US counter-terrorism abroad: Fighting terrorism or encouraging it?

The US has a disastrous record of involvement in ‘counter-insurgency’ efforts in Central America.

US Special Forces specialists who trained Salvadoran troops in 'counter-insurgency' programmes worked later in Iraq [Reuters]

In his recent foreign-policy speech at West Point, President Obama insisted that the most direct threat to the US remains terrorism. However, noting that invading every country that harbours terrorist networks was “naive and unsustainable”, he announced that the United States needed to “shift our counter-terrorism strategy – drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan – to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.”

An important component of this new strategic stance would be a Counter-Terrorism Partnerships Fund of up to $5bn, created on top of four already-existing “counter-terrorism assistance” programmes.

As revealed recently in The New York Times, since last year US Special Operations troops have been forming “elite counter-terrorism units” in Libya, Niger, Mauritania and Mali.

The programme has run into difficulties. In Libya, training ended abruptly last August after militia fighters attacked a training base and stole hundreds of US-supplied weapons and equipment.

Meanwhile, in Nigeria, Kenya, and Uganda, “counter-terrorism” campaigns have led to human rights violations by armed forces allied with the US and other Western states.

The possibility that US training may backfire, or lead to serious human rights violations, is nothing new. In fact, it is no exaggeration to suggest that many of the darkest pages in the history of US foreign policy can be traced back to such “counter-terrorism” programmes.

Following the overthrow of democratically-elected President Jacobo Arbenz by the CIA in 1954, US military advisors and police experts helped rebuild and reorganise Guatemala’s intelligence apparatus, trained and equipped its security forces, and designed the “counter-terror” tactics they would use for three bloody decades.

In countless internal documents, now declassified, US analysts candidly describe the methods used by Guatemala’s security forces, detail their ties with the dreaded “death squads”, document the systematic resort to torture and the practice of “forced disappearances”, methods that they repeatedly qualify as “terror”, “counter-terror” or “terrorism”.

To the American public, however, such programmes were presented as essentially benign, their objective being to help “professionalise” Guatemala’s security forces so they could more efficiently fight against the “communist”, “subversive” and “terrorist” threat.

Meanwhile, representatives of the executive branch assured critics in Congress that the country’s security forces were not engaging in any systematic human rights violations, and dismissed reports from human rights organisations as untrustworthy and ideologically motivated.

Declassified evidence

In July 1971 for example, Senator William Proxmire referred to the fate of 600 people “brutally terrorised” during the recent state of siege in Guatemala, expressed his concern that US assistance was going to police forces “engaged in terror or in violation of human rights” and suggested for the first time that such training be stopped.

Assistant Secretary of State Charles Meyer rejected such accusations. There was, he insisted, “absolutely no evidence that our public safety program contributes to police terror or human rights violations.” To the contrary, the Guatemalan government’s main concern was “to achieve an open political atmosphere free from terrorism”.

Countless declassified documents show the dishonesty of these assurances, as best exemplified in a March 1968 memorandum by Viron Vaky, the Deputy Chief of Mission in Guatemala City.

Entitled “Guatemala and Counter-Terror”, it is a remarkably candid, stark and courageous internal critique of US policies. Vaky denounces the use of “counter-terror” to combat insurgency, explaining that the brutal methods used by the Guatemalan security forces were having “a terribly corrosive effect on Guatemalan society” and presented a serious problem for the “image” and “credibility” of the US.

Washington had, at times, expressed its displeasure with such excesses, but Vaky insisted that on the whole it had acquiesced, condoned and encouraged the use of “terror tactics” as an acceptable practice. He concluded:

[O]ne thing we can do is be honest with ourselves and admit to ourselves that there is a problem, and that counter-terror is wrong as a counter-insurgency tactic. […] The record must be made clearer that the United States Government opposes the concept and questions the wisdom of counter-terror. […] Otherwise, we will stand before history unable to answer the accusations that we encouraged the Guatemalan Army to do these things.

‘Death squads’

In El Salvador, the declassified record once again highlights the gap between the public discourse surrounding “counter terrorism” programmes, the assurances given to Congress about the methods used by the forces trained by the US, and the reality on the ground as described in internal and secret documents.

In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan repeatedly described the Salvadoran security forces as engaged in a fight against “terrorism”. In June 1985, he called on Congress to vote on the Central American Counterterrorism Act of 1985 and allocate $50m to assist armed and police forces as they confronted the threat of “terrorism”.

Witness – Searching for Steele

Immediately, the bill was met with strong opposition.

Senator Christopher Dodd insisted that “a major source of terrorism in this part of the world is the very people that we may be providing additional assistance to.”

Senator Claiborne Pell stated “so much of the terrorism the administration purports to oppose has, tragically, been institutional terrorism, perpetrated by the very police and military regimes we now propose to assist.”

Having learned that the CIA had just completed a report on political violence in El Salvador, Senator John Kerry asked that it be promptly declassified, explaining: “If we are going to be here substantively trying to think about a legitimate response to the issue of terrorism in the region, if the CIA knows something about rightwing terrorism, that ought to be included in the programme.”

As debates resumed two weeks later, Kerry announced that his request for declassification had been rejected, a decision motivated, he suggested, by a desire to protect the administration’s policy. He maintained his opposition to the bill, which was ultimately defeated.

The report, titled “El Salvador: Controlling Rightwing Terrorism” has since been declassified, and its contents confirm Kerry’s suspicion. The CIA was aware of the intimate ties that existed between the “death squads” and the Salvadoran security forces, and its analysts did consider many right-wing actors as “terrorists”.

In 1999, President Bill Clinton officially apologised for US support of Guatemala’s repressive regimes. Around the same time, the legal regime surrounding US assistance programmes was strengthened, thanks notably to the “Leahy laws“.

Still, whether the US has truly turned the page on some of its worst Cold War practices remains an open question.

Indeed, it is Special Forces specialists involved in the Salvadoran training programmes that were called on to manage the “counter-insurgency” programme in Iraq in 2005. Referred to as the “Salvador Option,” it resulted in the setting up of secret detention and torture centres, and the creation of “commandos” whose methods were often similar to Central American “death squads”.

When President Obama suggests that the new “counter-terrorism fund” should draw on the “successes and shortcomings” of the past, does he agree with the US Army’s Field Manual, which refers to the Salvadoran training programme of the 1980s as an unmitigated historical success to be emulated? Or with his Secretary of State who, in the 1980s, opposed such programmes as amounting to training the “real terrorists” in the region?

Remi Brulin is a research fellow at New York University’s Journalism Institute, and a Shapiro fellow at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.
Follow him on Twitter: @RBrulin