Al-Nusra Front fighters in the town of Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib province, Syria. (Al-Nusra Front Twitter page via AP)

“After nearly fifteen years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States is seeking to reorient its approach to counterinsurgency,” the political scientist Walter C. Ladwig III writes in a new paper in International Security. Rather than intervening directly, Washington wants to provide aid and advice to local governments. But the aims of local governments often differ wildly from those of the United States. To local regimes obsessed with maintaining power, Ladwig writes, Washington’s standard prescriptions for reform — “streamlining the military chain of command, ending patronage politics, engaging in economic reform, or embracing disaffected minority groups” — may be as threatening as the insurgency itself.

Using U.S. support to El Salvador during the country’s 12-year civil war as a case study, Ladwig evaluates Washington’s two main strategies for influencing local governments. In a recent conversation, Ladwig explained what these are, which one works best, and what lessons El Salvador offers for U.S. foreign policy today.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

NL & SWL: How does your new paper fit into the broader scholarship on counterinsurgency?

WL: Most U.S. counterinsurgency efforts after World War II have involved either working with or supporting a local government. But local governments have their own interests and priorities that don’t always necessarily match those of the United States. That observation should not be surprising to anyone who studies politics, yet it doesn’t make its way into much of the literature on counterinsurgency. Most of the scholarship focuses on the British and the French experiences during the Cold War [in places like Malaysia and Algeria]. But the British and the French never had the same problem that Americans do. For them, the local government was the colonial government, so they could implement their goals in a way that the United States has never been able to emulate. I wanted to look more deeply at the U.S. experience, to understand how the United States seeks to manage and influence its partners.

NL & SWL: How does it do so?

WL: It has two broad approaches. Under the inducement approach, the U.S. government gives a country significant amounts of aid to bolster the confidence of the local government, leading them to trust that the United States will support them as they undertake what may be painful or difficult reforms. This tends to be the approach favored by the military and the Department of Defense.

The conditionality approach ties the giving of aid to specific actions that the United States wants to see the local government undertaking. Here, the relationship between the United States and the local government is more ambiguous. The United States does not praise the local government lavishly or publicly, nor does it give the local government a sense that it will always be there for support. Its backing comes with conditions.

In the paper, I looked at both of those strategies in El Salvador, an ideal testing ground because the United States has switched back and forth between the two in its dealings with the country. On balance, I found that the conditionality approach leads to greater compliance by the local government with the reforms and strategies that the United States wants to pursue. Inducement, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to engender any reciprocity on the part of the local government.

NL & SWL: What was going on in El Salvador?

WL: El Salvador has always had a lot of problems. It’s the smallest country in Central America, and it’s fairly ethnically homogeneous. But it had a landed ruling elite that controlled the agricultural means of production. The landed oligarchy controlled the export crops, like coffee and sugar. In the 1930s, there was a large-scale communist rebellion that the army forcibly put down by slaughtering tens of thousands of people. That led to a de facto alliance between the upper-middle classes and the army, where from the 1930s through the late 1970s, with one or two minor exceptions, the army ruled the country.

Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, Catholic and Protestant missionary groups went out into the countryside and organized religious communities among the peasantry that led to the formation of peasants’ unions and itinerant agricultural workers’ unions. You also saw an increasing politicization of young people and students. And then came some pretty severe economic shocks. In the late 1970s, the price of coffee collapsed, which created instability in the countryside. But it also brought an increasing revolutionary fervor — insurgent groups began organizing in the countryside, building mass movements and armed guerrilla groups. By the end of 1979, after the revolution in neighboring Nicaragua, it seemed clear that El Salvador would be the next country to undergo a massive social revolution.

NL & SWL: How was the United States involved?

WL: In 1979, to prevent a revolution, a group of reform-minded junior officers overthrew the government and formed a civilian-led junta that tried to enact some social reforms. Most of the rest of the army went along with the coup to head off revolution, but then another army faction seized control of the military from the reform-minded officers. You then had a civilian junta that was committed to reform with an army that was partly committed to reform and partly committed to repression.

This is when the Carter administration steps in to try to protect the reformers. It began using a conditionality strategy to push for elections. That strategy was fairly successful. When Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in a landslide in 1980, however, a lot of people in El Salvador assumed that because he was a Republican and a noted anti-communist, he would ignore all the reform efforts and just give the military all the guns and money they needed. This wasn’t the case at all. Despite Reagan’s public bluster, his administration saw reform as a key part of arresting the insurgency in El Salvador.

