Merchant of Death
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Lessons From the Past For Iraq and Afghanistan
I recently spent a week in my old stomping grounds, El Salvador, from whence I covered the nearly-forgotten wars of the 1980s. I was able to talk to many of my friends from both sides of the bloody conflict about the war, tactics, intelligence and strategy.

For a brief refresher, the FMLN, Marixist-led and backed by the Sandinistas and Cuba, fought the US-backed government and army there for 10 years (although the rebel movements actually started several years earlier). The US was putting in $1.5 billon a year at the peak, not much by today's standards, but a significant amount in a country that is the size of Massachusetts.

The war ended with a negotiated settlement that fundamentally altered the political landscape, enfranchised the rebels as a political party and brought about basic reforms, but nothing like a revolution.

What I found striking were two things that ought to be kept in mind in the current irregular conflicts.

The first is that almost every one of the combatants on the different sides of the conflict took up weapons because someone they cared about was killed by the other side.

The leadership on both sides had clearly defined political agendas and strategies, but particularly the FMLN would never have gained the strength to almost win the war in the years if the civilian deaths had not driven thousands of people into their arms. There, they fought for revenge or self protection, far more than ideology.

The ranks of the military and paramilitary groups likewise grew when the FMLN began its campaign of selective assassination and the indiscriminate use of land mines. Again, the driving force is not the ideological decision to support the government or army, but the decision to strike back at people who had hurt one's family.

The point is that collateral damage by either side significantly strengthens the other. The continuous reports of unintentional but real civilian casualties racked up in both conflicts, I would argue then, exact a far higher cost in most cases than the simple numbers indicate. It seems to me that to make any progress at all, the lowering of civilians casualties has to be a high priority.

It also seems that one huge lever in fighting the armed groups, particularly in Iraq, is that the insurgents inflict the great bulk of the civilian casualties. Perhaps the people perceive the state and US forces as being responsible for not stopping the attacks, I don't know. But it does seem like the ability to recruit in those circumstances would be great.

Perhaps it is a motivating factor in the decision of tribal groups to fight al Qaeda in Iraq and other nascent alliances the U.S. seems to be trying to forge.

The second is that El Salvador underwent a "surge strategy" in 1984.

It is not an exactly analogous situation, granted. But in 1984, when the rebels were controlling large amounts of territory, gaining strength and preparing to wage a more conventional war against the state.

In response the United States upped its military commitment and provided the army with many thing, including the one resource that tipped the balance of power back in its favor-a large fleet of helicopters.

The helicopters were not only extremely useful in hunting the FMLN, but greatly increased the army's mobility and ability to stay in the field for longer periods of time.

Seven years later, however, the FMLN was not defeated, but was unable to defeat the government. Political considerations in Washington, battle fatigue and other factors came into play.

But one of the main reasons was the FMLN. Its members adapted their communications equipment, strategy and weapons to the new tactics. The stories of their innovation are really amazing.

This, it seems, is exactly what is happening in Iraq. There is now enough firepower to insure the insurgents cannot win while the US troops are there. But the insurgents, as one can see through their constant modification to their explosive devices, tactics and use of the internet, are going to adapt and, largely unchained from the risk-aversion of the state forces, will likely survive.

What does that mean? I don't know for sure. But the surge, absent significant other measures to move people away from the insurgents, is unlikely to lead to a basic change in the correlation of forces in the war.
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