"Jan. 8 - 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.
Now, NEWSWEEK has learned, the Pentagon is intensively debating an option that dates back to a still-secret strategy in the Reagan administration’s battle against the leftist guerrilla insurgency in El Salvador in the early 1980s. Then, faced with a losing war against Salvadoran rebels, the U.S. government funded or supported "nationalist" forces that allegedly included so-called death squads directed to hunt down and kill rebel leaders and sympathizers. Eventually the insurgency was quelled, and many U.S. conservatives consider the policy to have been a success—despite the deaths of innocent civilians and the subsequent Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal. (Among the current administration officials who dealt with Central America back then is John Negroponte, who is today the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. Under Reagan, he was ambassador to Honduras.)
Following that model, one 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, according to military insiders familiar with the discussions. It remains unclear, however, whether this would be a policy of assassination or so-called "snatch" operations, in which the targets are sent to secret facilities for interrogation. The current thinking is that while U.S. Special Forces would lead operations in, say, Syria, activities inside Iraq itself would be carried out by Iraqi paramilitaries, officials tell NEWSWEEK."
Death squads. Right. Let's be clear what we're talking about here.
I would not, myself, have a problem with our government assassinating Osama bin Laden or Ayman al Zawahiri. I would, however, very much prefer that these be exceptions to a general policy against targeted assassinations, exceptions which require explicit Presidential approval, since policies allowing things like assassination have, in my experience, a tendency to expand beyond the cases originally envisioned. And I do not want the country I love to engage in assassination outside a very small number of very special cases; nor do I want it to kidnap people who have not been indicted.
But regardless of your views on this question, what the Newsweek story says we are considering is not whether or not our government should engage in kidnapping or assassination. It's whether or not we should train other people to do so. And because other people are, well, other people, we will not always get to decide how they use their new-found skills. The question whether or not we should train people to do this is, therefore, not the question: do you think it would be good if someone kidnapped or assassinated person X? It is: do we want to unleash, in Iraq, people who are trained to assassinate or kidnap their opponents, and who may use these skills in ways we did not envision?
Moreover, note that we are not, apparently, considering training members of the Iraqi Armed Forces to form kidnapping or death squads. We are considering training members of the Kurdish Peshmerga and Shi'ite militias. Both groups are not aligned with the government of Iraq, except temporarily; they are aligned with specific factions in what is looking more and more like a civil war. Both have serious and long-standing grievances against the Sunni population, and both can be expected to use any skills we give them not just to do what's needed to bring about stability in Iraq, but to advance the goals of their specific factions. Training them to engage in kidnapping and assassination therefore seems like an especially bad idea.
When we did this in the original El Salvador, this was the result:
"Between 1980 and 1991, human rights violations were committed in a systematic and organized manner by groups acting as death squads. The members of such groups usually wore civilian clothing, were heavily armed, operated clandestinely and hid their affiliation and identity. They abducted members of the civilian population and of rebel groups. They tortured their hostages, were responsible for their disappearance and usually executed them. 416
The death squads, in which members of State structures were actively involved or to which they turned a blind eye, gained such control that they ceased to be an isolated or marginal phenomenon and became an instrument of terror used systematically for the physical elimination of political opponents. Many of the civilian and military authorities in power during the 1980s participated in, encouraged and tolerated the activities of these groups. Although there is no evidence of latent structures for these clandestine organizations, they could be reactivated when those in high Government circles issue warnings that might trigger the resumption of a dirty war in El Salvador. Since the death squad phenomenon was the problem par excellence of that dirty war which ultimately destroyed all vestiges of the rule of law during the armed conflict, the Salvadorian Government must not only be ready and willing to prevent the resurgence of this phenomenon but also seek international cooperation in eradicating it completely."
Death squads are a plague on any country they arise in. That we aided and trained them in El Salvador is to our lasting discredit. To repeat this mistake in Iraq would be a tragedy.