San Salvador — Two years ago, with President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte newly elected and the guerrillas reeling under the impact of massive United States aid to the Salvadorean military, the Reagan administration thought El Salvador had turned the corner in crushing its leftist insurgents. Today, the war, which has gone on for 6 years and claimed an estimated 60,000 lives (including direct fatalities and civilian casualties believed related to the war), is expected to drag on many years more, and the outcome is uncertain.
The problem is, at heart, political more than military.
The Army has prevented the leftist insurgency from coming to power. It is in a strong position militarily. But the inability of President Duarte's government to offer any real political and social alternatives to the guerrillas and the shortcomings of its counterinsurgency strategy make it unlikely that the Salvadorean government will be able to bring the war to a quick conclusion, Western and Salvadorean political and military analysts say.
``It's going to take a long time,'' says a military expert closely associated with the war effort. The most optimistic estimates -- those of the Salvadorean military and the US Embassy -- say it will take four to six years to defeat or at least render negligible the threat posed by the leftist insurgents that have been battling the Salvadorean government.
Even that prediction, however, could prove unrealistic.
``The guerrillas have no chance of winning in the short term,'' one European diplomat says, ``and they're in worse shape than they were three years ago. But they have successfully adapted their strategy and can continue to fight as they are now for a long while.''
US aid and training have transformed the former barracks-bound Salvadorean Army into a powerful fighting force. But in the political sphere, the war is not going nearly as well for the US-backed Duarte government.
Deepening disenchantment with the Duarte government's failure to deliver on its populist promise -- its inability to create a sense of real change in the lives of Salvador's poor majority -- has hurt the war effort, analysts say.
A year and a half after coming to power, broad sectors of Salvadorean society appear disenchanted with Mr. Duarte. Much of the disenchantment stems from dissatisfaction with the economy. Unemployment is spiraling and an economic austerity plan that was adopted by the government in January this year has hit many Salvadoreans hard.
A decline in living standards for most Salvadoreans began with the war in 1980 and accelerated in 1985 with a doubling of inflation. The Oct. 10 earthquake is expected to heighten the country's already serious economic problems and exacerbate the social tensions in the highly polarized Salvadorean society.
The disillusionment helps the rebels gain popular support and, in an effort to combat that, the military has adopted a new counterinsurgency plan called United to Reconstruct.
Many analysts say that, ideally, the aspects of a counterinsurgency plan that aims at winning the ``hearts and minds'' of the general population should be carried out primarily by a civilian government. The military's major role in this instance, they say, is a sign of the Duarte government's weakness.
Although the Army has recognized the importance of the political aspects of the war, its recent counterinsurgency efforts have so far borne little fruit among the civilian population, say analysts, including government supporters.
The Army's historical role as the repressive arm of the wealthy elite, its continued status as a privileged caste, and its traditional role of guaranteeing the status quo makes any attempts to portray itself as the servants of the people difficult.
Though it does have capable leaders, analysts say, such political warfare comes more naturally to the rebels than to the Salvadorean military.
It is in the military sphere that the Army has had the most obvious successes. By the end of 1983, the leftist rebels had seemed to be close to victory. Their battalion-size units moved through the country at will and were overrunning major government targets.
But in 1984 the balance shifted, in great part because of the massive infusion of US aid and equipment, experts say. The increased size of the Army, new helicopters, a vastly expanded air war, and US surveillance flights out of Honduras and Panama that could pinpoint rebel columns and base camps forced the guerrillas to break down into small units. It was a step back to classic guerrilla tactics.
The Army high command was reorganized in November 1983, putting its best field officers in command positions. The Army began a continuous series of operations designed to keep the guerrillas off balance and prevent them from massing an attack.
The Army, realizing the importance of civilian support to the guerrillas, increased its attempts to separate the guerrillas from that support. The Army's tactics included massacres, which occurred in the early 1980s; scorched-earth tactics, in which crops and houses were burned when troops swept through rebel zones; and indiscriminate bombing of civilian as well as military targets.
The Army's most recent strategy, beginning in mid-1985, has been forcibly to remove civilian supporters from the guerrilla zones. Early this year the Army captured and removed some 1,500 civilians from the Guazapa Volcano region and from Chalatenango Province.
Since the spring of this year, the Army has focused on carrying out an ambitious counterinsurgency plan; it hopes to extend government control over large portions of the country that are a no man's land. The plan, United to Reconstruct, is a refinement of the US-designed National Plan, which quickly encountered major difficulties when it was carried out in 1983 in San Vicente and Usulut'an Provinces.
The basic strategy for both counterinsurgency plans is the same: Clear the guerrillas from an area; provide food and medicine to civilians to win their support; try to convince the civilians to form civil defense patrols (paramilitary groups of villagers to prevent the guerrillas from entering); and finally, to reward civilians' collaboration with the government by giving them development projects such as as rebuilding schools and paving roads, funded by the US Agency for International Development (AID).
But the key element of the Army's counterinsurgency strategy -- the establishment of civil defense patrols to expand the areas of government control -- has failed, despite an elaborate plan drawn up by US advisers. Civilians have not wanted to join the civil defense patrols, even when offered AID-funded development projects in return. AID is giving $18 million this year to the new counterinsurgency plan. This is a fourfold increase from the two previous years.
``Civil defense is the tough thing. The people don't want to be in civil defense,'' says one Western source close to the program. Analysts say that civilian resistance to joining the patrols shows that support for the government is limited and that most civilians are not willing to risk their lives for the government.
Many Salvadoreans are blaming the war for their economic woes. The government must now spend more than 40 percent of its budget on the war. This forces it to neglect services, such as education and health care, that it had promised the people. Real income has been halved during the war and un- and under-employment is more than 50 percent.
The leftist rebels hope to take advantage of the increasing disenchantment with Duarte by mobilizing this discontent politically, looking to the labor movement, the universities, and the Roman Catholic Church as potential allies.
The five guerrilla organizations agreed last year on a common strategy of ``prolonged popular war'' -- a long war of attrition to overthrow the government.
Analysts say the guerrillas have opted for a form of low-intensity warfare in which military actions are reduced to a minimum, with each operation calculated for maximum impact.
The main features of this form of combat are:
Use of mines, which cause more than 45 percent, and some sources say 70 percent to 80 percent, of Army casualties. Despite the lack of major battles, total casualties reported by the Army in its midyear reports have risen from 2,208 in 1983-84, to 2,834 in 1984-85, to 3,003 in 1985-86.
Economic sabotage, estimated by US sources at $1.2 billion between 1979 and 1984. Destruction of processing equipment for export crops tripled in 1985, rising to $6.3 million. The electrical system has been especially hard hit, with damage in January alone surpassing that of the previous four years.
Expansion of operations to the previously unaffected western provinces. In January, guerrillas attacked coffee processing plants in Sonsonate and Ahuachap'an Provinces.
Traffic stoppages that periodically cut 90 percent of traffic to the conflict-ridden eastern provinces.
The war is a state of ``dynamic equilibrium'' in which both sides adapt to the advancements of the other but in which neither side can win, says the rector of the Central American University, Ignacio Ellacuria, who has closely monitored the war. Still, he says both sides feel confident of victory in the long run.
First of three parts. Next: Army adapts strategy to polish its image and erode support for guerrillas.