David Batstone / Sojourners – 2005-02-08 23:00:19
The Pentagon is clearly worried about a deepening quagmire in Iraq. Nearly two years after the invasion to oust Saddam Hussein, the presence of US forces does not appear to be moving Iraq toward a stable, civic society. A frustrated Pentagon is exploring new strategies.
Newsweek magazine reported last week that Pentagon insiders are touting a plan code-named the “Salvador Option.” The plan refers to the secret support of the Reagan administration in the 1980s for hit squads in El Salvador that targeted rebel militia and their civilian sympathizers. Many Pentagon conservatives credit these so-called “death squads” with turning the tide against a strong revolutionary movement in El Salvador.
I worked in human rights in Central America for nearly 12 years. My tenure began in the early 1980s when I launched and then ran a non-governmental group concerned with economic and community development.
Death squads roamed freely in El Salvador and Guatemala at the time. In these two countries alone, they assassinated or “disappeared” more than 150,000 civilians. They targeted anyone — church pastors, literacy teachers, community development workers – who appeared to support social reform.
My organization arranged for volunteers from the United States to live with civilians threatened by the death squads. Our effort was successful because the death squads were made up largely of members of the military or police working clandestinely. They realized that brazenly killing civilians through official channels would threaten US aid. More risky still would be the murder of US citizens — the temporary cessation of US. military aid to El Salvador after the rape and murder of four US religious women in 1980 proved that point.
All the same, I witnessed countless cases of military abuse. The security units regularly justified the murder of civilian suspects as a necessary defense in the fight against “terrorists.” The military acted as judge, jury, and executioner. The police worked hand in hand with the military. The police investigated community leaders working for social change during the day, and would turn that information over to the army hit squads who made the civilians “disappear” in the middle of the night.
How chilling that the Pentagon is seriously considering a plan to take us back to those dark days. According to Newsweek, “the Pentagon proposal would send Special Forces teams to advise, support, and possibly train Iraqi squads, most likely hand-picked Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shiite militiamen, to target Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers, even across the border into Syria….”
The Pentagon’s affinity for a “Salvadoran Option” in Iraq appears consistent with its broader shift to promote a strong state security apparatus internationally in the fight against terrorism. In a summit of Latin American defense ministers held in Quito, Ecuador, in late 2004, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld unveiled his campaign to reverse nearly two decades of military reform in Latin America. Though the summit went largely unreported in the US media, we may look back at it in years to come as a significant watershed for American foreign policy.
Central to Rumsfeld’s Quito doctrine is the re-integration of the military and police, reversing a major reform objective in the hemisphere during the last two decades. Both US and Latin American human rights agencies deem that separation of powers necessary to bring military activity under civilian accountability.
During the drafting of the final summit statement, the Canadian delegation tried to salvage the gains for civilian freedoms once absent in the region’s former security states. Backed by Brazil and Chile, the Canadian defense ministry introduced language that would reaffirm a commitment to international human rights and civil protections. The Pentagon team, however, successfully blocked this corrective from being added to the summit’s final documents.
The nostalgia for the military strongmen of Latin America appears to be growing in Washington. Is it merely coincidence that President Bush appointed Elliot Abrams in mid-2003 to be his senior advisor on the Middle East? Abrams was a key player in the crafting of Reagan’s “Salvador Option” in Central America. When confronted in the mid-’80s with a United Nations report that the vast majority of “atrocities in El Salvador’s civil war were committed by Reagan-assisted death squads,” Abrams energetically defended US foreign policy: “The administration’s record on El Salvador is one of fabulous achievements.” Abrams soon thereafter was convicted of lying to Congress about the Iran-Contra affair, only to be pardoned five years later by President George H.W. Bush.
The invasion of Iraq was sold to the American public as a necessary means to arrest the spread of terrorism. We were told that Saddam Hussein could no longer be allowed to deploy security forces to terrorize the Iraqi people and eliminate movements for democratic reform. Yet here we are today, two years later, and the United States is on the verge of initiating its own death squads. I wonder at what point over the past two years we gave up on the “Democracy Option” in Iraq?
Throughout the history of US counterinsurgency campaigns in Latin America, congressional action — due to pressure by grassroots activists like you – was instrumental in cutting aid to oppressive regimes and ending abusive policies. It’s time to stop this “option” before it starts!
• Click here to take action and tell Congress that “The Salvador Option” is not an option!