Current world powers invest a great deal of resources, whether it be highly-trained human intelligence, expensive surveillance gadgets, or massive appropriations, to counterinsurgency operations. This is due to both the intrinsic difficulties of such an undertaking and the modern trend of democratic nation building. Modern nation-states are wise to pay careful attention to this component of their geopolitical grand strategy as counterinsurgency is notoriously difficult due to the inherent advantages that insurgencies have over “occupiers.”1 One of the most salient examples of this difficulty, during the Twentieth Century, is the Algerian War of 1954-1962. The uprising in the former French territory serves as a lasting lesson as to what is both effective and ineffective to end an insurgency and restore political stability. Moreover, the operational lessons learned from France’s experience in Algeria are accompanied by political lessons and important, universal ethical questions, like cultural imperialism and torture, that make the legacy of Algerian War applicable to this day.
Since the difficulties of the occupation of Iraq following the Second Gulf War became apparent throughout the world, comparisons have been made to the French counterinsurgency experience in Algerian. Henry Kissinger successfully convinced, then-president, George W. Bush to read Alistair Horne’s monograph on the Algerian War, A Savage War of Peace. Unfortunately for the United States this recommendation did not take place until late 2006.2 While there are useful comparisons between the current counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq it must be remembered that there are also significant differences which may be more misleading than anything else. Therefore, the purpose of this paper will be to compare and contrast the two conflicts, using each to elucidate the relevance the Algerian War still has in terms of counterinsurgency operations in the Middle East to this day.
However, beyond the practical military lessons that scholarship of the Algerian War provide, there exists a legacy or a collective, lasting perception that has its own effects. News reports, works of history, government documents, and movies have all left their impact on the memory and perception of the Algerian War. More important than the lessons that can be derived from the counterinsurgency operations carried out once conflict erupted are the lessons that can be learned from cultural interaction, and other humanitarian operations that may preemptively diffuse superfluous violence. One finds that modern nation-states tend to focus on the former rather than the latter.
On 1 November, 1954, groups of armed Algerian separatists attacked military and government targets all over Algeria. To provide the context for the violence the FLN (Front De Liberation Nationale) broadcast a coherent and logically appealing communiqué, revealing the ideological impetus for the violence. “Goal: National independence through… [the] …restoration of the Algerian state, sovereign, democratic, and social, within the framework of the principles of Islam…. “3 The FLN and its allies wanted nothing less than full, autonomous sovereignty. Almost two weeks later the Mendes-France administration responded, “One does not compromise when it comes to defending the internal peace of the nation, the unity and the integrity of the Republic.”4 This rebuttal was a clear indication that France was defining Algeria as a part of the Republic, thus seeing it as a domestic issue. The two opposing premises regarding the sovereignty status of Algeria were mutually exclusive which meant that no common ground could be met, essentially leaving the French with two options: withdraw and lose Algeria or destroy the FLN and secure permanent political stability. Mendes-France set the tone for the next five years; France was going to fight.
Defining conflicts and objectives were essential to prosecuting the Algerian War, just as it is today in modern unconventional war. Modern governments, wary of historical lessons like Algeria, realize the need for a dynamic response capability when approaching different brands of conflict. Conventional warfare, guerrilla warfare, counterinsurgency, terrorism, and transnational treaty enforcement all present a wide array of challenges. As is seen in the several problematic or failed counterinsurgency efforts by ostensibly superior forces during the Twentieth Century, more hardware and “boots on the ground” will not necessarily translate into real victory. The phrase “real victory” is meant to imply that a military victory is only “real” if bracketed by viable, long-term political stability. As was witnessed in Algeria, a military victory was achieved but the overall objective was not met. After all, the French Fourth Republic itself collapsed after a military victory in Algeria. Military victories are not necessarily real victories if the objective is to remain in political control of an area. Therefore, a clear comprehension of the primary objective by the counterinsurgency force is paramount. The French became too focused on military victory and, neglecting the issue of long-term political stability, followed a strategy that could not achieve their progressively shrouded primary objective.
