As America grapples with the challenge of radical Islam and the consequences of disaster in Iraq, strategy and policy analysis of the United States experience in Central America at the end of the Cold War offers important lessons that advance our understanding of irregular warfare and counsels prudence regarding the costs and risks of military intervention.
The challenges that vex the United States today in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere are not altogether as new and unique as they seem. U.S. involvement in Central America during the 1980s clearly demonstrated the costs, risks, and limits to intervention and the use of force in internal conflicts. Much can be learned today about the nature of irregular warfare from the experiences of the United States and the other protagonists in Central America during the final phase of the Cold War. The U.S. perceived a threat to national security in these wars from determined insurgents with a compelling revolutionary ideology and powerful allies that linked them to other conflicts around the world. This strategy and policy analysis makes a new contribution to irregular warfare theory through an examination of the origins, strategic dynamics, and termination of the Sandinista insurrection in Nicaragua, the decade long counterinsurgency of the Salvadoran government against the FMLN guerrillas, and the concurrent Contra insurgency against the Sandinistas.
Many of the lessons about the fundamental and recurring nature of irregular warfare are being rediscovered in the current challenges of radical Islam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, despite the great differences in circumstance, culture, and geography. In the Central American case, three successive Presidents encountered serious domestic controversy over U.S. policies and refrained from sending U.S. combat troops to intervene directly. Most importantly, they prudently heeded warnings that internal wars of all types are rarely subject to military solutions, because their natures are equally and fundamentally political. Greentree presents his argument as a strategy and policy case study of the civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador during the final decade of the Cold War. The book comprises an examination of the origins, strategic dynamics, and termination of these wars from the points of view of the main participants—Nicaragua, El Salvador, Cuba, the Soviet Union, and the United States. It also develops a general conceptual framework for understanding the nature of insurgency, counterinsurgency, revolution, and intervention that builds on classic strategic theory and contemporary thought on irregular warfare. From the perspective of global superpower conflict, the wars in Central America were peripheral small wars or low intensity conflicts. However, for the internal protagonists these were total and bloody wars for survival. Involvement in such wars has been cyclical in the U.S. experience, and it is misfortunate, if not tragic, that the greatly similar problems encountered across widely varying circumstances are quickly forgotten.