The United States appear to be preparing a case for significant increases -- over the long term -- in both its military and economic aid to El Salvador. This could involve, among the other things, providing El Salvador with US- built fighter-bombers for the first time, and, over the next several years, nearly doubling the size of the Salvadoran army.
Several months after the first US military training teams were sent to El Salvador and Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. declared that the small Central American nation was on a Soviet "hit list," the war against leftis-led guerrillas continues inconclusively. US Ambassador Deane R. Hinton reports that the two sides have fought to a draw. If the conflict is allowed to continue at its present pace, the sharp economic decline of the country could undermine political and military gains.
Assessments by US officials indicate that without substantial increases in its strength and mobility, the Salvadoran Army will not be able to go on the offensive. As it is, according to a report cabled last month to the US State Department by Ambassador Hinton, the guerrillas can attack "when and where they want." They can be contained, but not defeated.
In an interview with reporters July 10, Hinton said it was a "continuing infiltration of arms" from Cuba, and apparently from Nicaragua, which was enabling the guerrillas to fight the Salvadoran armed forces to a standoff.
Thomas O. Enders, the new assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, is expected to outline the Reagan administration's policy toward El Salvador in greater detail in a speech he is to deliver on July 16. Mr. Enders is expected to respond to critics who charge that the Reagan administration is overemphasizing military aid to El Salvador without taking into account the economic, social, and political dimensions of the struggle there.
The US mission in El Salvador has warned that because of guerrilla attacks, political uncertainty, capital flight, and low coffee prices, among other factors, economic decline is the gravest immediate danger to El Salvador. That decline will continue, reports from the mission assert, unless the country is provided with "substantially larger" amounts of economic assistance. One report to Washington argues that El Salvador be given the most generous financing terms available, including a high percentage of grant aid.
Given budgetary constraints and attitudes in the US Congress, however, the administration is not expected to make any new requests for aid in the near future. A request for the appropriation of $25 million in military aid and $75 million in economic assistance to El Salvador for the fiscal year 1982 is expected to be voted on in the Congress either before the end of this month or in September. But some of the recommendations now under consideration by the administration would clearly go beyond those levels.
In a report to the State Department last month, Ambassador Hinton disclosed that El Salvador's military leaders think it will be necessary nearly to double the size of the Salvadoran Army from its current 12,000 to about 23,000 by the end of 1985. This would allow the Army, it is argued, to develop several mobile infantry brigades capable of operating in El Salvador's difficult terrain, on a self-sustaining basis, over long periods of time. At the moment, the Army has only one US-trained rapid-action battalion. The Navy and Air Force would be expanded as well.
The United States has provided El Salvador with 10 UH-1H troop-carrying helicopters, but the Salvadoran government wants 14 more. It also wants to obtain American F-5E and A-37 fighters-bombers. In the US view, El Salvador's aging, French-made "Fouga" and "Ouragan" fighters are not capable of providing effective air defense or support for ground forces. In the US and Salvadoran view, observation aircraft and transport planes capable of taking off from and landing on small airfields are required as well.
Getting more aid for El Salvador may prove to be an extremely difficult proposition, however. Although Ambassador Hinton and Salvadoran government officials have argued that the human-rights situation in El Salvador is slowly improving, abuses of the civilian population by members of the governments security forces and Army appear to continue at a high level. On July 12, Msgr. Arturo Rivera Damas, the senior Roman Catholic church official in El Salvador, charged that the Army had murdered at least 27 civilians during the previous week.
Votes in US Senate and House committees in May imposed restrictions on US military aid to El Salvador and required that President Reagan certify that the Salvadoran government was making "significant progress" in carrying out human rights, economic, and political changes before more aid could be given.
The Reagan administration argues that it is supporting a moderate, reform-oriented government caught between the extremes of left and right. Some congressmen question this; they say they think the civilian members of the ruling junta are unable to control events, and that military leaders hold the real power.
The administration's main justification for providing aid -- allegations of massive Cuban support to the guerrillas -- also has come under question on Capitol Hill. The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post carried articles last month which concluded that the Senate Department "white paper" on the subject, issued last Feb. 23, was full of flaws and distortions. The State Department admitted that the paper had contained a "few points of misstated detail or ambiguous formulations" but stuck to its conclusions.
One congressman who is skeptical about the military-aid program for El Salvador, Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D) of Maryland, who is head of the House Subcommittee on Inter-American Affairs, said that Congress was currently more receptive to the idea of providing economic aid to El Salvador than it was providing further military assistance.
"The reaction to any significant increase in military assistance to El Salvador would be very negative," Mr. Barnes said.
Another critic, Rep. Clarence D. Long (D) of Maryland, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, said that when the question comes up again, he may vote against both military and economic aid for El Salvador.
"The problem is not so much that the war's at a stalemate," said Congressman Long in a telephone interview. "The problem is that the economy's at a stalemate.
"The land reform was carried out in a bad way," he said. "The cooperatives don't work. . . .A billion dollars left the country before they could slam the door.
"It's a represive regime, and we just don't know how to keep them from stealing our money," the congressman continued. "I don't know what the solution is, but I do know that the US Treasury is going to be the target of a ripoff, and if we stay in there, we're going to end up being the enemy."
But Long thinks that, in this case, votes on El Salvador will divide largely along partisan lines. In his view, many Republicans will vote for further aid mainly because it is being proposed by a GOP administration.