The Algerian War’s effect on American Counterinsurgency Doctrine: Part 1


Algeria: Introduction to an Important Case Study

The history of modern counterinsurgency is problematic because it is marked by uneven progress, and its progression is even repeatedly reversed. Some countries, like the United States, have simply ignored their own lessons, not to mention the examples of others. Even the military maxim “generals always seem to fight the last war” criticizes a tendency in conventional warfare that is far less counterproductive than the attitude with which the United States has approached counterinsurgency throughout its history. This relatively uninterested or resistant approach to counterinsurgency has left the United States military unprepared for the 21st Century insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, the initial lack of success in both these recent counterinsurgencies has recently induced American political and military leaders to scramble to improve U.S. proficiency in such operations, as it has in several other wars. While the United States has its own historical examples from which to derive lessons, such lessons are not exhaustive. Even though past American counterinsurgency operations may be the easiest for American strategists to study, the Pentagon has paid close attention to other foreign examples. At the dawn of the 21st Century one example, the Algerian War, dramatically increased in importance to the American military because it has certain elements lacking in virtually all others. Because of these special elements the Algerian War represents a case study of special value to modern counterinsurgency strategists. The Algerian War provides its scholars with lessons of two types, precedent to be repeated and those to be avoided at all costs. But what is perhaps most telling about the Algerian War, in the context of the lessons it can provide, is that the French succeeded militarily, but lost the war. This fact leaves many orthodox military thinkers scratching their heads. It traditionally has been thought, as this thesis will show, that winning militarily was winning the war.

Insurgency is defined by the American army as, “…an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through use of subversion and armed conflict.”1 So the definition of counterinsurgency follows: “… All political, economic, military, paramilitary, psychological, and civic actions that can be taken by a government to defeat an insurgency.”2 As this definition suggests, counterinsurgency represents a multifaceted problem for countries and their militaries. History has demonstrated the consequences for those countries that approach counterinsurgency and ignore this essential fact. The lessons from Algeria, as the writings of American military thinkers and official military publications have confirmed, have significantly contributed to the modern understanding of counterinsurgency.

The nature of counterinsurgency, unlike that of conventional warfare, demands political victory as the end, and military operations as the means. In this context, the Algerian War represents a superior historical example as, while the French rendered their opposition largely militarily ineffective, they still lost the “war,” that is, they failed to end the insurgency. This thesis will demonstrate both how the Algerian War has received the serious attention of top military thinkers despite the tortuous and, at times, stagnant history of American counterinsurgency doctrine, and the special importance of theFrench example that demonstrates thatmilitary victory alone will not end an insurgency, thereby representing a special link between the Algerian War and the history of American counterinsurgency doctrine.

Over the last quarter of the 20th Century and right up until the 2003 Iraq War, the French war in Algeria has not been a popular topic in the United States. In terms of its military history, the United States has had an abundance of its own examples, like Vietnam and the Philippine Insurrection, which have served as the main sources of discussions involving lessons of the past. Furthermore, only limited intellectual energy has been devoted to a detailed exploration of the application of foreign lessons in counterinsurgency warfare. However, even though the American general public has paid little attention to the Algerian War, its significance to modern U.S. military counterinsurgency doctrine has been surprisingly significant. Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, American policy-makers were faced with an extremely violent insurgency. The sudden demand for the U.S. military to confront this problem sparked an abrupt scramble for ideas to counter the Iraq insurgency. One obvious choice, for reasons this thesis intends to make clear, was the Algerian War. Even within the military, there are extremely few American-authored sources dealing with the Algerian War during the 1970s, 80s or 90s, and even fewer including the topic of counterinsurgency. Therefore, this once relatively obscure politico-military event, during the last quarter of the 20th Century within the United States, has since heavily impacted American foreign policy.3

The Algerian War, as it is commonly called, lasted from 1954 to 1962. When the Algerians revolted, the French initially responded with police and, later, military measures in an attempt to hold on to Algeria at nearly all costs. By the end of the war, 17,456 French soldiers had lost their lives, either killed in action or from “accidents,” and 64,985 had been wounded, while the number of Algerian deaths was likely around 300,000.4 However, the Algerian insurgency eventually achieved its primary goal despite its ostensible military defeat by the French army, and France, led by Charles de Gaulle, was compelled to recognize full Algerian independence in 1962. France’s eventual failure to retain Algeria despite several well-reasoned and successful practices it employed is the reason the example of the French counterinsurgency holds many lessons for the present and its study has been influential to today’s counterinsurgency strategists and policy makers who face similar, if not identical, situations.

