“Small is Beautiful”: El Salvador’s Lessons and Non-Lessons for the Indirect Approach


Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from David H. Ucko’s article in Small Wars & Insurgencies, “Counterinsurgency in El Salvador: the lessons and limits of the indirect approach.”


The soon-to-be-released U.S. Army field manual, Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies, has reinvigorated the ongoing discussion of the lessons to be learned from recent counterinsurgency campaigns. One of the key criticisms of the earlier iteration of the manual, FM 3-24, was that it focused predominantly on ‘direct’ counterinsurgency: the deployment of large formations to provide security and take on various military and civilian tasks for a foreign population. As the doctrine was written in 2006, when 144,000 U.S. troops were actively countering an insurgency in Iraq, this focus was apposite. But now, given the perceived failure of direct counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and, more generally, the high costs of this approach, the consensus has shifted in favor of an ‘indirect’ approach that relies primarily on the structures and capabilities of the host-nation partner.

There are good reasons for this shift. The indirect approach recognizes the limits on what external powers can by themselves achieve in a foreign land, particularly one they scarcely understand. The focus on partnerships also acknowledges the need to maintain host-nation legitimacy, build local capacity, and engage in a manner that is financially and politically sustainable. Yet while the notion that “small is beautiful” can be correct, it is dangerous to stop the analysis there. Indeed, as with counterinsurgency of any type, the indirect approach brings severe challenges that, unless carefully understood, are likely to result in past mistakes being repeated and national resources going to waste.

These challenges are effectively brought out by a close examination of the El Salvador counterinsurgency campaign of the 1980s, ironically considered among the most emblematic and successful of indirect engagements. That the campaign was ‘indirect’ is clear: the United States never officially deployed more than 55 advisers, whose task was to assist the host nation and its military in their struggle against the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). But the war’s outcome in 1992 – the disarming of FMLN and its transformation into a democratic party – has led many observers, particularly in the counterinsurgency community, to suggest that it was U.S. assistance and advice that ‘won the war’. Some commentators recognize that the Cold War’s passing helped to enable the outcome, but the US input is nonetheless seen as central, hence the frequent, unqualified inclusion of El Salvador among US counterinsurgency ‘success stories’.

This narrative eclipses three critical points. First, the counterinsurgency program in El Salvador does not rank very highly among the factors behind the war’s celebrated outcome. Second, even with talks underway, significant, creative, and sustained political engagement was needed, both regionally and internationally, throughout the two years of negotiations. Third, this effort did not and could not stop with the peace agreement, but rather required a longer-term assistance program, which, despite its many successes, produced a peace far less stable and unproblematic than sometimes suggested. Combined, these points should stem the hurried search for models, remind us to study past cases on their own merits, and be more modest about what external intervention typically brings.

The Limits of Counterinsurgency

The U.S. counterinsurgency mission in El Salvador produced stalemate rather than victory. This point is frequently missed, perhaps because of the tendency in the United States to view the campaign through a narrow military prism, or a counterinsurgency prism, that skews both research and findings. Analysis thus ascribes outcomes to the U.S. advisory mission, obscuring the necessary factors that brought about the conflict’s eventual transformation, including (not least) the valuable diplomatic role played by the United States itself during this delicate transition.

The U.S. counterinsurgency program had three pillars: the provision of military and financial aid; the training and advising of the El Salvador Armed Forces (ESAF); and the introduction of reforms to address the drivers of conflict. Each pillar met with significant success. The aid helped the Salvadoran government survive the FMLN’s early onslaught, and the military advice increased ESAF’s effectiveness, forcing FMLN’s dispersal and adoption of a guerrilla strategy. The reforms led to elections in 1984, in which the center-right Christian Democratic Party won, along with a new constitution that addressed some roots of the conflict.

Still, this was also when U.S. counterinsurgency efforts came to a halt. Despite the liberalization of the early 1980s, the right wing retained control over the legislative, judiciary, and military, which impeded political change. Militarily, the U.S. limitation to just 55 advisers and the barring of combined operations meant a lack of oversight and leverage. As an institution, ESAF never truly abandoned its faith in large-scale combat. Nor did it adopt those reforms that threatened the corrupt and patrimonial practices from which it benefited. The U.S.-trained elite units fared better, but their successes were overshadowed by human rights abuses and occurred in the absence of a strategy capable of translating military gains into political progress.

