El Salvador

The time is fast approaching for the United States to make fundamental decisions about its policy in El Salvador, where in recent days the war has gone badly for the government.

Next week the Kissinger commission will make its recommendations; advance reports are that more financial aid will be suggested, with no major changes in US policies. Later this month the administration, in its annual budget, will ask Congress to provide additional funds for the beleaguered nation. Congress, for its part, is virtually certain to be increasingly skeptical that administration policy is on the right track, assurances notwithstanding.

Despite some successes, recent developments in El Salvador are not encouraging. A handful of top government officials linked to right-wing death squad activities have been disciplined in one way or another - but the surface has barely been scratched. By best estimates only a minority of the people support the government. And the Army, whose success is essential if the determined guerrillas are to be staved off, has been dispirited of late. It has just suffered two devastating defeats with the capture of a fort and the destruction of a vital bridge it was supposed to be protecting.

No doubt that Army, like any military force, could use additional arms and training. But neither is the real problem: It is poor morale. What is needed is deep and major structural reform of the military, with removal not only of many generals but also large numbers of the upper-middle Army officers. Many of these not only are linked to the death squads, but also are poor military leaders - hardly what is needed to raise soldiers' morale.

Below this level are many young officers with good military training, progressive ideas, and the likely ability to produce an effective fighting force. Their progress in the Army should be insisted upon. They are a major asset: They could be tomorrow's leaders of the military and of the nation.

In recent decades the Salvadorean Army usually has contained a similar group of able and forward-looking junior officers. On occasion - as in 1979 - they have surfaced briefly to lead the nation. But determined opposition from the powerful right wing has undone them. A challenge this time is to see that they are allowed to move forward into positions of longer-term leadership.

In regard to Army reform the Reagan administration is making an effort. A month ago Vice-President George Bush went to El Salvador with a list of military officers, linked to terrorist activities, whom he demanded be removed before the US increased military aid. The Salvadorean government has refused to take action on this list. It may feel the US has no alternative but to continue its support anyway.

It is a difficult position for the Reagan administration, but it should persist in demanding deep military reform - anything less would be insufficient. If this were accomplished, the military could be expected to be more effective, and much of the right-wing terrorism would be ended.

These two developments could be expected ultimately to have a favorable impact in the countryside, where the majority of the people now support neither government nor guerrillas and want only to be left alone. Under the right conditions they might be more helpful to government forces.

One more point the Reagan administration should insist upon: stepped-up efforts at land reform. This, too, is important in gaining peasant support for the Salvadorean government.

The need is urgent for major reform in all three areas: Army, human rights, and land reform. It will require steady and immense pressure from the Reagan administration - a process which apparently began with the Bush visit - for success to be achieved.

If it is, then additional military and economic aid will be justified. The Salvadorean government will have shown that it is moving in directions which can bring success, and it will need the extra financial resources.

But unless these changes are made, there is no point in increasing aid, and Congress might even reduce it. The money would be wasted in supporting a cause that is likely to lose. The oligarchic few cannot continue to rule, often by terror, the many who do not support them - in the face of attacks from a disciplined leftist force.

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