The uprising in the former French colony serves as a lasting lesson about what is effective and ineffective as a means to defeat an insurgency and restore the desired political status quo, or to establish a new one. Moreover, the operational lessons learned from France’s experience in Algeria are accompanied by important political lessons and universal ethical questions, regarding in particular, cultural imperialism and the legitimacy of torture. These aspects of the history of the Algerian War reveal lessons that have been applicable ever since. It is not the aim of this thesis to judge the French; however, the task of evaluating the lessons of the Algerian War, and their implications for American counterinsurgency doctrine, necessarily involves a highlighting of French errors over those of the insurgents. The object of this thesis, therefore, is to explore the legacy of the Algerian War, specifically how it has since influenced the theory and application of American counterinsurgency doctrine.

Current world powers, the United States, Great Britain, and Russia, invest a great deal of their resources in counterinsurgency operations, whether these take the form of highly-trained human intelligence, expensive surveillance equipment, or large appropriations.5 This is because counterinsurgency is a crucial topic to modern warfare and thus a crucial part of the foreign policy of many of the world’s most powerful states. Since World War Two, which is the last example of a large scale, total war directly between world powers, the world has experienced a series of “irregular” wars. The term “irregular” war simply refers to any war that does not easily fit the description of a conventional war. Conventional wars feature opposing state actors that fight each other using “regular” armies and naval forces in such a way that reflects an adherence to regulations and accepted tradition. Therefore, “irregular” warfare denotes any conflict that is not conventional. The Iraq War, the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, and the Vietnam War are the most salient examples of “irregular” wars fought by the United States in recent decades.

The practical need for academic scholarship on counterinsurgency is

heightened by the observed lack of success that large nations, especially those which are democracies and therefore rely on public support, have experienced when attempting

to stop insurgencies. The primary objective of every counterinsurgency is political in nature, which explains why military superiority, being logically necessary in asymmetrical warfare, does not automatically bring with it “real success” in these conflicts. Real success is only achieved with the establishment of long-term political control of a given area by the counterinsurgency force. Thus, a military victory alone cannot achieve meaningful results. Rather, such victories have been necessary for clearing a path for subsequent political success by removing violent opposition.

Nevertheless, conventional military operations have received the bulk of the attention and implementation, making successful counterinsurgencies significantly more difficult. So, then, counterinsurgency represents a puzzle that conventionally proficient forces have not yet completely solved. The combination of the intrinsic difficulties of counterinsurgency operations and the modern trend of nation-building to establish liberal governments (which often involves such operations) necessitates serious attention and thorough study of specific historical cases. This view is shared by the U.S. military. Austin Long, writing a report for the Secretary of Defense in 2006, described his work the following way:

This study is premised on the assertion that Iraq and Afghanistan (the two contemporary counterinsurgencies of the day) are consonant with some general characteristics of insurgency and counterinsurgency, and are more similar to than different from many previous insurgencies.6

The United States has taken notice over the last decade and has paid careful attention to the historical analysis of this component of its geopolitical grand strategy.

One of the most salient examples of counterinsurgency is the Algerian War of 1954-1962. This violent confrontation between France and Algerian separatists for political control of the massive North African territory left a legacy of considerable value to policy-makers and counterinsurgency strategists the world over. The American military in particular has drawn lessons from the experience of the French. American military strategists have interpreted that analysis of the Algerian War demonstrates the proper and improper methods of conducting counterinsurgency operations, in particular the political and moral perceptions of a target population, as well as the necessity of clear, realistic objectives accompanied by a strict adherence to internationally acceptable methods. The latter is a particularly touchy matter since the insurgents often do not play by the rules of conventional warfare. The participants in this war, especially the English-speaking French officer David Galula, whose works will be discussed in much greater detail later, have offered a large volume of anecdotal, doctrinal, and theoretical contributions to the field.

