hardly a block away.

"And then there were the weapons. The attackers were armed with automatic rifles, pump-action shotguns, pistols with silencers and stun guns - hardly the mujahideen's standard-issue rusty Kalashnikovs. Strangest of all is this detail: witnesses said that several attackers wore Iraqi National Guard uniforms and identified themselves as working for Ayad Allawi, the interim prime minister.

"An Iraqi government spokesperson denied that Allawi's office was involved. But Sabah Kadhim, a spokesperson for the interior ministry, conceded that the kidnappers'were wearing military uniforms and flak jackets.'"

Aside from the names and locations it sounds like the story of a paramilitary kidnapping in Iraq.

They go on to explain that:

" [Toretta's organization,] A Bridge to Baghdad has been unapologetic in its opposition to the occupation regime. During the siege of Falluja in April, it coordinated risky humanitarian missions. US forces had sealed the road to Falluja and banished the press as they prepared to punish the entire city for the gruesome killings of four Blackwater mercenaries. In August, when US marines laid siege to Najaf, A Bridge to Baghdad again went where the occupation forces wanted no witnesses. And the day before their kidnapping, Torretta and Pari told Kubaisi that they were planning yet another high-risk mission to Falluja."

These details were reported in the Italian press but were ignored by the U.S. media.  They provide strong circumstantial evidence that the kidnapping was an attempt to frighten groups like A Bridge to Baghdad out of sticking their noses into U.S. military business, and to scare other aid agencies into either collaborating more closely with security forces or pulling out of Iraq.

Several months earlier, in a widely publicized incident that drew attention away from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal (and was used by many commentators to tacitly support the torture of Iraqi prisoners,) Nicholas Berg, a 26 year old telecommunications contractor from Pennsylvania was kidnapped and beheaded. Before his kidnapping, Berg had been held and questioned by U.S. and Iraqi authorities.  [update] Before his kidnapping, Berg had been held and questioned by U.S. and Iraqi authorities. The FBI offered Berg safe passage out of Iraq before releasing him, but Berg turned down the offer because he wanted to stay in the country a bit later. He was abducted several days later. .

This could just be a coincidence.  On the other hand, from Alabama sheriffs with ties to the Ku Klux Klan to Colombian soldiers with the AUC, [update] there is a long history of security forces taking people into custody and then releasing them, giving paramilitary groups a chance to kidnap and murder them. The appearance of "guilt" can be a sufficient motive for a vigilante killing by death squads. .

Then there is the fact that, as numerous Bloggers have reported, [update] Berg’s company was on an enemies list compiled by the right-wing hate group Free Republic, because Berg’s father had signed a newspaper ad condemning the war in Iraq, and the ad had identified him as an employee of the company his son founded. Ironically, Nick Berg supported the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The same compassion for the Iraqi people that motivated his father, Michael's opposition to the war, motivated Nick to go to Iraq to attempt to take part in the reconstruction, working as a private telecommunications contractor. There are many Free Republic members in the U.S. military and the group is known for its violent, threatening rhetoric and its harrassment of its “enemies.” There is also a long history of right wing paramilitaries deeming people "guilty by association" and committing reprisals against the family members of perceived dissidents.

The gruesome manner in which Nicholas Berg was murdered also reflects a mode of operation common to U.S. -backed death squads. death squads tend to use the most brutal and gruesome methods available to them in order to instill fear in others. McClintock cites Psychological Operations and Counterinsurgency training materials published by the Army in the mid 1960's that suggest that, by insurgents in order to increase people's fear of the insurgency and support for the governmen, in some cases death squads should make it look like their victimst were killed by insurgents. Given the erosion of trust in U.S. forces following the disclosure of the torture at Abu Ghraib prison it is entirely possible that Nick may have been killed in such a brutal and public way in order to create a deep fear of the insurgency that would tacitly justify the torture of suspected insurgents and in order to create the sense that when the media disclosed torture by U.S. forces they put U.S. nationals at risk. The confusion created by the mention of Nick's company's name on the Free Republic list might have helped the killers to justify their actions to themselves. The terror and outrage that Nick's murder caused may in turn have inspired actual insurgents to use the same method to carry out copycat crimes to create a similar effect for very different reasons.

There is not enough evidence to decisevely pin the kidnappings of Toretta and Berg on paramilitaries -- but both cases raise disturbing questions.  And if either of them was targeted by paramilitaries we can assume that there have been dozens of unknown Iraqi victims as well.

Which brings us back to the one other strange aspect of the Newsweek story.  The reporters never asked why the Pentagon was giving them this information. Presumably they assumed that their sources were whistleblowers appalled by the proposal.  But another possibility seems equally likely, if not more likely -- the Pentagon may already have implemented "the Salvador Option" and the leak may be part of a strategy to test the waters of publlic opinion regarding the strategy and to diffuse the impact of eventual revelations of U.S.-backed death squad activity in Iraq.

Once again, Newsweek has failed to do anything more than report a story handed to it on a silver platter.
 

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Sean Donahue is a poet, healer, activist, and freelance journalist wandering through New England.