THE devastating guerrilla attack on El Paraiso army base in El Salvador two weeks ago dramatized the continuing failure of the US-backed counterinsurgency strategy to achieve a military solution to the seven-year civil war. Equally important, and largely ignored, are the failures of the US-backed political and economic strategy for creating a viable centrist alternative. El Salvador President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte, the symbol of the reform alternative, is in trouble. Squeezed between an eroding popular base and opposition on the right, he is increasingly isolated at home. He continues in office only because powerful forces in the military and the right need him to convince the US Congress to continue aid. Tragically, the very kind of help Washington has been giving erodes Duarte's domestic political support.
Crucial to Duarte's 1984 win was the support of centrist labor and peasant organizations. He promised them a political solution to the civil war, economic recovery and social reform, and an end to repression. Duarte's tenuous influence with the military and the right, however, depended not on his popular support but on the US aid he could deliver. He accepted the White House strategy that came with the aid: a military, not a political solution, to the war and economic austerity, not government spending, on reform. That strategy made it impossible for Duarte to deliver on his promises.
The US-backed counterinsurgency strategy of air assaults, bombing, and forced relocation of rebel supporters improved army efficiency and reversed its deteriorating position. The guerrillas responded by successfully changing their tactics to include more small unit attacks, economic sabotage, the use of land mines, kidnapping for prisoner exchanges, and expansion into urban areas. Both sides could claim major victories as the conflict worsened; neither could impose a military solution.
The continuing war made Duarte's promised recovery and reform impossible. Rebels destroyed power lines, transportation, and crops. Capital flight continued. Funds needed for health, education, and land reform went to finance the war and military corruption.
To cover war-fueled deficits, Duarte leveled new taxes on the rightist business sector; its reation was a call not to pay and a one-day business shut down.
Duarte's popular base has been steadily eroding since the 1985 elections. Frustration that Duarte was refusing to negotiate a political solution to the war gradually turned to anger in late 1985 and early 1986 when Duarte adopted a Washington-supported austerity program. This ground land reform to a halt and forced his backers to hold the line on wages and salaries while prices increased. When peasant and labor organizations protested, the government reacted with force. The arrests, torture, and disappearances outraged Duarte's former supporters. Strikes and demonstrations increased.
The October 1986 earthquake that devastated the capital made the situation even worse. The continued sacrifices demanded by the war made reconstruction and recovery impossible. Negotiating a solution to the war would be a first step out of the current dilemma, and would help Duarte regain his popular support. But Duarte's June 1986 attempt to seize the initiative - a response to popular pressure - broke down in September. Immediately after the rebels agreed to meet in the town of Sesori, where neither side had a permanent military presence, the armed forces occupied the town. The rebels refused to meet there. Duarte blamed the insurgents. His supporters believed he lacked the will or ability to control the military.
The insurgents want a broad settlement to guarantee their security and political leverage in any postwar regime. The military and the Reagan administration, however, are only willing to negotiate a rebel surrender. The guerrillas can lay down their arms and take part in the next elections. As long as the high command can rely on Washington for aid, it would rather fight than engage in the kind of dialogue the rebels, and many former Duarte supporters, are demanding.
The situation assures continuation of the civil war - and guarantees that Duarte will be abandoned by his allies while being attacked from the right.
Duarte is concerned that he will lose his slim leverage with the military and the right without massive doses of US aid. Yet it is the US strategy he has been faithfully following that has made him so dependent on this leverage by isolating him from his power base at home.
Although Duarte desperately needs the aid that Washington is providing, it is the people of El Salvador who continue to pay the real costs of his dependency. Congress, someday, may be realistic enough to mandate the tough medicine needed: make aid contingent on serious progress toward a negotiated peace.
Kenneth E. Sharpe is a professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is co-editor of ``Confronting Revolution: Security Through Diplomacy in Central America'' (Pantheon, 1986).