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Death Squads in El Salvador, the Taliban in Afghanistan: a Diplomat’s Challenges

American Foreign Service Officer Todd Greentree served in El Salvador from 1981-82, a time when violence from local “death squads” was at its peak.  He also served in Afghanistan from 2008-2012, the height of what was then termed the Global War on Terror.  Greentree’s oral history describes first-hand the dangers of living as a diplomat in conflict zones, and discusses the impact of conflict on his everyday life while working abroad.  His work included encounters with Oliver North in Central America and close collaboration with the U.S. military’s “Stryker Brigade” in Afghanistan.  Greentree was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in May of 2014.

Read Todd Greentree’s full oral history HERE.


“When I first arrived the death squad killings and things were at their peak.”  

Life as a junior officer in El Salvador when death squad killings were at their peak:  “Well, it was an extremely beautiful country and was at war. When I first arrived the death squad killings and things were at their peak . . . there was a lot of danger and you had to be extremely careful. There was a good security officer and basic facility security was fine, if vulnerable. But as the junior officer, I took advantage of what I felt was a certain degree of expendability that allowed me much greater freedom of movement than would be the case today. One of the things that I did regularly was get out into the countryside and report on the security situation, which included accompanying combat operations and this sort of thing. I made numerous overland trips that I today would never even think about. On several occasions I crossed over guerilla lines and saw life from the other side.”

“Ollie North? Oh yeah, I knew Ollie North well.”

On consulting with Oliver North in El Salvador:  “Ollie North? Oh yeah, I knew Ollie North well . . . were always consulting with Ollie North. The diplomacy was very connected to the Nicaraguan Contras. And Ollie liked to pick my brain because I knew El Salvador. I went back to El Salvador for two months a year after I had left. Tom Pickering was the ambassador, and he had me come back down and do a one-year retrospective on what had changed and whether the policy was working. One of the reasons I say I escaped to Brazil was because I thought that all the funny business that was going on with the Contra Enterprise, as they called it, was way out of line and I wanted just to get the hell away from Central America . . . I had a number of offers to continue in Central America for my next assignment, but thought Ollie North and all of those people who were involved in keeping the Contra program alive were going overboard. I got out and went to Brazil didn’t have an action role, but I knew all the players and much that was going on. I had caught the beginnings of the Contra program when I was in El Salvador and so was not just reading into the program.”

“They were called the Kill Team”

On working with the U.S. Military’s Stryker Brigade: “The main activity with 5-2 Stryker was a long operation to take back Arghandab District. It was just to the north of Kandahar, the traditional gateway of the city, and had been under Taliban control for several years. This was the center of offensive operations at that time. There were a lot of American casualties and accusations of overaggressive use of force. New counterinsurgency rules of engagement that were more restrictive had just come into force, but they didn’t fit well in a place like Arghandab. The big lesson I took away was, it would take about two years to reestablish normalcy after the first operations. If you multiplied that time figure by the level of forces that we had in there, even at the height of the surge, it was going to take at least four to five years to maintain that progress and extend it to the rest of the South. In other words, because the surge only lasted for 18 months, there was never ever enough time to make it work.

Strykers are big eight-wheel light armored vehicles intended to be the forefront of infantry movement. The original versions were flat bottomed, so the Taliban quickly learned to make 55 huge IEDs that would detonate when the Strykers rolled over them. There were several catastrophic kills that killed all the crewmen. That was one issue. At that time. Kandahar was a NATO command and was rotating annually among NATO nations with troops in the province. The commander had been Dutch and now was a British officer who was much more concerned that American forces stop operating semi-independently. But here you had a situation where you had more American forces under command of British and Canadians, who actually had fewer forces. You had this command asymmetry. The 5-2 Stryker got a reputation of being overaggressive. They got caught up in some unfortunate incidents, particularly one where one of the NCOs (non-commissioned officer) turned out to be a sociopath who intimidated members of his team to go around killing Afghan civilians. They were called The Kill Team.”

Drafted by Tyler Ventura