2005 January 11 Tuesday
Iraq: El Salvador On The Euphrates With Death Squads?

Newsweek is reporting that the creation of paramilitary forces in Iraq patterned after the paramilitaries the US supported in the 1980s in Central America is being seriously debated in the Pentagon.

What to do about the deepening quagmire of Iraq? The Pentagon's latest approach is being called "the Salvador option" - and the fact that it is being discussed at all is a measure of just how worried Donald Rumsfeld really is. "What everyone agrees is that we can't just go on as we are," one senior military officer told NEWSWEEK. "We have to find a way to take the offensive against the insurgents. Right now, we are playing defense. And we are losing." Last November's operation in Fallujah, most analysts agree, succeeded less in breaking "the back" of the insurgency - as Marine Gen. John Sattler optimistically declared at the time - than in spreading it out.

Some people (notably on the American and European political Left) thought right wing paramilitary death squads used against communists in Central America were ethically unacceptable or even much worse. Justin Raimondo certainly sees the battle against communism in the 1980s as a bad thing not to be copied in Iraq. The whole approach of using what effectively would be paramilitaries supervised by US Special Forces is going to be something a lot of Bush's critics will jump all over in ways reminiscent with US politics in the 1980s.

Being somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan I see the tactics used by Reagan against communism as necessitated by too-left Congress that was intent on sabotaging the containment policy against communism. Central America is right next door to Mexico and Mexico is next door to the US of A. We could not afford to allow communist guerillas to take over border states with Mexico and to possibly destabilize Mexico. The regime of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua thoroughly deserved to be overthrown. The Marxist guerrillas deserved to die. Yes, lots of innocents died too. But the death tolls under communist rule would have been high and for a much longer period of time.

I state all this to establish to anyone who happens to be new to the ParaPundit blog that I'm not exactly a left-liberal pacifist. If absolutely brutal tactics can stop the spread of a malignant ideology then I'll support the tactics. However, even if the Bush Administration manages to form and support paramilitary groups or otherwise engage in highly unconstrained efforts to use Iraqis to battle Iraqis I'm skeptical that this strategy can succeed. But first let us briefly examine why such a gambit is under consideration.

First off, if the Bushies seriously thought that the regular Iraqi police and national guard were about to become tough effective forces willing and able to take on the insurgents then "the Salvador option" wouldn't be up for serious consideration. So we know what the Bushies think of the Iraqi National Guard and whatever passes for Iraqi government intelligence agencies: Either not terribly well motivated or thoroughly infiltrated by insurgents or both. Well, at they are being realistic.

Another thing consideration for "the Salvador option" tells us is that the Bush Administration isn't about to go to Congress and ask for another $100+ billion per year to build up new US Army divisions in sufficient quantity to send to Iraq and get effective control of the terrain. Where do I get the $100 billion per year figure? $3 billion per year for 30,000 additional soldiers works out to about $100,000 per soldier per year.

The question is being raised: How does the military retain an all-volunteer force at the current level of U.S. commitment overseas?

One way, a senior Army official suggested, would be to spend an additional $3 billion a year to expand the Army by 30,000 soldiers.

An additional million soldiers would cost easily that amount and probably more. Why an additional million soldiers? So that one third can be deployed to Iraq at any given time in order to maintain a half million troops there. Why a half million? Because that is probably about what it would take to properly occupy the country and get control of it from an insurgency. Even that would require years to put down the insurgency once the US force is big enough.

The cost would probably be more than $100 billion per year because in order to recruit that many volunteers the level of salaries in the US Army would need to be raised substantially. So all the existing soldiers would cost more as well.

Building up a volunteer Army big enough to effectively handle Iraq would be a politically and economically expensive option with all sorts of nasty consequences (can you say "tax increases"? sure Mr. Rogers, I can!) that Bush most definitely wants to avoid. He wants to do a huge push for Social Security reform and probably a push for more open borders with Mexico. So there is a limit to the political price that Bush will pay for bending Iraq to his will and that limit is pretty low at this point. Still, Iraq is a problem and he needs to do something about it. He's definitely looking for a bargain basement political and military solution to his problems in Iraq. Note that I say his problems because Bush brought this on himself by deciding that he had to invade Iraq in the first place.

The US military is predictably denying that it intends to create Iraqi forces that would operate under a much looser set of rules against the insurgency.

"The U.S. military does not take part in or train other forces to undertake illegal actions, assassinations or torture. All training and advising our Special Operations forces conduct with Iraqi security forces is done in full compliance with the laws of war," said a Pentagon spokesman.

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is also denying the Newsweek report of a plan for death squads.

"But everyone's talking about it, and it's nonsense," he told reporters, after raising it himself at a press conference with visiting Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.

"The reality is that the responsibility of the commanders there and the coalition and the Iraqi government is to see that the Iraqis are trained up to provide security for that country," he said.

Once the Shias are elected into power I expect the new leadership to support the creation of special Iraqi forces for hunting insurgents. But one huge challenge they are going to have is in recruiting loyal fighters. Can they manage to do that to an extent that insurgent infiltrations will be rare enough not to blow the secrecy of most operations? That strikes me as a questionable proposition.