The very same problem of conflict definition that has plagued counterinsurgency operations from their inception continues today. The current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not really wars at all. Laymen to the field of geopolitics tend to falsely define the term “war” as any scenario in which soldiers are being killed by opposing forces, regardless of who those forces are fighting for. An extremely important issue for foreign policy makers over the last quarter-century has been the need to simply define different forms of conflict.5 War, for all intents and purposes is defined as military conflict between two or more states. Therefore, the current fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are examples of counterinsurgencies rather than wars. This is crucial because the nature of the conflict is entirely different depending on the type of conflict it is. This issue of pseudo-definition represents a parallel between the current Iraq counterinsurgency and that of the French in Algeria. Just like the French, who initially refused to acknowledge that there was a massive amount of the Algerian population who shared the ideology of the FLN regarding the desire to be politically autonomous, U.S. policy makers refused to acknowledge that those committing violence after the conventional campaign in Iraq had concluded were anything more than “dead-enders and terrorists.”6 This represents a massive operational crisis as it leads to a military being trained to fight an enemy of a different character than the actual character of the opposing force. While this is directly relevant to the French situation in Algeria, the French example is of a more nebulous nature.
The French refusal to acknowledge the political implications of the perceptions of Muslim Algerians had deleterious affects on the mission to pacify Algeria. However, the definition of “French,” in this context, can be divided into multiple groups. The administration in Paris, French citizens residing in France, the French Army, and the French citizens (commonly of other European descent) residing in Algeria, also known as Pied Noirs,were all part of the “French” entity. However, they were rarely, if ever, in agreement as how best to pacify Algeria. In fact, it can be argued that without the obstinate behavior of the Pied Noirs a much more agreeable peace settlement could have been reached. Much of the blame for the French failure in Algeria must go to the Pied Noirs. These Europeans living in Algeria were themselves a diverse group of people. They were from all across Europe and relocated to Algeria for a range of reasons. As a result, they are difficult to coherently evaluate as a group. However, it can be said that, as a group, they had cornered all of the political and economic power in Algeria for themselves and away from the Algerians and resisted all attempts to raise the Arab’s social status.7 Many of the policies that these Pied Noirs instituted and fought to uphold were hypocritical and racist.8
The promulgation of these laws, naturally created a rift between brown and white. This rift was ripe for exploitation by nationalist Algerians like the FLN. So, along two paths interwoven by physical proximity the Pied Noirs and the Muslim Algerians inched closer and closer to a violent collision. The former looked at the latter with arrogant indifference, as a mere tool for which the colons (synonym for Pied Noirs) to exploit, while the native Algerians became increasingly interested in the more honorable scenario of political self determination. France made the mistake of arrogantly assuming its own culture as qualitatively superior to the existing Beduoin culture, present long before Modern French ideals made their way across the Western Mediterranean. The mistake of believing that building bridges, establishing western education to disseminate western ideals, and creating modern employment opportunities, would make the Algerians content in the long-run is a latent example of cultural imperialism. The rhetoric coming from Paris, that Algerians were French too, simply did not match with the reality on the ground in Algeria. Arabs and Berbers were treated with contempt as if they were subhuman.9 Even if the French government realized the dislocation between its rhetoric and reality, they failed to properly evaluate the potential dissent it would create. This would explain why such rhetoric, intended to promote artificial solidarity with native Algerians, essentially fell on deaf ears. As will be discussed later, Algerians interpreted indiscriminate attacks on civilians by the French military and vigilante pied noirs as a confirmation of the popularly held beliefs that the French, regardless of which side of the Mediterranean they dwelled, had contempt for them.
While the lesson of French cultural arrogance and its deleterious consequences for counterinsurgency operations seem very conspicuous and applicable today, there are apparently enough individuals working for western powers, in decision making positions, who are ignorant, whether innocently or willfully, of these lessons. As will be discussed below, there are several modern examples of operations that duplicate the mistakes of the past. Study after study has been done by political scientists and strategic think-tanks which plainly list cultural arrogance as a prominent factor in many inter-cultural insurgencies. In the introduction to Insurgency in the Modern World Bard O’Neill states that
“For many insurgent leaders, popular support is an overriding strategic consideration… In those situations where external nations…exert tremendous influence through international economic networks (neoimperialism), … the insurgents will frequently merge powerfully enticing nationalist themes with esoteric and exoteric appeals. Relying on a formulation such as Lenin’s theory of imperialism, they will identify the external enemy as the source of national deprivations.”10
The inclusion of cultural arrogance only serves to aggravate this issue for counterinsurgent forces.
