Afghanistan: The El Salvador Option?

Italian soldiers in Kabul hold a memorial service on September 19, 2009 for six of their own who were killed by a car bomb on September 17 (Paula Bronstein/Getty)

Italian soldiers in Kabul hold a memorial service on September 19, 2009 for six of their own who were killed by a car bomb on September 17 (Paula Bronstein/Getty)

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.)

Ricks writes:

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…


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7 Responses to Afghanistan: The El Salvador Option?

  1. Laurie Essig says:

    How depressing that even I am beginning to think that the US’s misguided policies in El Salvador might make acceptable US policy in Afghanistan. It’s so sad that we cannot even imagine just exposing the dirty underbelly of military industrial and political alliances for what they are: wrong, evil, a waste of lives and resources.

    • Michael Hastings says:

      Laurie–strange times we live in! I’ve been somewhat encouraged of late over the fact the we are finally having a debate over Afghanistan. Encouraged is probably the wrong word, as the outcome seems to have already been determined. I think the parameters have been fairly narrow–troops or more troops!
      I’ve noted before the strange silence from the mainstream anti-war left(Move.on, I’m looking at you) about Afghanistan, and, if things continue to go sour there to the point where Obama’s presidency is in trouble, perhaps they’ll have wished they spoke up sooner.

  2. Mr. Hastings,

    A major part of the solution in El Salvador was reconciliation between the guerrillas (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN)) and the government. In fact, the FMLN just got elected to power in El Salvador.

    A major part of the problem is Afghanistan is that there is no “the rebels”, there is no unified political opposition. Rather the a whole range of political forces, most of whom are tied not any ideology or political platform (as the FMLN was) but to local tribal chieftains who are simply interested in protecting their feudal prerogatives and to maintain the heroin trade (the two are obviously connected). These feudal forces will allow the Taliban and al-Qaeda just as much tactical freedom as does not interfere with business.

    What holds these disparate forces together is their mutual distaste for a strong central government in Kabul. Such a government would necessarily curtail the local feudal militias and the Taliban & Co and put a serious crimp in the heroin trade. The Pustun drug lords would probably snuff out the Taliban and al-Qaeda the moment they felt safe from Kabul. However what would we really want to make them safe from Kabul? Would dividing Afghanistan up into its feudal opium growing components (along with separate Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara, and other non-Pustun regions having their own enclaves) with a tiny “L’Île-de-Afghanistan” around Kabul to maintain international pretenses. That is the closest thing I can think of the “El Salvador” solution.

    • Michael Hastings says:

      Interesting points, David. My line of thinking was more of what kind relationship should the U.S. have be with country X(be it El Salvador, or Afghanistan or say Panama) and the kind of options at our disposal besides a massive boots on the ground presence. Figuring out a way to get our supposed allies to do the fighting for us, with limited but robust behind the scenes backing.

      Your point about the FMLN does strike a few notes of similarities with the Taliban. Essentially, what we’re fighting for now is a political solution–this solution is going to have to include an eventual reconciliation that includes or absorbs a large chunk of Taliban-types into the government.

      • Mr. Hastings,

        As always, the devil is in the details. It is easy to say “we want another option”, which in this case one which would not involve large numbers of troops. The tough part is figuring out what the consequences of those other options are and are they better or worse than what what is happening now or what would happen if more troops poured into Afghanistan. I outlined one possible outcome, another would be for Afghanistan to turn into another Somalia, a region with no government at all.

        Now maybe those outcomes, bad as they are, are still better than sending more troops or maybe the current program of strategic stalemate is better. What is still missing is a strategic political objective, what is it we want to achieve in Afghanistan. If we had such a goal, we could then do the math, do we have the resources, both political and military, both indigenous to Afghanistan and imported from abroad, to achieve that objective. Without that goal, what is the point of 100,000 or 200,000 more troops to be used as target practice for local fighters?

  3. libtree09 says:

    Obama has stated that victory is not necessarily the goal in Afghanistan. As things look now the only job of our military is to kill the taliban and keep Kabul from being overrun.

    It seems we are currently using counter insurgency tactics that rely on a hearts and minds type of strategy to win the support of locals. In Vietnam this failed because we could not discern the loyalties of the local population, the same problem exists in Afghanistan. To counter this the military is using the oil spot tactic of taking an area and holding it. So far it seems to work but the insurgents just melt away or are in plain sight waiting for the military to move on. So to keep this up we need the Afghan army to hold or we stay in place. It seems the US has little faith in the local army and thus need more troops.

    The fault in this idea is that one grabs more and more territory they then become an occupying army and history tells us that the Afghans find that situation offensive, normal but offensive non the less.

    This is of course a military strategy not a political solution. So here we are at cross purposes. Unless the military success becomes so offensive it forces a political solution. If not it all becomes a very expensive and deadly exercise for both sides.

    In my humble opinion the Taliban represent a culture, though a foreign one and as a homegrown culture there is little chance an outside force can change things. If we were not so emotionally involved with the tall guy with a beard we would have left this mess years ago.

  4. Michael Peck says:

    I think you’re right, Michael, that we will end up with more of an advisory presence in Afghanistan. But from what I remember of El Salvador, we mostly had Special Forces advisers for the government forces, who were lousy but probably weren’t much worse than the guerrillas. But Americans weren’t going into combat, or at least overtly. If we go with the advisory approach in Afghanistan, U.S. forces will air strikes and commando raids, which means aircraft shot down or crashing, U.S. soldiers trapped or captured, rescue missions that are ambushed that require the rescuers to be rescued, etc.

    This doesn’t address the central issue of the Kabul government’s weakness, but it’s probably better than the Big Expeditionary Force strategy we’re pursuing now. As long as everyone understands that this isn’t a cessation of the war, but just turning down the heat.

    I have to wonder just how much appetite there is going five years from now to fund a U.S. presence (let’s say 2,000 trainers, plus another 5,000 logistics and security). If we don’t have leverage to negotiate a deal with the Taliban now, I can’t see why we’ll have more later.

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