With Gen. Stanley McChrystal asking for more troops to prevent “mission failure” in Afghanistan, I thought it would be worth noting something we might call “the El Salvador Option.” I’m not sure if this option really exists as a potential strategic choice for Obama now–the idea of a “small foot print” might be done for, if it ever really had a chance, as Obama is clearly getting heavy, heavy, heavy pressure from the military to increase the number of forces. Not only that, he’s allowed his military brass to set the terms of the debate (“Do we need more troops or do we need more troops?”) while doing the public handwringing bit, putting off the “politically sensitive” decision as long as possible, or what he calls searching for “the right strategy.” Meanwhile, we’re heading towards his inevitable cave–Obama is going to do what McChrystal says, I would guess–so talking about the El Salvador Option is perhaps moot.
That being said, I’m going to do it anyway.
So what is the El Salvador Option?
Tom Ricks mentioned it last week, blogging about remarks Gen. HR McMasters made regarding our failures in Iraq. I was first introduced to the concept a while back by retired Colonel Douglas Macgregor. Both used El Salvador as an example while discussing Afghanistan.
(I wrote about it in a GQ story earlier this year; or, self-promo wise, you can order a copy of the Best American Political Writing Anthology 2009, and read the story in there.)
The problem I have is that if you commit the resources, the military tends to use them — even if that isn’t the most effective course. If you have enough troops to go into Nuristan, you’ll probably go there, even if that isn’t the best course. By contrast, Congress capped the U.S. military presence in El Salvador, which forced the military to maintain a small advisory force. This was, I think, far more effective than pouring infantry brigades into there — an option that of course wasn’t available. Generally, focusing on advisory functions, and raising local police and security forces, seems a far better way to fight these wars than injecting tens of thousands of American infantrymen, backed by tens of thousands of support troops, plus tens of thousands of contractors, and some trigger-happy mercenaries to top it off.
(Side note of some interest: McMasters fought, and is a character, in the Gulf War I tank battle that Macgregror’s new book, Warrior’s Rage, describes.)
I’m no expert on El Salvador (or anything else, for that matter) but from the couple of books I’ve read on the subject, it seems our behavior there was partially determined by a desire not to get heavily involved in another Vietnam-like situation. We came and went without getting stuck, left with a few bloody fingerprints but no body bags, and managed to push our policies and influence events.
Other advantages: it’s a heck of lot cheaper, and it gives you a political avenue to funnel the always wacky desires of whatever hardliners happen to be floating around the Oval Office at the time.
What I mean is: by having a light footprint, you give your hardliners (Cold Warriors then, Neocons lately, etc.) just enough leeway so they can play their ideological games; you give the cloak and dagger types something to put in their slush funds; and in general, just keeping the hardliners busy, so they don’t drag the rest of us down with them.
Just a thought: isn’t something like the El Salvador Option the ideal end state in both Iraq and Afghanistan? Isn’t that what we’re fighting for: ie, we want to influence their governments, advise their miltaries, take a behind the scenes role, make sure they’re towing the line, helping douse the flames of Islamic terrorism, etc. So rather than spending tens of billions of dollars and hundreds of more lives to fight our way there, why not just go there now? Why not just do El Salvador and give ourselves a light footprint? Am I being unrealistic?
BONUS MACHIAVELLIAN SPECULATION: Remember Gen. David McKiernan asked for more troops and was turned down. (One military official I spoke to at the time said there were plans being tossed around calling for 100,000 Americans on the ground.) Not only was McKiernan turned down, he was eventually fired by SecDef Gates. So perhaps there’s been a long term strategy here that Gates and Gen. Petraeus & Co. have been working to get the desired increase. By installing a new commander, McChrystal, you get a second chance to ask for more troops; it gives you an event to hinge a troop request on; you get to do another strategic review that reaches a similar conclusion. Obama said ‘no’ once–would he really be able to say ‘no’ again, this time to the new commander? Just asking…