The pride of many Muslims had been assaulted by the colons for centuries. As early as 1847, Alex de Tocqueville said to the French National Assembly, “we have rendered Muslim society much more miserable and much more barbaric than it was before it became acquainted with us.”11 William Polk, a political science author and former advisor of American foreign policy in the Middle East, who was sent to Algeria in the 1960’s noted that he “found that Algerians were so totally excluded from the colon economy that even ‘mom and pop’ laundries and bakeries were European monopolies.”12 The French plea to Algerians, meant to stem the tide of dissent, that Algeria was a part of France did not correlate to the economic and social realities witnessed on the ground in the North African country. The failure of the French policy makers to appreciate this disparity was disastrous.
Perhaps the key flashpoint in the Algerian War, which permanently alienated the Algerians was the massacre at Phillipeville, in which approximately 12,000 Algerians were slaughtered. This massacre was done as a reprisal for an earlier gruesome attack on French civilians. Alistair Horne described it as “Muslims of both sexes swarmed the streets in a state of frenzied, fanatical euphoria. Grenades were thrown indiscriminately into cafes, passing European motorists [were] dragged from their vehicles and slashed to death with knives or even razors.”13 This obviously outraged the French public, causing a demand for retaliation which immediately followed. French soldiers were essentially ordered to kill any Arabs they found outside of their dwellings. The motivation of the French soldiers to carry out these orders was undoubtedly fueled by the carnage unleashed by those they were ordered to kill. A soldier stationed close by reported seeing an old woman’s head being kicked in by Arab children. French soldiers immediately shot down everyone close to the body, children included.14 The vigilante actions taken by pied noirs following the initial military response were much more severe. Naturally, the Algerians tended to view the reprisal as unjustified, and as another example of imperialist bullying. The reprisal permanently aligned most of the remaining moderate Algerians with the FLN. If this example in history had been appropriately respected, the repercussions of this decision likely would not have reoccurred during Operation Iraqi Freedom over four decades later.
During the Summer of 2003, the city of Fallujah, located in central Iraq, became internationally important as it was the setting of a extremely violent episode in the Iraq counterinsurgency. Tension had already been building up steadily in the city since a recent redeployment of forces there in April. On 28 April a unit of soldiers from the 82nd Airborne, who claimed they were fired on by individuals within a crowd of Fallujahn protesters, returned fire, killing fifteen people.15 This jump-started a series of escalatory acts of violence, increasing tensions between occupier and occupied (chiefly from the latter) until, on March 31st, insurgents killed four private security contractors, mutilated their bodies and hung them from a bridge. When the global media broadcast these images the American public became outraged. The following day a general in the U.S. Army promised an “overwhelming” response.16 U.S. forces proceeded to surround the city and attempt to remove the insurgents hiding within. Naturally, since the fighting was done inside of a densely populated city, hundreds of civilian casualties occurred.17 Just like Philippeville, the response of the U.S. forces was seen as heavy handed, and regardless of the U.S. perspective that all actions were justified, a large contingent of Iraqi people saw it as evidence of bad intentions from an invading occupier. Things deteriorated precipitously for U.S. forces following the failed capture of Fallujah in the Summer of 2003. Furthermore, the exponential increase in the number of attacks created the perception, in the minds of American citizens, that things were going very badly in Iraq. The originally marginal anti-war groups gained support and eventually grew into prevalent significance. Any democracy must have, as a prerequisite, popular support to sustain a war or occupation. The Iraqi insurgency, just as the FLN did before, recognized the importance of external political pressure (meaning pressure from outside of Iraq in this case) and lured their powerful occupier under the damning light of international opinion.
