Backsliding in El Salvador

The failure last week of both sides in El Salvador’s civil war to honor a Christmas cease-fire is further evidence that the conflict is still in serious stalemate and has settled into a war of attrition that will not soon end.

President Jose Napoleon Duarte announced on Christmas Eve that the government had agreed to a proposal by the local Roman Catholic Church for a 10-day cease-fire. Spokesmen for the rebels also agreed to the truce. It now appears, however, that military operations--even heavy aerial bombardment--were carried out over Christmas.

Predictably, guerrilla leaders said that the army broke the truce, and Salvadoran army spokesmen blamed the rebels. But the army’s explanation was undercut by field commanders in three areas of heavy fighting, who told news correspondents that the high command in San Salvador did not tell them of any truce. It will be hard for the Reagan Administration to put a good face on the situation, because something is very wrong. Either the general staff’s ability to control its forces is over-rated, or the ability of Duarte to make his generals obey orders has been oversold. The latter seems more likely, for two reasons.

Duarte weakened himself politically last October when his government froze while he personally negotiated with the rebels who had kidnaped his daughter. The perception that his family’s well-being outweighed the nation’s seemed to be confirmed when Duarte sent the rest of his own family out of the country to safety.


But even before the kidnaping incident Duarte was having a hard time bringing El Salvador’s generals under control. Any civilian leader would have faced that problem after 50 years of military government in El Salvador, but Duarte’s troubles were compounded by the United States. Key advisers in the White House and the State Department believe that the Salvadoran civil war is winnable, so the Administration continues to pour military aid into the country rather than trying to prod Duarte to renew last year’s peace talks with the rebels. Again the result is a stronger hand for the military while civilian leaders look ineffectual.

The folly of this strategy is that there is no convincing evidence that the civil war can be won by either side--at least not without an unthinkable human cost. Despite reports that the army is more aggressively pursuing the guerrillas, the rebels still control large sections of the countryside, with at least passive support from the peasant population there. And, as fighting continues, leadership of the rebel side has passed from moderate civilians to hard-line Marxists who share the army’s illusion that a battlefield victory is possible. Between those extremes lies even more bloodshed in El Salvador, and further destruction of an already-ravaged countryside.