Contemporary U.S. policy makers often characterize the U.S. counterinsurgency experience in El Salvador as a successful model to be followed in other contexts. This article argues that these characterizations significantly overstate the positive lessons of El Salvador, and ignore important cautionary implications. During the first part of the conflict, neither the Armed Forces of El Salvador (FAES) nor the U.S. followed the tenets of counterinsurgency doctrine. The FAES killed tens of thousands of non-combatants in 1979 and 1980, before the civil war even began. This repression may have preempted an incipient popular insurrection, but it also locked in a determined social base that enabled the armed left to build a highly effective and sustained insurgency. In 1984, the U.S. had to save the FAES from likely defeat through a major increase in military aid, especially airpower. When the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) switched to a classical guerrilla strategy, the FAES, despite considerable U.S. aid, seldom followed best practices in counterinsurgency. Democratization and redistributional reforms were partial and flawed in implementation. The war settled into a stalemate that would likely have continued indefinitely had it not been for the collapse of the socialist bloc and significant changes in the interests of Salvadoran elites that were largely incidental to U.S. policies.The most important cautionary lesson is that indiscriminate violence against civilians early in a conflict can create dynamics that are very difficult to overcome in subsequent stages.
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