Indeed, ESAF struggled to extend areas of legitimate government control. Many explanations are provided – corruption, lack of coordination, and so on – but most fundamentally the government could not, despite many good deeds, convince the population that it was on their side and working in their interest. It was not that sympathies were by default with the guerrillas, but rather that peripatetic services and PR exercises were insufficient in changing people’s attitudes and their survivalist ways of coping. The lack of security looms large, and stemmed from the failure to stand up competent civil defense forces. While most rural Salvadorans were reluctant to join given the brutality of previous militias, the military never adequately supported these units, which they perceived as sympathetic to FMLN.

By the mid-1980s, these factors produced a political and military impasse. While the military stalemate could have enabled a negotiated peace, this too proved impossible, as FMLN was never put under sufficient strain to soften their demands. This outcome has to be taken into account when assessing the U.S. counterinsurgency assistance in El Salvador.

What Broke the Stalemate?

What broke the stalemate was an admixture of local and international developments largely unrelated to the counterinsurgency campaign. El Salvador’s democratization and military professionalization provided the context in which progress was at all possible, but the progress itself was largely unrelated to counterinsurgency.

It is almost too obvious to point out the role of the Cold War’s passing, which altered calculations on all sides. For FMLN, the loss of a major sponsor in Soviet Russia compelled it to drop its more intractable demands: transitional power sharing and integration into the Army. With the parallel change in U.S. administration in 1989, U.S. policy shifted from defeating FMLN to extrication via negotiations, which led to conditions on its support to the Salvadoran government. Henceforth military aid was slashed, and made contingent on its respect for human rights and negotiations with FMLN.

And yet the Cold War itself could not produce peace: three local developments were needed, all of which highlight the limits of the counterinsurgency assistance of the previous decade.

First, FMLN was able to launch a devastating “final offensive” into San Salvador on 11 November 1989. The rebels were eventually repelled, but the attack demonstrated their continued power. The group’s infiltration of wealthier suburbs also convinced many within the private sector that a negotiated solution was now necessary: safeguarding the country’s economy became more important than pursuing an unlikely military win. Meanwhile, for FMLN, the offensive brought neither government surrender nor popular mobilization, but instead weakened the group and alienated its remaining international sponsors. Negotiations now appeared necessary on the rebel side as well.

The second development, which also indicated the limited effects of ten years of advice, was the killing of six Jesuit priests and two housekeepers by the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion. The act inflamed an already heated debate in U.S. Congress about supporting the Salvadoran military. It also stole the initiative from the government, which could have capitalized on FMLN’s weakening but now had to engage in damage control.

Third, the Salvadoran elite was distancing itself from the military. Popular opinion was largely against the war, but the economy had also changed, undermining the war’s initial logic. FMLN expropriations, coupled with limited agrarian reforms, had weakened the agricultural sector in favor of export, processing, commerce and industry. Thus, there was less dependence on the military as the repressor of an agrarian work force and an interest, instead, in providing the conditions for new modes of economic growth.

Through these developments, the stalemate between FMLN and the government became ‘mutually hurting’, leading to renewed negotiations. Yet even then, the successful outcome now associated with the war was not guaranteed. Indeed, there is much to be celebrated in how the negotiations, once begun, were kept afloat, for two years, even while mistrust remained high and the conflict simmered. The outcome is all the more astonishing given the antagonism going into the negotiations: between FMLN and the government; between the government and ESAF; between the United States and FMLN, and between the White House and Congress. At times, renewed hostilities appeared likely.

Against this, key factors helped sustain the transition: the political leadership of the two sides, civil society’s efforts in pushing for peace, but also the roles played by the United Nations, United States, and regional partners. Their efforts, more than the counterinsurgency assistance, were what broke the impasse and produced the outcome the conflict is now remembered for. Any attempt to replicate the “El Salvador model” must therefore go beyond the counterinsurgency program and consider the requirements for effective mediation, diplomacy and compulsion, as it was in this manner that the war was brought to its end.