The Pentagon in 2003 showed the film, The Battle of Algiers, which is a documentary-style portrayal of the climax of the Algerian War illustrating the operational achievements by the French. As will be evidenced in later chapters, the Pentagon itself eventually realized the striking similarities between the events detailed in of the film and the American shock at the Iraqi insurgency following Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Pentagon’s perception of the importance of the legacy of the Algerian War, as this thesis will argue, indicates the Algerian War’s influence on American military thinkers. The lessons of the war found in the film were that counterinsurgency is primarily a political endeavor and that the military component must be measured ultimately by its political affects. The subsequent historical application of such lessons, in whatever ways they have been understood and adopted, makes the Algerian War especially important, not just in French or colonial history but for the public policy of states that find themselves in similar circumstances.

While some may contend that the Algerian War is not a viable comparative example because colonial wars are now an extinct endeavor as classic colonial empires have receded or disappeared, many of the elements of colonial war still relate directly to conflicts today that involve counterinsurgency. Even though not altogether appreciated by the French at the time, colonialism during the 1950s and 1960s, was an endangered enterprise. Even though the French government and many of its people failed to detect it, the international community’s tolerance for any state policy reflecting the then-progressively unpopular “White Man’s Burden” had significantly declined. The fact that the Algerian War was a colonial war meant that it encroached upon the acceptable assumptions of the international community, which all democracies must contend with when fighting any war. Paris failed to reconcile its differences with the international community, thus putting itself in an awkward position between internal and external demands. While such a conclusion is clearer with hindsight, the failure of policy makers to imagine the results of their country’s actions or to heed international opinion once it soured against France exacerbated their international condemnation, serving as a roadblock to political success. The role of international opinion in the Algerian War is evidenced in the nature of its end, as the war damaged France domestically and nearly brought the country to civil war, despite the army’s significant operational successes in Algeria. Thus, although colonial wars are outside the realm of current international policy-making, valuable lessons can still be derived from certain elements of them.

In all historical writing, great caution must be exercised in extracting “lessons” from the past, as no two situations are ever exactly the same. Each moment in history is necessarily different from every other. Therefore, when evaluating the worth of historical lessons, it must be remembered that such an undertaking is an inexact science, requiring subjective thinking rooted in knowledge of historical precedent and critical analysis. In other words, while rigid transpositions of historical scenarios are misleading, certain common elements of historical events, whether doctrinal or theoretical, can be extracted, analyzed and cautiously utilized in the development and execution of strategies and policies. To use the lessons of history effectively, one must walk a tightrope between over-transposition and ignorance. By itself, knowledge of history is not particularly helpful with regard to policy-making. Analysis and deduction from history with regard to its important and causally relevant elements requires great circumspection. Analysis of history for the purpose of practical application of its lessons is, therefore, more of an art than a science.

For students of the Algerian War in particular the process of extracting lessons must be done with caution. As mentioned above, a colonial war is very different from the wars that the United States currently prosecutes. It is not the purpose of this thesis to label the current efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan as “colonial” in nature. Rather, the point is to compare the similar and relevant elements found within each war that are useful in improving policy and provide strategies to move forward. As the 2006 report prepared for the U.S. Secretary of Defense referenced earlier put it, “while many specific details [of Cold-War era counterinsurgencies] do indeed vary greatly, [from post Cold War examples] insurgency and counterinsurgency is [sic] a more general phenomenon that is not a product of… peculiarities.”7 While discretion must thus be exercised by those evaluating the lessons of the Algerian War for practical application in counterinsurgency doctrine, this does not make such an endeavor worthless. Also, it is not the central purpose of this thesis to provide an independent evaluation of the Algerian War with respect to potential lessons for subsequent policy-makers. This thesis will look at the Algerian War mostly through the lens of military experts and policy analysts by focusing on the lessons they interpreted and will evaluate their applicability to counterinsurgency doctrine.

