Our faltering effort to crush the Iraqi insurgency is now taking a turn that recalls the worst episodes in American foreign policy. In recent weeks, the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. have disgorged further proof of the routine use of torture to extract information from prisoners. Now Pentagon planners are reportedly mulling a “Salvadoran option”-the bureaucratic euphemism for death squads-to put down the rebellion in Iraq.
Evidently this scheme is the latest brainstorm of the “liberators” intent on bringing democracy, freedom and the rule of law to the oppressed peoples of the Middle East. The brilliant idea of assassinating recalcitrant Iraqis seems to have originated among the same Pentagon bureaucrats who crusaded for the Iraq invasion and promoted abusive interrogation techniques in the war against terrorism.
According to Newsweek, Defense Department officials frustrated by increasing violence and chaos in Iraq are considering the brutal methods used during past confrontations with guerrilla fighters in Central America and Southeast Asia. Those methods included providing U.S. intelligence and logistical support for paramilitary forces that were “directed to hunt down and kill rebel leaders and sympathizers.” The way this works-or at least is supposed to work-is that the names of those alleged leaders and sympathizers are derived from torturing alleged terrorists. Then the death squads go out by night to execute those identified as enemies.
While this sounds like political madness, the theory behind such atrocities is quite simple: Guerrilla warriors can thrive only when the civilian population supports or tolerates them. Depriving the guerrillas of such support means convincing civilians to turn away from them. But since nearly two years of incompetent occupation rule has failed to win the hearts and minds of most Iraqis, the next step is apparently to persuade them by inflicting pain. That attitude is evident in Newsweek’s quote from a military source who endorses the “Salvadoran” plan.
“The Sunni population is paying no price for the support it is giving to the terrorists,” said that source. “From their point of view, it is cost-free. We have to change that equation.”
Anyone who is wondering what his chilling remark might portend can glance back through the archives of the conflicts in El Salvador and Guatemala. This historical exercise is not recommended for the sensitive or squeamish. Billed as “counterterrorism,” the actions of military and paramilitary forces involved terrorist assaults of appalling ferocity on unarmed civilians.
Much of what Central America’s fascist killers perpetrated in our name during the dirty conflicts of the Cold War remains hidden in secret files, although much of what they did has been revealed during the past few decades. Women and children weren’t spared; neither were nuns and priests, lawyers and labor organizers, human-rights activists and journalists. All were prey to the bloody whims of the death-squad leaders, who often carried out personal grudges against “terrorists” or “Communists.”
Ironically, the uniformed criminals who carried out the Salvadoran option were not so different in character and behavior from those currently identified as the enemy. The mass graves filled with the victims of Saddam Hussein are no different from the mass graves at El Mozote, filled with the victims of the right-wing death squads. The gruesome beheadings performed by Islamist killers in Iraq are no different from the beheadings of peasants in El Salvador and Guatemala (except that the death squads lacked videotape and Web sites, and decapitated dozens more people).
The Newsweek report by John Barry and Michael Hirsh confirms a sense of foreboding that history is being repeated. They learned of a Pentagon proposal that “would send [U.S. Army] 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.” Decades ago, that is exactly how the Salvadoran death squads began, when Special Forces and C.I.A. personnel were sent to train paramilitary forces there.
Why would our leaders again risk condoning such brutality? They are increasingly fearful that we are losing to the Iraqi insurgents, despite the razing of Falluja. And they believe that assassinations and mass killings “saved” Central America, even if the cost was tens or even hundreds of thousands of innocent lives. They don’t seem to remember how poorly the same horrific methods worked in Vietnam, where the C.I.A.’s Phoenix program of death squads and assassinations only strengthened the Communist guerrillas.
Two days after the Newsweek story broke, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld denied at a Pentagon press briefing that he and his aides were considering the use of “Salvadoran” techniques in Iraq. To the naïve, his words may sound reassuring. To anyone who has listened to him and others deny that the Bush administration has condoned torture, Mr. Rumsfeld’s denial serves as unhappy confirmation. Nobody except a few grunts has been held accountable for torture. So why not death squads?