Lessons from a ‘Success Story’

On this last point, the focus on the peace agreement that ended the war must not divert our attention from its fraught implementation, over several years, in a fragile post-war society. With outside support, El Salvador underwent land transfers, economic reforms, and reintegration, all to address the root causes of the conflict. While its success in these initiatives has been mixed, war has not resumed. As a whole, the ‘post-conflict’ phase speaks to the need to look beyond the defeat of an armed group, beyond the signing of formal peace accords, and to consider, also, the unique vulnerabilities – both political and economic – of a fractured and fragile society.

The two most successful aspects of El Salvador’s war-to-peace transition were that the cease-fire held, despite moments of tension, and that it opened up political space. A new electoral code was produced in 1993 and despite some difficulties, elections were held in 1994 that were sufficiently fair to be celebrated. In the two decades of peace, FMLN has gone from competent guerrillas to the incumbent political party.

Alongside these successes, there are aspects – primarily truth and reconciliation – where the perfect was purposefully not made the enemy of the good. While each compromise tarnished the peace created, limited compliance allowed for broader adherence to the negotiated agreement. Such trade-offs are often inevitable.

More serious are the areas where the only lessons to be drawn are negative, and in which shortcomings were the product of poor thinking and bad decisions. These cautionary lessons are often missed in the hurry to embrace the El Salvador case as a model.

Most critical was the failure to provide public security during the war-to-peace transition. The rapid dismantling of coercive capacity through disarmament and demobilization and the delayed establishment of new forces created a crime wave whose lethality exceeded that of the average war-year. It is not the case, as one might expect, that transitions to peace bring ever-greater stability: often it is the exact opposite. New or mutated sources of instability must be carefully managed, either by local forces or outsiders; in El Salvador, this did not happen. While the criminality did not trigger renewed war, its effects haunt El Salvador, and the region, to this day.

Underlying the crime wave was the failure to address the social and economic imbalances that provided FMLN its recruits. The strict adherence to neoliberal policies and trickle-down economics at an acutely fragile time produced dislocation, mass migration, and violent crime. The case illustrates that it is far easier to achieve peace on paper than ensure that fighting forces are reintegrated politically and economically – a critical part in sustaining initial gains. The case therefore points to the importance of economic instruments in ending conflict and in producing new and relevant opportunities in a post-war society. The need for local knowledge, analysis, and engagement is paramount.


Several positive lessons can be drawn from the Salvadoran war. From its darkest days, the government was able, with U.S. assistance, to reform itself and its military, denying FMLN an all-out win. International engagement then combined with local leadership to produce a peace agreement that some have called a “negotiated revolution.” The accords not only brought two rivals to the table but promised to address the causes of the conflict: the repression, authoritarianism and abuses, the social inequalities and the militarization of society. The peace has held now for more than two decades.

These successes have encouraged a search for models that at times produces shoddy history. The first myth that needs to be debunked is that through an indirect approach, the U.S. counterinsurgency defeated FMLN and secured peace. This conclusion is alluring, yet flawed in two respects.

First it fails to recognize the preconditions and constraints that came with the small footprint. The limited size of the advisory mission and the prohibition on partnering in the field compounded the typical problems of accountability, leverage and oversight. More broadly, the United States struggled, and continues to struggle, with the diplomatic state-to-state engagement necessary to muster cooperation, apply pressure, or otherwise achieve political change. These challenges are endemic to third-party counterinsurgencies, regardless of size.

Second, the narrative misattributes the war’s resolution to a counterinsurgency program whose main achievement was stalemate. This narrow focus underplays the specific unrelated factors behind FMLN’s transformation: the contextual shifts domestically and abroad, the inspired yet protracted goading of the two sides through negotiations, and the fraught, imperfect but nonetheless war-averting implementation of a peace agreement.

On this basis, perhaps the prime lesson from El Salvador is to moderate our search for models and to appreciate past cases on their own merits. This calls for the type of analytical engagement for which there is seldom time (or even interest), but it also provides the best guarantee, itself bounded, of learning from our past. It also should ensure greater humility about what is possible and what any semblance of success will typically require.


David H. Ucko is associate professor at the College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University, and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of Counterinsurgency in Crisis: Britain and the Challenges of Modern Warfare (Columbia University Press, 2013) and The New Counterinsurgency Era: Transforming the U.S. Military for Modern Wars (Georgetown University Press, 2009). His most recent article is “Counterinsurgency in El Salvador: The Lessons and Limits of the Indirect Approach” in the journal Small Wars & Insurgencies.


Photo credit: Pedro