Much of what has been written about the Algerian War is monographic and focused chronologically on the events that took place. Since this thesis is concerned with the overall lessons of the war and their application, such works are useful to cite details for the purpose of comparison. Several works written during the last years of the war will serve as sources as they provide a valuable perspective into the contemporary perceptions of the war. The vast majority of historical literature written on the “memory” of the Algerian War deals with cultural or political phenomena, not the military aspects of the war. A prime example of this is Todd Shepard’s The Invention of Decolonization: The Algerian War and the Remaking of France, which deals with the lasting effects of France’s defeat in Algeria, and the cultural and philosophical impact the war has had on the traditional notion of French universalism. Also, works like Paris 1961: Algerians, State Terror, and Memory, co-authored by Jim House and Neil Macmaster, examine the French government’s reaction to domestic unrest and active dissent on behalf of the Algerian revolutionaries and the sometimes brutal repercussions that reaction had on French citizens and Algerians. In terms of diplomatic history, Matthew Connelly’s work, A Diplomatic Revolution: Algeria’s Fight for Independence and the Origins of the Post-Cold War Era, focuses on the diplomatic repercussions of the Algerian War, and, in particular on the relationship of France and the United States.

While most of the historical scholarship on the after-effects of the Algerian War deals with culture and diplomacy, there are several reports written by and for the military, whose objective is to derive useful strategic and tactical lessons from the Algerian War. David Galula, a French military officer who actually participated in the French counterinsurgency operation in Algeria as a commander of a company sized pacification unit, has written a number of articles, books, and reports on the subject. His works are crucial to this thesis, as he is essentially the face of the military side of the Algerian War’s legacy for the American military men and women who have studied the war. Several reports, written by military officers for their respective war colleges, discuss Galula’s experience and doctrines and thus serve to causally bind the Algerian War and U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine. Several political scientists and military personnel have written reports for the same purpose.

Even though there exists a plethora of books, articles, reports and speeches dedicated to Algeria, counterinsurgency, and the marriage of both, there is a dearth of works which consider the lessons learned about counterinsurgency from the Algerian War. Therefore, this thesis is advancing into relatively uncharted territory. In order to effectively outline the effect the Algerian War has had on counterinsurgency doctrine this thesis will begin with a survey of basic elements of Algerian history relevant to the eventual uprising. Part of Chapter 4 will deal specifically with Gillo Pontecorvo’s film, Battle of Algiers (1964). This film is extremely useful as it highlights many of the most important aspects of the war, and is the source that subsequent generations, including military officials, have used to understand the war. For many it is their total knowledge of the Algerian conflict. However, lessons from the film represent only a small part of the range of lessons derived from the Algerian War.The political and military lessons derived from the conflict will be given separate attention, each with its own chapter, because of the importance of understanding the different nature of each. Finally, crucial to the outcome of the war and its effect on counterinsurgency doctrine since, is a discussion of the issues of torture and the “acceptable” means of warfare. These issues make the Algerian War a classic example of the importance of rules of engagement for a democratic nation in the modern era. Bringing these things all together should bring about a clear understanding of the relevance of the French experience in Algeria in fighting counterinsurgencies today.

1Tactics in Counterinsurgency. Headquarters: Department of the Army. April, 2009. pg. 1-1

2Ibid. pg. 1-2

3 This is justified by the small number of articles devoted to the Algerian War written in the context of the U.S. “War on Terror.”

4 Alistair Horne. A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962. United States of America: History Book Club edition by Bookspan, first edition published in 1972, republished in 2002 (cited edition) and again in 2004. p. 538.

5 David Ucko. “Innovation or Inertia: The U.S. Military and the Learning of Counterinsurgency” Orbis. Spring, 2008 p. 291

6 Austin Long. On “Other War:” Lessons from Five Decades of RAND Counterinsurgency Research. p. 15

7 Long. p. x

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