Abraham Lincoln’s famous maxim, “A nation divided against itself cannot stand,“ is especially applicable when applied to counterinsurgencies. For example, adding to the difficulty of ending the FLN insurgency was the failing to reign in the vigilante pied noirs. Raymond Millen, the director of regional security affairs for the Strategic Studies Institute of the Army War College, said that “pied noir political pressure on the French government also played a major part in the conflict, and its political power in all matters concerning Algeria cannot be overstated.”18 What Miller was alluding to was the fact that those comprising French Government were experiencing an essentially rotating membership during the war as the government changed seven times, which allowed pier noir political influence to aggrandize itself by simply remaining contiguous.19 The “freeze-and-thaw” weathering of the government’s ability to check pied noir prerogative, eventually, made it impossible to effectively hold on to Algeria.
Today, as democracies are under the microscope of world opinion, (a world opinion generally hostile to war in all but the most obviously necessary scenarios) states have to consider the potential long-term perception of its own populace when deciding whether or not a war is executable. France lost Algeria because of domestic politics and world perception despite its military victory over the FLN. Insurgencies, since even before Mao, have only needed to survive long enough to let the exterior factors of public opinion and political pressure take over. Much like in World War II Yugoslavia when Tito’s strategy was simply waiting on Allied forces to eventually relieve him, modern insurgents only need wait on the very populace of the nations who are occupying them to demand a change, either in the voting booth or the streets.
One of the salient memories that shapes the legacy of the Algerian War and how it effects the debate on counterinsurgencies today is that of the torturing of Algerians for the purpose of gathering information. Torture was justified and seems to have greatly enhanced the ability for French authorities to gain a valuable picture of the organization they were up against.20
The debate on torture is a very hot topic in today’s world. The new Obama administration has reversed the former policy of ambiguity to the press regarding the methods of interrogation of suspected terrorists, which is still seen as necessary by many intelligence experts. This is, in part, was caused by the experience of Abu Ghraib. During the current Iraq occupation, the methods of torture used in the Abu Ghraib detention center were light relative to those used by the French during the Battle of Algiers but the growing outrage towards torture reflects a shift in perception as to what is appropriate or inappropriate when interrogating prisoners of an insurgency. During the Battle of Algiers several methods of torture which have since been condemned were used prevalently. Again the issue of definition is key to this dilemma. What was acceptable? What made a certain method of causing discomfort unacceptable and another acceptable? During the Algerian War, a senior civil servant endorsed certain forms of torture, rationalizing them as effective and “no more brutal than deprivation of food, drink, and tobacco, which is always been accepted.”21 The methods this civil servant accepted were “The water and electricity methods, provided they are carefully used…” He reasoned that they were “said to produce a shock which is more psychological than physical and therefore do not constitute excessive cruelty.”22 There was also the method of “suspending two men completely naked by their feet, their hands bound behind their backs and plunging their heads for a long time into a bucket of water to make them talk.”23
The debate of torture is centered on whether or not the end justifies the means. In the case of the French “paras” the end was multifaceted. On a personal level, soldiers wanted the war to be over. On a national level they were sick of losing wars and were likely more inclined to do whatever it took to reverse this. Additionally, there was the element of eye for eye as the FLN had a terrible human rights record itself. The FLN had admitted repeatedly to having targeted women and children. This, naturally made the French less sympathetic to Algerian separatists. The issue remains similar today but with different actors. Perhaps even more difficult to answer is the question, “Is torture justifiable if it can thwart an attack on civilians?” The images of this war, through film and news reports, left their mark on the torture debate. Powerful images of old, fragile Algerians being tortured in the film The Battle Of Algiers had a huge impact on the collective perception of torture, and moreover, imperialism.
While there are several nationalist films about the Algerian conflict, most are of a propagandist nature.24 The Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo presented both sides of the story in a realist, amoral perspective. Short of declaring the film completely unbiased, which it is not, Pontecorvo’s film, especially considering FLN’s willingness to cooperate with it its production, is surprisingly fair. However, there are several scenes of pied noir violence directed at clearly innocent Algerians while the number of scenes involving Algerian violence towards colons is less than half as much. But to his credit, Pontecorvo includes a scene in which Algerian women bomb crowded places of entertainment, purposely targeting women and children. In fact, the director obviously emphasized that the victims were “normal people” as they are simply enjoying themselves in a public place of entertainment.25 There is also a scene in which supposed FLN members randomly gun down colons in the street and the implication is that this is a random attack based on race. Also during the film, when a pied noir mob beats up an Arab boy during a horse race, a French policeman comes to his rescue.26 One salient problem in determining The Battle of Algiers’ “fairness” is its treatment of pied noirs. A scene showing the pied noirs in a positive manner simply does not exist in the movie. While they are shown as immediately innocent in many of the scenes, they are never shown doing anything which can honestly be categorized as benevolent.
