The Military Balance

September 25, 2007

THE RELATIVE LULL IN MILITARY ACTIVITY after the March 1982 elections, a result of the poli- tical setback suffered by the insurgents, coupled with the rumor of serious rifts within the FMLN, gave rise to speculation about the likelihood of a medium-term mili- tary victory by the armed forces. By September 1982, the Salvadorean military was boasting that the guerril- las' capacity was limited to "occasional spectacular at- tacks" and acts of sabotage. According to the defense minister of the day, Gen. Jose Guillermo Garcia, the insurgents were in a "desperate" situation. Their death rattle, he said, was audible. On October 10, 1982 the FMLN launched its "Heroes and Martyrs of October 1979 and 1980" offen- sive. Its scale seems to have surpassed all expectations, and the campaign forced the Army to reassess its tactics. For six months, until April 1983, the FMLN sustained a rhythm of continuous attacks. The results of these offensives enabled the insurgents to swell their forces to a degree that perhaps even they had not anticipated. The expansion of FMLN zones of control and the recovery of thousands of weapons and large stocks of ammunition forced them to undertake a comprehensive reorganization of its forces in March and April. Just as the FMLN was restructuring, the armed forces revamped their strategy and put new military plans into effect. From October 1982 to June 1983 alone, 7,350 new recruits entered their ranks, forming the first "hunter" (cazador) batallions and reinforcing strategic garrisons. The military received supplemen- tary aid from the United States and inaugurated a crash training program for 1,500 troops at Puerto Castilla, Honduras, to modify the Army's operational plans. Beginning in June 1983, the military launched a simultaneous counteroffensive on several fronts and embarked on the National Plan (CONARA) in San Vicente and Usulutan. CONARA put into effect the tactics insistently recommended by U.S. advisers. The renewed Army offensive coincided with a marked decline in FMLN activity; since May, the rebels had restricted large-scale attacks to the northern zone of San Miguel and the southern part of Cuscatlan. Training for Salvadorean elite batallions at Puerto Castilla Honduras REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 24The Army's apparent recovery of the initiative on some fronts led once more to overly optimistic asses- sments by both U.S. advisers and Salvadorean military commanders. They attributed improved Army per- formance to a number of factors: * the continued training of Salvadorean troops by U.S. Army specialists; * the presence of a new Salvadorean defense minis- ter, Gen. Eugenio Vides Casanova, considered more "aggressive" than his predecessor; * the adoption of small mobile unit tactics and seven-day operations, as opposed to the more leisurely pace of battle previously commonplace; * the "military civic action" programs which, apart from winning the hearts and minds of the civilian popu- lation, would also tend to reduce military abuses against non-combatants. O N SEPTEMBER 3, 1983, THE FMLN OPENED its "Independence, Freedom and Democracy for El Salvador" offensive with a surprise attack on the headquarters of the 3rd Infantry Brigade in San Miguel. The offensive, which is still in full spate in early Febru- ary, seems to demonstrate that the guerrillas still hold the military initiative. It confirms too that the FMLN has managed to reorganize its forces and deploy them in larger-scale actions through the creation of units equiv- alent to brigades and batallions. The FMLN shows substantial progress in its ability to concentrate and dis- perse troops and a qualitative improvement in its maneuverability in the field. The most recent military successes of the FMLN have hit strategic targets crucial to the fragile military balance. They include the second seizure of the com- munications base at Cacahuatique in San Miguel, the most important in the eastern half of the country; the rout of the El Paraiso barracks in Chalatenango, head- quarters of the 4th Infantry Batallion; and the destruc- tion of the Cuscatlan bridge. These attacks have taken place in the context of a continuing erosion and weakening of the armed forces, and persistent problems in their command structure. All this may suggest that the war is once again moving into a critical phase. The prospects of a government military victory appear ever more remote if the current pattern continues, raising the specter of increased U.S. involve- ment in the war. Even direct military intervention can- not be ruled out. In the context of electoral campaigns in both El Salvador and the United States, all the evi- dence points to 1984 as a decisive year in the Salva- dorean war. The recent course of events on the battlefield points to four major trends: 1. There are strong indications that the FMLN is con- solidating its military advances on a political level. First, the declining rate of economic sabotage since October 1983 (dynamiting power lines, burning crops, vehicles and government buildings) suggests that the The Cuscatlan bridge after guerrilla attack, December 1983. Bob Nickelsbera/Woodfin Camp MAKCLH/AFKIL 1984 25Report o,#, h Americas EL SALVADOR 1984 GUATEMALA ,HONDURAS Chaialanango Santa Ana. : 1 Guazapa volcano' " Is Cabanas. . : . o - . o. .. ,I. Ahuachapan: - Salvador ,-..... r, Cuscatlar " : 'ooa, a ,San Vicente .