In early January, Newsweek carried a story that reverberated around the world: the Pentagon was "intensively debating" the "Salvador option" (more properly the El Salvador option) for Iraq. That is, it was thinking of sending in special forces to teach "Iraqi squads, mostly likely hand-picked Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shia militiamen, to target Sunni insurgents and their sympathisers". A military source told the magazine: "The Sunni population is paying no price for the support it is giving to the terrorists. From their point of view, it is cost-free. We have to change that equation."
What is interesting in this is not so much the content, given that some well-informed Iraq watchers believe the US is already training death squads there, but the decision to draw attention to it. It seems likely that the aim was to soften up public opinion for eventual revelations of US involvement in death-squad activity. Interviewed on CNN, Sean McCormack, a White House adviser on security affairs, expressed no outrage at the suggestion and merely said the Bush administration was "working very closely with the Iraqi government".
It would be surprising if the Pentagon were not training death squads, for it has been doing so since the 1960s, when it helped Colombian landowners organise militias to fight the Farc guerrillas. As Michael McClintock shows in his study of US counter-insurgency (www.statecraft.org), the tactic became accepted in the Reagan years. Ronald Reagan feared that the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua in 1979 would lead to a communist takeover of central America but baulked at full military intervention because of the furore it would cause. The solution was "low-intensity conflict", including secret funding for death squads. McClintock says that although officials thought this "un-American", they wanted to show they "could wage dirty wars with the best (or worst) of them".
The key current link with those years is John Negroponte, now US ambassador in Iraq. In the four years after he became ambassador to Honduras in 1981, a CIA-trained unit of the Honduran army kidnapped, tortured and killed hundreds of people, including American missionaries, and proof recently emerged that Negroponte was deeply involved. At the time, Honduras was a base for US operations across the region, from training "Contras" to supporting Salvadorean death squads. The toll was high, though not all from death-squad activity: about 200,000 died in Guatemala and 70,000 in El Salvador.
State Department officials say the policy worked, because the left-wingers failed to topple their governments. It is true that without US help the regimes would probably have fallen, though that is scarcely something to boast about. Yet it is not correct to say the death squads helped. According to Ernest Evans, writing in World Affairs, the policy was "totally counter-productive" in El Salvador. Besides alienating the US public, the abuses made it impossible to obtain intelligence from ordinary local people. Evans concluded: "The issue of torturing and killing prisoners can perhaps best be summed up by recalling Talleyrand's famous remark to his master, Emperor Napoleon, with respect to one of Napoleon's actions: 'Sire, it is worse than a crime, it is a mistake!'"
The central American conflicts ended in the 1990s because the UN brokered settlements and the guerrillas gained concessions. Civilian police forces were set up, along with truth commissions to investigate human rights abuses, while the rebels formed political parties. There is a lesson there, but it is not one the Bush administration will want to hear.