The other big problem is with intelligence. Insurgents can not be hunted down and killed unless their identities can be discovered. But how can that intelligence be gained against very tribal networks of fighters? Is we manage to recruit Arab Shias to become paramilitary secret warriors against the Sunni insurgents they will at least share a common language with the Sunnis. But southern Iraqi Shias are not going to have the right blood connections to infiltrate Sunni Triangle kin networks. Besides, even if the bomb planters and ambushers could all be identified what could usefully be done with that information? Kill them all? That would just pull in more Sunni relatives to fight to avenge their killed brothers and cousins and uncles.

Of course there is no master org chart of the insurgency with a list of all its members hidden somewhere waiting to be discovered. Breaking into those networks is going to be very difficult. The communist insurgencies in Central America were less based around blood relations and had more concentrated formal lines of command and control. They were easier to identify and single out.

Another way to state the difference in divisions between Central America and Iraq was that in Central America the divisions were more along class and ethnic lines. Upper class white Spaniards were fighting against a lower class and more native and mestizo insurgency. The rulers were smarter and accustomed to rule. The group accustomed to ruling in Iraq are Sunnis. The Shias do not appear to have any advantages in attitudes toward rule or in native cognitive ability. Also, while the Shias are more numerous they also as yet do not appear to be angry enough at the Sunni insurgency to fight them to any appreciable extent.

While I think "the Salvador option" is unlikely to work in Iraq I hope the Bush Administration manages to implement it. The faster the Bushies go down the list of semi-plausible solutions to the problem of Iraq the quicker the top people in the Bush Administration will figure out that easy ways to prevail aren't going to work. Then they can move on to the choices of unilateral withdrawal, partition and withdrawal, or a massive and expensive scaling up of the US military. I do not expect that last option to be chosen. But once the options aimed at achieving their preferred outcomes are seen to have failed these other options will finally get the debate that they deserve.

Thanks to Greg Cochran for pointing out the Newsweek article.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2005 January 11 10:42 PM  Mideast Iraq

Invisible Scientist said at January 12, 2005 12:57 AM:

The creation of aggressive death squads in Iraq, will mean the employment of very
ruthless local people who will be incredibly violent, and their operations will be
so indiscriminate that they will indeed fit the definition of death squads. They may
even be efficient in killing he insurgents, but with a lot of innocent people killed.
In the end, the US will get the blame for the crimes, and we will be hated a lot more than
before. This might even trigger more insurgency in other Arab countries, leading to even
more trouble. Saddam Hussein, on the other hand, was the ruthless secular dictator who
was keeping the fundamentalists in check, and removing him from power, was actually a mistake.

razib said at January 12, 2005 12:58 AM:

two points that work against each other

1) i have read that some of the tribes are cross-religious, that is, there are shia and sunni branches. this might mitigate the idea that the shia could never establish rapport with the sunni underground (the rise of shiism among the arabs in the 19th century correlated with the expansion of irrigation works that allowed previously sunni nomands to engage in agriculture, at which point many adopted the shiism dominant in the persianized shrine cities which served them).

2) in many traditional societies there are very strong dialectical differences, to the point where accent & vocabulary can be difficult to suppress. as a personal example, i have noticed of late that the colloquial dialects of bengali which i am familiar with are very different, and also basically different languages than written bengali, while i have found colloquial hindi(hindustani) far more intelligible than elite hindi. the point is that the lines on the map correlate rather poorly in some third world nations where local ethno-linguistic substructure is more notable and the differences sharper than the glosses that are offered by the western press.

i would also offer that in some ways perhaps latin america is a simple model on which to base policies on, because the recent (in the past few centuries) spread of spanish elite culture from the creole whites to the mestizos and later to hispanized indigenes has resulted in a relative cultural bottleneck which is not analogous to the deep time cultural development of the arab world (where for example linguistic fragmentation dates to the first century after the rise of islam and the codification of "classical" arabic in the koran and its detachment from colloquials).

Randall Parker said at January 12, 2005 1:49 AM:

Note to Tom Costello/Jack/Seamus Mohammad O'Toole/Paddy Murphy:

First, I know you are the same person.

Second, I just deleted two of your posts on this thread because they were completely off topic and were such long excerpts from copyrighted material that they infringed copyrights. Please keep your comments on-topic for each post and avoid posting complete articles when the articles are copyrighted.

Still, keep visiting and I'm glad you are going around reading so many of my posts. Hope you are learning insightful things.

Dimitar Vesselinov said at January 12, 2005 3:55 AM:

The Salvador Option

Rich Walden said at January 12, 2005 6:45 AM:

I think you are focusing too much on only one facet of the situation in Iraq. I expect that the status quo will not change in the next 8 to 12 months to any great extent. It will take that long for any new government to shake down. However by that time the Iraqi army will be expanding faster and will have developed units which are well trained and able to operate on their own to a greater extent than now. At this point the present defensive character of operations will change to a more offensive stance. The border with Syria will gradually become less porous curtailing supplies, money and fresh fighters. The capture or deaths of either Izzat Al Douri, Zaquiri or both will be markers in these efforts. The time lines that others have given, ie 3 - 5 years before U.S. troops are out seems to me to be doable. I am sure the Iraqi government will be something far different than we imagine at present, lets hope its not another cesspool like so many other Mideast governments are now.