-. "- Sonsonate La Libertad 1 ,'--' -' ,San Vicente ian Migue - La Union FMLN-controlled area La Paz Migue A. El Paraiso 7. B. The Cuscatlan bridge, destroyed December 31, 1983 " C. The Puente de Oro, destroyed October 15, 1981 EL SALVADOR FMLN is putting more weight on political considera- tions than military ones. It seems to have grasped that sabotage-though draining resources from the govern- ment's war effort-may be counterproductive, affect- ing the living standards of much of the population and damaging the country's productive capacity. The decline in acts of sabotage may indicate that the FMLN is more interested in winning credibility for its efforts toward a political solution to the conflict, and in regain- ing popular support in regions hardest hit by sabotage. Second, there are increasing signs that the FMLN is gradually building alternative political power structures in its newest zones of control and consolidating those structures in its traditional rearguard areas of northeast Chalatenango, northern Morazan, southern Usulutan and Guazapa volcano, where "popular power" has been underway since late 1982. Press accounts from San Miguel and Morazan in mid-November 1983 reported that the insurgents now function as the main military force and local government authority in 17 towns in these two northeastern departments. In all, as much as one-quarter of the country may be under FMLN in- fluence through alternative modes of government, ranging from "zones of coexistence," where the guer- rillas move freely but do not interfere with local authori- ties, to "zones of influence" in which the FMLN shares governmental administration, and "zones of control" where the FMLN has named its own authorities and operates as sole power. Third, events during the offensive indicate that the FMLN has at least the embryonic ability to lay down norms for local working conditions. For the first time since the start of the war, the guerrillas seem to have decided not to interrupt the harvests. Instead, they have distributed leaflets setting forth working conditions and recommended wage scales for farm workers: a daily salary of 14 colones ($5.60), or 15 colones per hundred- weight of coffee picked; a seven-hour day and five-day week; 100% sick pay; double pay for overtime; and a signed labor contract for the duration of the harvest. According to the FMLN's Radio Venceremos, some plantation owners in San Miguel and Usulutan have ac- cepted these conditions after some negotiation. Accord- ing to the local Salvadorean press, the coffee producers have categorically rejected them as unreasonable, stating that they would rather see the harvest lost. 2. The heavy movement of guerrilla troops to the southern region during the recent offensive points to the failure of the government strategy of containment. This had sought to pin the FMLN down in the economically unimportant northern region, while consolidating Ar- my control of key economic regions through a new plan of civic-military operations. Until August 1983, most guerrilla attacks had been concentrated in the north. Though the FMLN operated widely in the central and southern parts of the country, it had never consolidated zones of control or attempted concerted military offensives in these vital economic areas, the rearguard of the regime. Beyond this, the Na- tional Plan, which began on June 10, 1983, had forced the withdrawal of guerrillas based in San Vicente, around the Chinchontepec volcano, and the next phase of the plan had hit FMLN supporters in Usulutan. But guerrilla operations from September to January REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 26Claude Urracal/ygma National Guardsmen killed in combat near Santa Rosa de Lima. represented a quantum leap forward. The three- pronged attack hit the south and center of San Miguel and Usulutan; the northeast, including the departments of San Miguel, La Union and Morazan; and the central region (parts of Cabanas and Cuscatlan, converging on San Vicente). Most of the west of the country, however, princi- pally the departments of Ahuachapan and Sonsonate, remains virtually untouched by the war. There have been sporadic actions there, as in La Libertad and the north of Santa Ana, but it would seem that FMLN ef- forts to open guerrilla