"Meeting Terror With Terror": a Policy of Failure
from The American Connection, Vol. 1, State Terror and Popular Resistance in El Salvador (1985)
by Michael McClintock
The willingness of the counter-insurgent to mimic insurgent organization and guerrilla technique (or purportedly guerrilla technique) was a basic component in the strategy aimed at locating and physically eliminating the insurgent, the sympathizer and the suspect. Insurgent terrorism would be met by counter-insurgent terrorism.
The routine practice of terrorism - or counter-terrorism - at the service of the state came to dominate the application of counterinsurgency doctrine in Central America. In practice, the reformist components of counter-insurgency theory were largely cosmetic. Great importance was given to the ground level application of both counter-organization and counter-terror which, including selective assassination on a large scale, was considered expedient and legitimate. It was justified both on the grounds that it was employed by the guerrillas, and on the quasi-moral grounds that it was it short-term tactic designed to end a conflict as rapidly as possible. In the long run it was expected to save lives.
Counter-insurgent terrorism in practice, however, proved not to be short term, and neither a simple nor particularly low cost answer to insurgency. Easy to start, it was difficult to stop and impossible to moderate; even a minimum of terrorism tended to escalate. In Guatemala, massive counter-terror was introduced in 1966 to crush insurgency once and for all. Today counter-terror by the state still dominates the political system, has claimed some 50,000 lives, and utterly failed to crush insurgency, now stronger than ever before.
Voices of dissent on both moral and practical or strategic grounds were raised from the beginning. As early as 1962 US scholar Chalmers A. Johnson wrote that "counter-terror" theory was based on an erroneous premise - that guerrillas achieve support through acts of terrorism - and stated that theorists cannot produce "a single case in which the principle of counter-terrorization has been effective in ending a guerrilla war. In fact, Such counter-measures can easily be shown to have quite the opposite result"
An emphasis upon guerrilla terrorization of an allegedly passive population leads directly to policy failures. It is supposed that successful counter-guerrilla operations involve the use of specially trained commandos who are, in effect, authorized to counter-terrorize the same population.
Nevertheless, in the early 1960s, a deluge of official and semi-official, public and classified papers appeared in US military and foreign affairs circles, promoting the virtues of "counter-terror" in defeating insurgency.
At about the same time Johnson was writing, an advocate of counterterror insisted that the counter-insurgent "must be prepared to meet terror with terror" in order "to forestall casualties and prevent the demoralization of his forces ... Terrorism was described as the most powerful tool at the disposal of the guerrilla leader" and thus a necessary tool of the anti-guerrilla. The expression "meet terror with terror" appears repeatedly in counter-insurgency literature after 1960, both in doctrinal policy papers and in commentary on current affairs. Colonel John Webber, head of the United States military mission to Guatemala in 1967, took credit in a Time magazine interview for having introduced a system of "counter terror", explaining that, "The Communists are using everything they have, including terror. And it must be met."
French army counter-insurgency doctrine, drawing on the experience of colonial wars in Indo-China and Algeria, promoted a nearly identical attitude that harsh measures normally "alien to a civilized power" are justified because insurgent violence and terror is ended sooner, thereby saving lives. The immediate tactical advantage of a policy in which all limitations to potential action were lifted, appealed as a practical way of preventing casualties, eliminating risks vis-a-vis suspects, and getting immediate results by interrogations under torture, summary executions, burning the homes of suspects, and be damned the long range political implications
... don't come back at me with words like justice and charity ... you can talk about that in Paris ... But once you're here, raising problems of conscience - and presuming the innocence of possible murderers - is a luxury that costs dear, that costs men ... our men.