My opinion only, you understand.

gcochran said at January 12, 2005 9:35 AM:

Ignoring those silly 'more training' people - (more _indoctrination_, a la Clockwork Orange, might be worth a try though), what we really need is a competent US government and ruling class. Iraq is just a symptom. The positive side of the Iraq war - the only positive side - is that it makes clear what useless gits we have running the country.

Let's think about it: how many people in public life have been able to predict the predictable consequencese of invading Iraq? In fact, what _are_ they good at?

Stephen said at January 12, 2005 4:29 PM:

Hmm, death squads - you mean like Osama and his friends? Yes, that'll solve the problem...

What have the liberal democracies come to?

I've a novel idea that might work - how about trying to unite rather than divide? How about trying to identify similarities rather than exploit differences? How about promoting nation building rather than nation destruction?

How about being adult and saying sorry?

Randall Parker said at January 12, 2005 5:21 PM:


How can we promote nation building? Seriously, I do not see any way that will actually work to offer carrots to the Iraqis to get them to build a better government.

What specific proposals do you have in mind?

Identify similarities? But the differences are far more important. If Iraqi were really similar to us they'd already have a liberal democracy and high living standards.

Stephen said at January 12, 2005 5:58 PM:

We can recast the problem. Instead of treating Iraq as a military problem we approach it as a diplomatic problem. Maybe removing ourselves as a source of irritation will allow the Iraqis to put their efforts into nation building instead of concentrating on shooting us.

At the moment the insurgency is gaining supporters and legitimacy, and I think thats because enough Iraqi people now believe they are an occupied people. Think about it - they have no problem finding people willing to commit suicide driving a car bomb - now that's elan. (I don't believe that the insurgency is mainly constituted by foreigners - I think its mainly locals).

Lets do a thought experiment - what would the coalition countries be advising if it had been China or Russia who had invaded Iraq and found themselves in this situation? Would we be saying, "Hey Russia, how about establishing some death squads to quash the insurgency", or would we be saying, "Hey Russia, get your military out of Iraq"?

PS I wasn't referring to similarities between Iraqis and the west, rather, I mean similarities between Iraqi ethnic/religious groups.

btw, I think we need to stop using the comforting 'insurgency' label, maybe 'resistance' might be more appropriate.

Randall Parker said at January 12, 2005 6:35 PM:


Insurgency versus Resistance: Good point. If we are their main enemy then they are a resistance.

Your diplomatic approach: Basically this amounts to unilateral withdrawal. It would be better than what we are doing now.

Perhaps the move to fund paramilitary groups could be combined with a US withdrawal some months down the line in hopes of creating a civil war between the Sunnis and the Shias. Then the resisitance wouldn't be a resistance. They would just be another faction in a civil war.

Stephen said at January 12, 2005 6:59 PM:

As a halfway solution maybe we could just leave the cities to themselves (no more street patrols etc) and limit ourselves to guaranteeing the borders and the major trunk roads between cities. Thereby we stop being easy targets, the Iraqis can concentrate on being responsible for their own communities and we might even be seen to be a force that is promoting unity. Sure some cities will go bad (insert what ever definition of 'bad' that suits you), but others would go well.

Re promoting a civil war, what's the strategic upside of having a civil war in Iraq? Note that our troops wouldn't be in theatre.

FriendlyFire said at January 13, 2005 3:08 PM:

Just what Iraq needs a REPUBLICAN GUARD.
(If it worked for Saddam it'll work for the US)

Oh the Irony

Kelapa said at January 13, 2005 10:44 PM:

Saudis jailed for filming rape on mobiles
By Robin Gedye, Foreign Affairs Writer
(Filed: 08/01/2005)

Three men were jailed in Saudi Arabia yesterday for orchestrating and filming the rape of a teenage girl on their mobile phones.

The case has shocked the ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom and led to a temporary ban on camera-phones.

Barjass bin Faleh, 27, was sentenced to 12 years in jail and 1,200 lashes and Abdulrahman bin Haif, 22, will serve two years and receive 200 lashes after they circulated a video of the rape of the girl, aged 17, by their Nigerian driver. The driver was sentenced to six years and 600 lashes.

Saudi Arabia, which practises an ultra-orthodox form of Islam, banned the import and sale of camera-phones after the men's arrests late last year, but had to rescind the order when it proved unworkable.

Clerics said camera-phones were being used to film women clandestinely and their use in general was an invasion of privacy.

Several Arab countries have banned them from shopping and leisure centres to prevent the surreptitious filming of women. Hardline Saudi clerics have urged a total ban on mobile phones because they allow boys and girls to communicate without adult supervision.

Two Saudi women guests at a wedding were beaten by other guests last September as they tried to photograph the celebration using mobile phones. They are believed to have been attacked by other women since - except for the bridegroom - only women attend Saudi weddings.

Religious police patrol city streets ensuring that women do not break moral codes.

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