fronts there have been fruitless. The offensive has deepened the isolation of key Ar- my garrisons. As in the October 1982 offensive, a number of relatively well guarded towns were briefly taken over by the guerrillas. Government troops aban- doned less heavily fortified villages to avoid casualties and the loss of weapons. In the September 1983 offen- sive, more than 70% of municipalities in Cuscatlan, Cabanas, San Miguel and Usulutan fell to the FMLN, cutting off other Army garrisons. The difficulty of get- ting supplies through to these posts led to the evacua- tion of many; several have not yet been reoccupied. While this pattern also marked earlier rebel offen- sives, it never previously touched such critical areas. The Army's evacuation of the frontier post of Arcatao, for example, 112 kilometers from San Salvador and 30 from the nearest departmental capital, is a different matter than pulling out of Chinameca, in the heart of a vital coffee-growing district and only a few kilometers from the third city of San Miguel. The armed forces have lost a number of fixed posi- tions which protected major troop concentrations. For example, a noose is tightening around the headquarters of the 6th Infantry Brigade in Morazan. In the south- east, guerrillas threaten the military command in Usulutan and the 3rd Infantry Brigade in San Miguel. In the center of the country, there is a serious threat to the military garrison in Sensuntepeque, Cabanas and the companies stationed in Ilobasco. The guerrilla offensive has caused the failure of the National Plan in Usulutan and checked its progress in San Vicente. The plan was pivotal to the political and military strategy of the armed forces. In the view of U.S. military advisers, victory or defeat hinged on its success. Speaking at the plan's inauguration in June, President Magana declared it to be the National Unity government's "most ambitious" attempt to pacify the country and reactivate the economy. But the plan, involving at least nine government ministries, has been frustrated by the failure of its military component. Between September and November 1983, the FMLN seized 19 of the 23 major population centers in Usulutan. It still controls many of them. And the Army's attempt to dislodge guerrillas from San Vicente failed, despite the deployment of 4,000 troops. Major "clean-up" operations proved necessary, yet they too have made little headway. In some districts, the FMLN seems more firmly entrenched than before. 3. The speed of improvement in the Army seems insuffi- cient to keep pace with the growing capacity of the FMLN. The course of the war is increasingly unfavor- able to the armed forces. Though government forces genuinely enhanced MARCH/APRIL 1984 27Repo4t o, he Ae4rcas EL SALVADOR 1984 FMLN sabotage of public transportation has tapered ott in recent months. their efficiency and combat capacity between April and August 1983, the September FMLN offensive seems to indicate that a number of shortcomings remain-a lack of mobility, poor logistical support and command problems. For some time, U.S. advisers have criticized the Salvadorean Army's poor mobility and urged it to in- crease mobile patrols by small tactical units to "saturate the countryside" and impede the free movement of the FMLN. They have also stressed the importance of night ambushes in the guerrillas' "logistical corridors." Small unit patrols have been introduced since June 1983, but it has proved harder for the Army to mount ambushes in FMLN zones of control. Guerrilla ambushes-occurring at the rate of three to every one by government troops-seem to have caused the Army to relapse into its old tactics; reactive and defensive where U.S. advisers preach aggression. In response to a spate of FMLN ambushes in September and October, the Army went back to mounting cumber- some sweeps by large numbers of troops. The Army has always had trouble providing swift air and land support to troops caught in a surprise guerrilla attack. Those logistical problems were starkly exposed by the latest offensive. The root of the problem seems less a lack of communications equipment or transporta- tion than poor coordination, aggravated by the loss of control over the secondary road network, especially in the eastern and central regions. While the Army loses supply routes, the FMLN opens new ones. According to the senior U.S. adviser in El Salvador, the guerrillas have now opened a northern corridor which allows them to move freely between Chalatenango and La Union-in trucks and in daylight. Military setbacks, and political splits in the Consti- tuent Assembly that are reflected in the Army as well, have exacerbated command problems in the field. U.S. advisers have reportedly brought about changes in the Army's promotion system, rewarding military skill rather than seniority and partly doing away with the tra- ditional