A devastating attack by leftist guerrillas on a major Army base Tuesday is a reminder to both Salvadoreans and Washington that El Salvador's military is not close to winning the seven-year civil war, as the military has been predicting. The surprise attack, which killed an American adviser and scores of Salvadorean soldiers, was apparently timed to commemorate the founding 17 years ago of the Popular Forces of Liberation, the oldest guerrilla group. It comes as the rebels are increasing their mid-level attacks.
Political analysts and diplomats say that although the increase in rebel activity does not signal a shift in the war, it does underscore the fact that the Army is incapable of defeating the insurgency in the short term, despite massive military aid from the United States. The US has given El Salvador $2 billion in economic and military aid in the last six years.
The 51,000-man Salvadorean Army, trained, financed, and advised by the US, has proved unable to check the guerrillas, estimated at less than 10,000 men.
And the US Embassy, which several years ago predicted that the guerrillas would be relegated to the most remote parts of the country and reduced to banditry, has had to revise its estimates.
Now, according to visiting congressional delegations, the US Embassy is currently comparing the Salvadorean insurgency to the one in Malaysia, which took the British 14 years to defeat. The US Embassy is predicting that it will take another six to eight years to end El Salvador's insurgency. But many independent observers say even this forecast is overly optimistic.
Although the Salvadorean Army consistently says that it is moving toward victory over the rebels, many observers say this is part of the Army's psychological operations or, as other observers call it, ``blatant propaganda.''
A week before the El Paraiso attack, the colonel in charge of the eastern part of Chalatenango Province took journalists on a junket that was intended to show that the Army maintains control throughout the province. Col. Jes'us Caceres told the reporters that the rebels' presence in the area had diminished. But local residents say the rebels' presence has actually increased in the last two years.
The Army said recently that its Operation Phoenix was successful in getting the guerrillas off the flanks of the Guazapa Volcano. But the Army still frequently bombs the volcano. And lower-level Army sources say the rebels are active again on the volcano, although in smaller numbers and without the extensive infrastructure they previously had.
``It's alarming, the difference between what's going on in the countryside and the way the government presents it,'' one Western European diplomat said. ``The guerrillas are much more active and successful than you would ever guess listening to the Army and the government. When the let-down comes, it will be bad.''
``There doesn't seem to be any sign of the government being able to win the war either militarily or politically. It doesn't seem any closer now than it did two or three years ago,'' the diplomat adds.
The discrepancy between the Army's official claims of steady victory and apparant problems with the war has given rise to a certain credibility gap among some sectors.
``I wouldn't want to believe that they are not telling the truth or not saying things to calm us and make us believe that in two years everything will be back to normal,'' says an influential conservative businessman about the Army's continued predictions that it will have the guerrillas under control in two years.
El Paraiso was first attacked in December 1983, after two years of increasing guerrilla strength. But in 1984, the initiative shifted to the Army, which was aided by a rapid increase in air power and improved leadership. The guerrillas were forced to break up into small, harder-to-detect units that hurt their offensive capabilities.
The guerrillas adapted by using land mines, which have caused the Army heavy casualties, and by relying on ambushes. The rebels have periodically launched larger attacks. Since last December, however, they have stepped up the tempo of mid-level attacks across the country. In January, for the first time, guerrilla highway stoppages froze traffic not only in the eastern and northern part of the country but also in the relatively quiet western part.