Another non-United States example was described by Chalmers Johnson when outlining two distinct counter-insurgency policies implemented by the Japanese during their World War II occupation of China. In the South a Vichy style Chinese proxy government was set up to administer "Model Peace Zones" and maintain agricultural production as its priority. According to Johnson, relatively benevolent rule there provoked little resistance, and Communist party leaders were isolated and driven out. In the North, however, the poor agricultural land offered little incentive to the Japanese for careful exploitation, and the population was forced to submit with none of the subtlety used in the South. Where guerrilla resistance occurred the Japanese ordered the "physical destruction of all life and property"; a policy which sounds comparable to the present El Salvador's government policy in poor rural areas, where a guerrilla presence is countered by burning entire villages and the wholesale execution of suspects by the security forces.
Chalmers Johnson points out that in the Japanese occupation of China the increase of guerrilla activity in the North proceeded apace throughout the Japanese occupation - with the resultant establishment of a Communist stronghold there in the civil war - in part as a direct result of the policy of counter-insurgent terrorism, or counter-terror "... one can conclude ... that anti-guerrilla terrorism will more than likely spread the mass mobilization upon which guerrilla movements thrive."
One of the principal arguments of this book is that prolonged state terrorism in Central America, as elsewhere, provokes and sustains mass resistance.
The institutionalization of counter-terror within Central American security systems came after its theoretical formulation in United States and regional counter-insurgency, doctrine in the 1960s. and largely coincided with the reform and development programmes promoted by the US through the Alliance for Progress. The doctrine, effectively backed by the US's prestige, power, moral authority and material assistance, promoted the use of "'uncivilized" methods quite contrary to the laws of American nations and of the international agreements to which they subscribed.
United States counter-insurgency doctrine, as adopted uncritically throughout most of Latin America, rationalized, sanitized, mechanized and institutionalized what had been traditionally deplored as barbaric and shameful torture and murder by the state. This new orientation was superimposed upon - and brutality accentuated by - the reality that, in the Americas, the ideals of national and international law had frequently been honoured only in the breach that torture and government killings were already a part of the region's experience. In the past, however, these excesses had always been deplored as uncivilized, as the aberrations of individual despots. The purport of the new doctrine, coming from the country which presented itself as the leader of the "Free World", was that the excesses of the security forces -police and military- were to he considered legitimate in the new international context. The doctrine tended to make a virtue of terror, in so far as it was anti-Communist, counter-insurgent terror.
In those countries with incipient or active insurgent movements, counter-insurgency doctrine, once introduced, quickly took root. Prescribed organizational changes in local security systems for the implementation of the policy, contributed to a permanent orientation toward counter-insurgency. The new organization and the orientation became institutionalized.
By the mid-1960s counter-terror was a firmly established "technique" within the counter-insurgent arsenal. We know that already in 1962 high-level United States military teams were advising Latin America armies to organize counter terror strike forces where guerrilla activity existed. A declassified report from 1962 cites General William Yarborough's recommendations that the Colombian military form irregular civil/military groups to practise "terrorism" against "known Communist proponents".
In practice, counter-terror presented problems of scale. Could security services anywhere be expected to use "just a little" terrorism? Would not even a little terrorism, to the population whose hearts and minds were to be won, make the most lasting impression of all the techniques in the counter-insurgent repertoire?
The matter of scale is addressed in an almost off-hand manner in a 1966 US Army counter-insurgency handbook which outlined a scenario in an imaginary Latin American republic called "Centralia" a composite of characteristics of several Central American countries. The majority of the population were Spanish speaking mestizos, (people of mixed ancestry); the Indian population spoke Kekchi (a Guatemalan indigenous language); the coastal areas were populated by black, English speaking Creoles (as in Belize, Honduras and Nicaragua). The handbook outlined "solutions" to the problem of insurgency in "Centralia" as provided by some 20 counter-insurgency experts and called upon Area Commanders in the field to design comparable programmes.
Counter-terror was one "technique" available to the commander for his programme, its use was, however, to be limited "You may not employ mass counter-terror, as opposed to selective counter-terror, against the civilian population, i.e., genocide is not an alternative."