But the Reagan administration was very much of the mind-set that you don’t publicly berate allies, nor do you threaten and withhold assistance from them. You work with them, you persuade them, you influence them. So they switched from a conditionality strategy to an inducement strategy. They believed that assisting and building up the confidence of the Salvadoran government would encourage it to heed U.S. advice.

NL & SWL: Were they right?

WL: By 1983, the Reagan administration had to accept that their strategy wasn’t working. So they began to move back toward a conditionality approach, like the one Carter had initiated. Most notably, at the end of 1983, Vice President George H.W. Bush is dispatched to El Salvador on a secret mission, where he delivers an ultimatum about reforms that have to happen if U.S. aid is to continue. This leads to a period of political reform, culminating in the election in 1984 of Napoleon Duarte as the first democratically elected president of El Salvador.

In this period of good feelings, both the Reagan administration and Congress no longer feel the need to keep pressing El Salvador for reform. For the most part, they drop conditions on assistance, and from the middle of the 1980s to the end of the decade, the United States moves back to a de facto inducement strategy. As a result, reforms halt in El Salvador and there’s a backsliding into political violence. It’s only toward the end of the decade, into the early 1990s, with the new Bush administration, that there’s a desire to bring the war to an end. The White House puts conditions back on aid to El Salvador to force the government to negotiate with the insurgents and investigate and prosecute the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests [and their housekeeper and her daughter] in San Salvador. And again, we see that the conditionality strategy leads to a relatively high degree of compliance with U.S. goals.

NL & SWL: Why does conditionality work better than inducement, in general and in the specific case of El Salvador?

WL: In general, inducement does not appear to encourage reciprocity. Forcing governments to comply, rather than simply hoping that they will share your interests, is what drives reform forward. The El Salvador government was quite desperate for aid, and the United States held their feet to the fire and exploited their weakness. If you’re someone sitting in the Department of Defense or maybe in the State Department, you may think that’s not the right way to treat a partner government. But it’s a good way to get the local government to take your interests and goals seriously.

NL & SWL: Has that been the case in places other than El Salvador? In your forthcoming book, you discuss the United States’ experience in the Philippines and in Vietnam.

WL: Yes. The other case studies are a little more straightforward. In the Philippines in the late 1940s and early 1950s, even though the Philippines was a former U.S. protectorate and very important, strategically, to the U.S. government, the United States only employed a strategy of conditionality to force the Philippine government to reform. It never tried inducement.

Conversely, in the early years of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, before the United States intervened with ground troops, the United States almost exclusively used inducements to try to persuade the local Vietnamese government to reform (despite some efforts by the local ambassador and others to push for conditions on aid). And it led to nought. In general, there’s not much support for inducement and plenty for conditionality.

NL & SWL: Can that lesson be applied to current U.S. foreign policy?

WL: Definitely. The United States has to recognize that if it is going to influence a country, it will have to send some tough messages. Pakistan offers a prototypical example. The United States has provided tons of aid to Pakistan since September 11th, and it has continually tried to encourage or cajole Pakistan to crack down on sanctuaries for the Afghan Taliban and to stop providing support for groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba. It wasn’t until the late 2000s that Congress began to put any conditions on aid to Pakistan. At first, this was done on a small scale. In 2009, only about 10 percent of military aid was tied to compliance with U.S. goals, which wasn’t enough to pressure Pakistan into taking action. In 2011, Congress took a much bolder step and applied conditions to all non-humanitarian assistance to Pakistan, but the conditions were so broad that Pakistan could always be said to be making progress. Just as Reagan continually subverted the congressional conditions on aid to keep money flowing to El Salvador in the early 1980s, the Obama administration has evoked national security interests to avoid having to suspend aid to Pakistan.

At the moment, because of the British and French roots of U.S. counterinsurgency thinking, there just isn’t a recognition that a local government can be a potential obstacle.  In the 2006 “Counterinsurgency Field Manual,” it says things like, “Make strong public statements of support for the local government,” “continually reaffirm your commitment to the local government,” and so forth. But when you bolster the confidence of local governments, you undercut your ability to make credible threats to withhold aid. If the president of the United States is on TV saying that the survival of this or that local government is of vital national interest, that same government is unlikely to believe him or her when he or she says, “If you don’t implement a certain reform, we’re cutting off your aid.”