tanda system which favored time-servers over more dynamic, younger officers. But the latest offen- sive displayed again that incompetent officers remain in key command posts. Their presence accounts for poor coordination between land and airborne forces, the fail- ure to provide speedy logistical support and the crush- ing defeats inflicted on some elite batallions. CONFLICTS OVER CORRECT COUNTERIN- surgency tactics also continue to plague the Army, above all in attitudes toward non-combatants. The most recent wave of death squad attacks on trade unionists, cooperative members, public employees and institutions such as the Catholic Church and the Na- tional University, reflect these disputes. As well as highlighting divisions within the Army (even some mili- tary officers have been threatened by the death squads), The guerrillas have improved their supply corridors over the last year of fighting. REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 28the attacks show the inability and/or unwillingness of the high command to put a stop to paramilitary activities, Since early November, the Reagan Administration has increased pressure on the Salvadorean government to halt death squad activity and take action against officers "strongly suspected" of links to rightist terror. The U.S. Embassy has accused two heads of intelligence with the security forces, three field commanders and a departmental intelligence chief, as well as the head of security for the Constituent Assembly. Military Order no. 15 of November 25, 1983, made changes in the Army hierarchy that affected some of those accused. Nevertheless, a significant number of men singled out for criticism continue in different military posts. In part, this appears to reflect the exis- tence of Army decision-making levels above the defense minister, in charge of reshuffling military commands and ideologically close to the officers named by the em- bassy. The mere existence of this unofficial hierarchy in- dicates either the defense minister's lack of real power over the military, or his complicity in this kind of behavior. The November reshuffle appears to have had less to do with political change than with the desire to strengthen field commands with officers able to offer better results in the fight against the FMLN. HroE CONTINUING SURRENDER OF GOVERN- ment troops, sometimes entire companies, shows the morale problems that still afflict the armed forces. The rate in fact increased after September 1983. Sagging morale is also reflected in the token resistance mounted to FMLN attacks. In the assault on Tejutepeque, for example, the local detachment of 180 soldiers changed into civilian clothes and fled to Ilobasco as soon as the attack began. Between October 1982 and the end of November 1983, at least 1,518 troops surrendered to the guerrillas. Most have been released by the FMLN into the custody of the International Red Cross, local priests or town of- ficials. Despite a government campaign to slow the rate of surrenders, it shows no sign of abating. In part, this is an ideological problem, but it also reflects ill treatment, poor food, lack of logistical support and inadequate equipment in the field-the latter a sign of corruption in the officer corps, for there seems to be no shortage of supplies. The FMLN offensive has caused the Army heavy losses in casualties and equipment. The guerrillas, in contrast, have augmented their capacity with the weap- ons captured on the battlefield. Between September 3 and November 27, 1983, the Army suffered 1,418 casualties. In the same period the FMLN took 415 Government troops on maneuvers, San Miguel. Bob NickelsberoaWoodfin Camn MAKI-H/Ak'KIL 184 29EL SALVADOR 1984 prisoners including several officers: the equivalent of putting two batallions out of commission in 12 weeks. New weapons recovered by the FMLN between Septem- ber and November allowed them to create a new batal- lion with mobile logistical support similar to their elite "Rafael Arce Zablah" Brigade. The FMLN also seems to be having success in recruiting new combatants. A Miami Herald story of August 27, 1983 reported that by that date the number of guerrillas was higher by several thousand than the 5-6,000 estimated in June. This despite the Salvadorean Army's claim to have inflicted 2,000 casualties on the guerrillas in the previous year. T 1E NEW COMBAT SKILLS OF THE INSUR-- I gent Army have been shown in their ability to mount far-reaching and simultaneous operations in at least three different places during the current offensive, all without leaving their rearguard exposed. The three principal lines of attack in the offensive may have in- volved guerrilla contingents of as many as 1,500 or 2,000 men. FMLN assaults on San Miguel and Te- jutepeque and attacks on the Army's "hunter" batallions each demonstrated the guerrillas' capacity to defeat