The distinction between" selective" and "mass" counter-terror was, of course, a matter of opinion. Does selective, become mass counter-terror when a certain threshold of deaths has been reached, say 10, 20, 50% of the population? Or could a sliding scale be established for different social sectors, such as peasants, teachers, etc.? The handbook did not, of course, consider the moral implications of counter-terror, or its long-term effects.
Much counter-insurgency literature focuses on the presumed effectiveness of counter-terror and counter-organization (particularly the use of irregular forces) in achieving the actual liquidation of the insurgents. But there is another aspect - the "public image" factor - with considerable bearing on how counter-terror has been implemented and sustained within modern security systems. The French in Algeria, as the United States in Vietnam, went to great pains to prevent reports of torture, assassination and other terrorist tactics used by their forces (and their allies) from reaching the public at home. But the slow accumulation of those reports that managed to reach the metropolitan countries eventually soured domestic public opinion toward waging counterinsurgent warfare. It is, therefore, obvious that manipulation of the news media by governments engaged in modern counter-insurgency was already a prerequisite in the 1960s, since the public in those countries has not yet accepted counter-terror methods as legitimate. The Algerians, the Vietnamese, and now the Salvadoreans, with first hand experience (if counter-terror neither were nor are deluded by information campaigns intended to obscure its nature or provenance.
As the blockage or distortion of information has been integral to the counter- insurgency package, so the creation of secret nominally unofficial anti-guerrilla forces has assisted governments to avoid accountability for counter-terror operations. This unique organizational characteristic also provided means for disguising the source of counterterror, particularly in the arena of international public opinion. The existence of irregular groups built within or around the military could be denied, or acknowledged but said to have no official ties and be out of control, or to carry out only civic functions. Abuses could be attributed to phantom, or independent groups, or their occurrence wholly denied. This hag been the modern experience of Central America, but it too has historical precedents.
American military intelligence reports after the departure of the Marines from Nicaragua in 1933 stressed the usefulness of the National Guard's civilian auxiliaries as forces that were not accountable for their actions, even though they went beyond the law on behalf of the government. The irregulars were
probably a more efficient combat force against bandits [than the Marines] ... unhampered by thoughts of court martial and congressional investigation if they retaliate using the bandit's own, rather uncivilized methods.
No one in Nicaragua believed that atrocities committed by "auxiliaries" were not actually the work of the government but, since in post-Marine Corps Nicaragua d omestic public opinion was virtually stifled by the National Guard, the duplicity may have helped obscure the realities of Nicaragua vis-a-vis foreign opinion.
The growing awareness that irregular forces, not immediately identifiable as government forces, could assist governments evade accountability for acts of terrorism, opened up new areas of action in the counter-insurgency scenario. One of the most bizarre, outlined in the US Army handbook quoted above, involves the deployment of forces to impersonate guerrillas while committing acts of terrorism against the population. The purpose being to excite public opinion against guerrillas and justify further counter-insurgency measures.
Create a pseudo-insurgent force ... Select 20 of the best-trained Spanish speaking men, use polygraph as aid; copy insurgent uniform ... using [the] pseudo-insurgent force, the government generates incidents among the population. These incidents are used to indicate to the people the need for, protection of the villages ... [this] gives the government a pretext to move in and claim that population control is necessary to 1) protect the people. and 2) 'stamp out' the insurgents.
Grotesque as they may seem, these text-book techniques have been implemented in Guatemala, and probably in El Salvador. In Guatemala a recent case of this particular brand of "counter-terrorism" involves the highland Indian areas of the North, particularly in the department of El Quiche, where terrorist actions both by uniformed and plain-clothes Army forces have been attributed to guerrillas and cited publicly as the justification for permanent population control measures.
In common practice, however, counter-terror in most of its manifestations has been used as a direct means to destroy the real or imagined subversive. Refinements in the application of counter-terror - for example its use to incite the population against the guerrillas - are ultimately subordinated to this primary purpose. Usually counter-terror is merely a means enabling a government to break all the rules and kill its suspected enemies, and, as part of the counter- insurgency package, it has proved occasionally effective to that end in the short term.