Whether done explicitly or implicitly, the film tends to show the hopelessness of counterinsurgency. The Battle of Algiers realistically showed the seemingly deterministic escalation of conflict of a insurgency. The nature and scale of the violence increased until the FLN was effectively choked of its operational capability. But the film presented the eventual victory of Algerian separatists in such a fashion that made it appear the military victory was erroneous. Pontecorvo had spent most of his film showing how the French slowly exterminated the FLN. The perception of progress was abruptly washed away by a seemingly random conflagration. The streets suddenly fill with unruly Algerians who refuse to disperse. The chronological proximity between this scene and the scene involving the ostensible, final destruction of the FLN, without any interpolated causation, must have been unsettling for those counterinsurgency planners in attendance during the Pentagon viewing discussed below.27
One operational topic, in which the French seemed prescient, is the tactics they immediately employed. The French did not initially approach the situation as a strictly conventional military issue. This was perhaps deterministic because of their recent experience in Southeast Asia and likely due to the context of their established relationship with the insurgency they were fighting. Algeria had been a part of France for generations, so there was already a French police presence deployed there. Their first strategy was to treat the uprising as internal dissent, ignoring the reality that Algerians did not have the same perception of their role in French society as did the mainland French. Eventually paratroopers were deployed and the conflict escalated further.28 However, to the credit of the French there was no attempt to implement a cumbersome conventional war (this is obviously excluding the saturation bombing attacks nearly two decades before). The same cannot be said for U.S. forces in Iraq which will be discussed below. France, fresh from its experience in Indo-China, fighting the Viet Mihn, knew all too well that a guerrilla enemy required guerrilla tactics, which were many times morally questionable.
During the strike in Algiers on 28 January 1957, paratroopers under the command of General Massu deployed in the city and physically forced the shops open. They pulled shutters off hinges and carried people out of their homes.29 This had to be immediately satisfying for the French forces as the strikers did not hold up in the face of such direct action and succumbed to the pressure. However, the concealed, long-term effects of this aggressive crackdown did more to anger the populace than anything else. Therefore, more was lost than was gained from breaking the strike. Thus, the elusive primary objective was farther away.
France recognized even before the Algerian War that intelligence was vital to thwarting an insurgency. One of the “forgotten successes” of the French in Southeast Asia was very accurate intelligence despite unfavorable conditions. Dien Bien Phu, the famous military defeat of the French by the Vietminh, was due to political meddling more than a military intelligence failure.30 And as seen during the Battle of Algiers, French intelligence was successful in piecing together an accurate picture of the FLN network, eventually bringing the group to its knees. French intelligence even went as far as to closely follow several key FLN members in New York City.31 The one element of French intelligence that stands out as especially memorable is the methods with which it was willing to use to derive information; torture.
Ironically, back in the 50’s and 60’s the French government had a better understanding of insurgencies and the potential of their multiplication than the American intelligence community did before Operation Iraqi Freedom. In a military research study done by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, seven essential intelligence mistakes were identified. Among these was “the planning focused strongly on the traditional military tasks, to the exclusion of post-combat requirements. In particular, the military intelligence estimates did not correctly predict the rapid development of a significant anti-coalition group.”32 This reflects a general lack of appreciation for political and cultural differences which was a problem for the French in Algeria. The parallels were so strong in fact that a showing of the film The Battle of Algiers was shown a the Pentagon to give U.S. military planners a lesson in counterinsurgency strategy.33 The flier intended to spread the word about the showing of this film read, “How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. . . . Children shoot soldiers at point blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.”34 This film was meant to teach American commanders that military superiority did not translate into victory; therefore, the French example in Algeria is very relevant to this day.