as many as three companies at once. According to figures from the West German news agency, DPA, around 90 soldiers died in the September attack on the 3rd Brigade in San Miguel after several hours of heavy artillery bombardment. The FMLN's ability to deploy such large troop con- centrations is ominous for the Army. In order to hold its strategic containment lines, the Army may need to con- centrate more troops there, hampering its ability to pro- tect other areas. Meanwhile, any hope of making in- roads into guerrilla rearguard zones seems to have fad- ed. While FMLN troops were attacking en masse in the south of Usulutan or the north of San Miguel and Cuscatlan, other units held the Army efficiently at bay in the zones of control in Morazan and Chalatenango. 4. There is every indication that the Army will explain recent setbacks as evidence of the need for more re- sources and materiel, and that Washington will respond by trying to increase military aid. While augmenting troop strength and firepower could have a serious short- term impact on the FMLN's development, it would be unlikely to swing the military balance permanently in favor of the Army. In fiscal year 1983, the United States gave El Sal- vador $86.3 million in military aid, made up of training programs and sales of equipment, weapons and muni- tions. The training program has enabled the Army to maintain an aggressive recruiting drive. Between Sep- tember and November alone, the Arce Batallion gradu- ated from the Regional Military Training Center (CREM) in Honduras and four "hunter" batallions were sworn in. Yet this expansion did not translate into a real ad- vantage over the FMLN, which grew proportionately faster. The Army's real problem seems to stem from the inefficient use of resources-sloppy use of firepower, cumbersome sweeps by thousands of troops, involving vast logistical efforts, and the use of elite units as pro- tective forces rather than shock forces. Problems of this nature will not be solved by throwing more money and resources at the problem; on the contrary, given present levels of inefficiency, the FMLN would be the biggest beneficiary of increased military aid. The failure of the Army to overcome these prob- lems, the increased capability of the FMLN and the pro- gressive involvement of the United States in the civil war all increase the chances of even more direct U.S. inter- vention. The White House has taken pains to convince friend and foe alike that Grenada is an illustration of its will to use force to reverse situations which it regards as a threat to its national security. The FMLN appears well aware of the danger. Re- cent declarations have expressed the fear that further military successes by the guerrillas may provoke Reagan to send in U.S. troops. Indeed, there was a marked change in the tempo of the FMLN offensive after Octo- ber 25-the date of the Grenada invasion. The FMLN is still likely, however, to deliver body blows to govern- ment forces whenever the opportunity arises. That, at any rate, is the implication of its most dramatic recent actions-the rout of a whole company of troops at Ana- moros, La Union; the attacks on the communications base at Cacahuatique and the garrison at El Paraiso; blowing up the Cuscatlan bridge. EFENSE SECRETARY CASPAR WEINBER- ger has now publicly admitted that the military situation in El Salvador is deteriorating. His advisers in the field confirm that the FMLN has the upper hand in the war. And the response of the Reagan Administra- tion appears to be to up the military ante. Even allowing for the political restraints of an elec- tion year, the Kissinger Commission recommendations, the latest requests from the Salvadorean Army and pub- lic statements from Washington all suggest that a new military aid package is in the works. Its main compo- nent would be to take the main strategic thrust of the war into the air. This would open the way for new kinds of U.S. personnel involvement, whether as pilots for new air transport units while Salvadorean pilots are be- ing trained, in maintenance teams or in training facili- ties. At the very least, this would imply a delay of several months for the insurgents to devise fresh plans to cope with the Army's tactical innovations and new military technology. A shift in U.S. policy toward El Salvador cannot be ruled out in the event of a Democratic victory in the No- vember elections. But the Kissinger Commission report seems designed to do more than just gain bipartisan sup- port for current military policies. It also looks like an ef- fort to commit the United States to a course of military action in the region from which any future administra- tion, Republican or Democratic, would have the greatest difficulty disentangling itself.

Tags: El Salvador, Military, FMLN, civil war

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