Friday, February 26, 2010

Counterinsurgency in El Salvador

Marc Peceny and William Stanley have a really interesting article in Politics & Society.  In "Counterinsurgency in El Salvador," the authors argue that
contemporary U.S. policy makers often characterize the U.S. countrerinsurgency experience in El Salvador as a successful model to be followed in other contexts.  This article argues that these characterizations significantly overstate the positive lessons of El Salvador, and ignore important cautionary implications.  (Politics & Society)
The article is part of a special edition of Politics & Society where several analysts look more closely at  historical counterinsurgency campaigns that have been used (for better or worse) to understand the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  While I would have liked to see the authors delve into the lessons for Afghanistan and Iraq in greater detail, their discussion of El Salvador is top-notch.  These are two of the best analysts on El Salvador.  Elisabeth Wood (co-organizer of the project) and David Holiday provided comments on the paper and they are two other Salvadoran experts.  (David used to run Central America and Beyond, a site that I really enjoyed.)

One of Peceny and Stanley's key findings is
that indiscriminate violence against civilians early in a conflict can create dynamics that are very difficult to overcome in subsequent stages.
In El Salvador, a traditional counterinsurgency campaign did not really begin until 1984.  By that time, the indiscriminate violence carried out by death squads and the military had already left their mark.  A successful strategy aimed at winning the "hearts and minds" of Salvadorans after such brutal violence is extremely difficult to achieve.  In El Salvador, government-directed violence against civilians in the early years of the war continued to provide recruits and good will towards the FMLN for the entire conflict.

In "The Legacy of Violence on Post-Civil War Elections: The Case of El Salvador" (2010), I argue that the legacy of violence that Peceny and Stanley discuss carries into postwar elections. 
Over the last several decades, numerous civil wars have ended as a consequence of negotiated settlements. Following many of these settlements, rebel groups have made the transition to political party and competed in democratic elections. In this paper, I assess the legacy of civil war on the performance of rebel groups as political parties. I argue that the ability of rebels to capture and control territory and their use of violence against the civilian population are two key factors explaining the performance of rebels as political parties. I test these hypotheses against the case of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador using one-way ANOVA and multivariate regression analyses. In analyzing the FMLN’s performance in the 1994 “elections of the century,” I find that, as a political party, the FMLN benefited both from the state’s violently disproportionate response and its ability to hold territory during the war.
Peceny and Stanley do a much better job of looking at the changing nature of the civil war in El Salvador.  In that sense, it is similar to Hugh Byrne's El Salvador's Civil War: A Study of Revolution (1996).  Repression varied both temporally and spatially.  In my paper, I use a crude measure to operationalize whether a municipality was a conflict zone during the war.  Someone pursuing their Ph.D. right now might want to try to improve our understanding of the level of violence in each municipality and how it varied over the ten plus years of the war.  Maybe each municipality can get a score that takes into account both the intensity and duration of the violence in that particular area. 

I also think that the papers in Politics & Society, especially this one, are part of what we are looking for in political science.  Through their research on El Salvador, the authors are engaging in the current debate on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  I do wonder, however, how receptive the paper will be or has been to those making policy. 


  1. US has been involved in countless acts of terrorism against the citizens of El Salvador.
    They overthrew President Duarte and supported the subsequent fascist regime of ARENA .
    They should only be welcome in El Salvador as tourists.

  2. I'm not sure that I've ever heard anyone argue that the US overthrew Duarte. He was a key pillar of our counterinsurgency campaign.

    Some believed his success was critical to the development of a moderate regime capable of holding back the extreme left and extreme right. Others in the US government simply supported him out of the realization that his election and success was the only way the Congress was going to allow the Reagan administration to continue funding the war. Obviously, some recognized both benefits of supporting Duarte.

    US policy helped Duarte lose to ARENA in 1989. The US government made it impossible for him to negotiate an end to the war - one of his campaign promises. His failure to end the war was one reason he lost in 89. But Duarte was also hurt by a poor economy - the result of corruption and a step up in economic sabotage by the FMLN - and his negotiating with the FMLN to secure the release of his daughter.

    On the other hand, ARENA positioned itself as a party that was more capable of resolving the country's economic problems and putting an end to the war. They also had a sizable war chest and terrific patronage networks in the countryside.