In conclusion, it is apparent that The Algerian War is fresh on the mind of many policy makers. But this comes only after a failure on the part of military and government planners who initially ignored the lessons of the past. While the context is different and governments must not assume historical events will simply repeat themselves the logical framework of insurgency and counterinsurgency remains essentially the same. A powerful occupier who wants to cause a political result beneficial to their interests and a weaker insurgency which must rely of guerrilla tactics, terrorism, and international pressure, still comprise the essential character of modern insurgencies.
No matter the context of the scenario, in such a global society as today, international pressure must be at the forefront of any state’s counterinsurgency strategy. Like in the Algerian War, certain methods, like torture and indiscriminate killing causing collateral damage are just as threatening as anything the insurgent group could do themselves. This means that government must preemptively identify the tactics they can allow themselves to use so that the natural temptation of overpowering and disproportionate retaliation will never enter into the operation. While in the short term these may seem like appropriate measures, the consistent lesson from Twentieth and early Twenty-First Century history is that these measures will erode the prerequisite political clout necessary to sustain, and successfully complete, a counterinsurgency operation.
Even more important than proper counterinsurgency strategies meant to be implemented when a full-fledged insurgency is wreaking havoc, are preemptory measures that would diffuse such a scenario before a critical stage. At one point, cultural intelligence must have sounded like a idealist and superfluous undertaking, but now with the recent emphasis put on hiring culturally aware and foreign language proficient agents in the American intelligence community, it appears that more and more are taking notice35 Again, the issue of definition is crucial. Had the French government realized the perception of Algerians, which had been shaped by centuries of mistreatment and cultural imperialism then a more effective route to agreement could have been made. Correspondingly, had the United States properly evaluated the likelihood for sectarian violence, the need for massive and immediate humanitarian assistance, and the potential of Jihadists to incubate and exacerbate all of these difficulties, waiting to transform them into a costly war of attrition, the American experience in occupying Iraq could have unfolded with a fraction of the bloodshed.
1 quotations meant to denote the contested perception that Algeria was a legitimate part of France
2 “Bush’s History Lesson.” Boston Globe. Editorial
3 Horne, Alistair. A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962. Pp. 95
4 Ibid. pp. 98
5 See article by Ganor, Boaz. Publication put out by The International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, September 23, 1998.
6 Hashim, Ahmed. Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Iraq. Pp. 273
7 Horne, Alistair. A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962. Pp. 56
8 Ibid. pp. 54, and several others
9 Ibid. Pp. 54,55
10 O’Neill, Bard. Insurgency in the Modern World. Pp. 7,8.
11 Polk, William. Violent Politics. pp. 131.
12 Ibid. Pp. 131
13 Horne, Alistair. A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962. Pp. 120
14 Ibid. Pp. 120
15 Hashim, Ahmed. Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq. Pp. 23.
16 McCarthy, Rory. “Uneasy Truce in the City of Ghosts.” The Guardian
17 Hashim, Ahmed. Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq. Pp. 23.
18 Millen, Raymond. The Political Context Behind Successful Revolutionary Movements Pp. 28
19 Ibid. Pp. 35
20 Polk, William. Violent Politics. 141
21 Horne, Alistair. A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962. Pp. 197
22 Ibid. pp. 197
23 Ibid. pp. 197
24 Roberts, Hugh. “The Image of the French Army in the Cinematic Representation of the Algerian War: the Revolutionary Politics of The Battle of Algiers.” The Algerian War and the French Army, 1954-62.
25 The Battle of Algiers, DVD, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo
27 Pentagon viewing, See below
28 Horne, Alistair. A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962. Pp. 167
29 Ibid. pp. 190
30 Zervoudakis, Alexander. From Indochina to Algeria. The Algerian War and the French Army. Pp.47
31 Wall, Irwin. France, the United States and the Algerian War. Pp. 167
32 Hooker, Gregory. Shaping the Plan for Operation Iraqi Freedom: The Role of Military Intelligence Assesments. Pp. 40,41.
33 Ignatius, David. “Think Strategy Not Numbers.” The Washington Post.
35 Jehl, Douglas. “C.I.A. Is Reviewing Its Security Policy for Recruitment” New York Times