The Algerian War’s effect on American Counterinsurgency Doctrine: Part 4


The Algerian War: A Political Affair

Experience shows that in this sort of war the political factors are just as important as the military ones, if not more so. This was particularly true in Algeria, where especially after 1956, there was practically no military contest in the conventional sense owing to the superiority of the French armed forces…1

  • David Galula in Pacification in Algeria (1964)

Counterinsurgency, at its heart, is a political endeavor. While military force is a necessary and significant part, such force is but a means to an end, it is not the end itself. Specifically, counterinsurgency, as interpreted by the U.S. military, is political because in order to achieve victory the “host” population must be convinced that whatever political outcome the counterinsurgent entity is attempting to bring about and sustain is desirable. The active participation of the host-nation populace is necessary in this endeavor. Algeria, particularly, reinforces this logic as most of its people eventually accepted the FLN even though it had been militarily defeated.

The salient causal connection between the Algerian War and the development of current U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine is represented by the U.S. Army/U.S. Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Already referenced several times, this military publication is the corporate result of years of research, experience, interpretation and synthesis by several authors within the United States military. The work is not an academic research project, therefore its assertions are not directly cited, making it difficult to locate exactly which historical precedent led to exactly which doctrinal development. Furthermore, determining how much of an influence the Algerian War had on the various authors, who are anonymous, is impossible to tell. However, this should not deter analysis of the causal foundation of U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine as valuable research is possible despite this inherent difficulty.

By piecing together various reports written by America’s military leaders, and the prevalence of French counterinsurgency experiences in American military publications and journals—which are authored by the very same “COIN [Counterinsurgency] community,” as a leading expert on the topic refers to it, that engineer official doctrine—the argument that the Algerian War has an exceptional role in the development of current American counterinsurgency doctrine can be defended.2 Serving as perhaps the “smoking gun” regarding a direct causal connection between the Algerian War and the development of current U.S. counterinsurgency strategy is the aforementioned counterinsurgency field manual, also known as FM 3-24. This publication includes in its index multiple entries for Algeria, and dedicates an entire section to the “laws” of David Galula. Furthermore, it lists the work of multiple “classics,” including works by French military officers who served in the Algerian War, including Galula, and Alistair Horne’s, A Savage War of Peace. The forward to the bibliography reads:

This bibliography is a tool for the Army and Marine Corps leaders to help them increase their knowledge of insurgency and counter-insurgency. Reading what others have written provides a foundation that leaders can use to access counterinsurgency situations and make appropriate decisions. The books and articles that follow… are… some of the more useful for Soldiers and Marines.3

Therefore, the French experience in Algeria and the development of counterinsurgency doctrine, according to the U.S. Army/ U.S. Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual, are directly connected.

Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterpiece, The Battle of Algiers, produced less than three years after the Algerian War, represents more than a classic film, for it also occupies a surprisingly significant place within the history of the development of counterinsurgency theory and strategy. Whether or not the film itself is a useful tool to strategists and policy-makers is debatable, it is apparent that several journalists, army leaders and government officials have taken great interest in it with that in mind. As a September, 2003 New York Times article reported,

The Pentagon recently held a screening of ‘The Battle of Algiers,’… The Pentagon’s showing drew a[n]… audience of 40 officers and civilian experts who were urged to consider and discuss the implicit issues at the core of the film- the problematic but alluring efficacy of brutal and repressive means in fighting clandestine terrorists in places like Algeria and Iraq more specifically, the advantages and costs of resorting to torture and intimidation seeking vital human intelligence about enemy plans.4

Although there exists a dearth of Army sources that elaborate on the decision to show the film, this excerpt clearly demonstrates the value the Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict assigned to the film, and also indicates their perception of the importance of the Algerian War itself. Due to the film’s attention to detail and the director’s apparent commitment to accuracy, The Battle of Algiers, while not a documentary, serves as a useful chronicle of the battle and, more importantly, an examination of the causal nexus inherent in reprisal-based counterinsurgency. Because of the success the film has enjoyed with mass audiences, it is particularly effective in bringing before the public the otherwise complex and confusing topic of counterinsurgency.

Deriving historical significance or applicable lessons from fictional accounts, especially those from the silver screen can of course be problematic, as the demands of having to entertain an audience coupled with the personal bias inherent in the film-making process can result in a film that is more important for its message than its historical accuracy. Generally, it is therefore advisable to view films of this kind with some skepticism, and often even as propagandist and sensationalist presentations. This is especially true of works of any kind relating to the Algerian War.5

Yet this does not exterminate the historical value of The Battle of Algiers. The filmis unique among dramatizations of the Algerian War as it largely overcomes many of the aforementioned drawbacks. Even considering the close proximity between the events themselves and the production of the film, which might seem to preclude sufficient reflection and result in sensationalist or propagandist tones, Gillo Pontecorvo’s film would seem to be the exception and not the rule.6 As one historian says,

Not only does it depict both sides of the war with objectivity and detachment, and both its Algerian and French victims with equal sympathy, it also refuses to moralize about the methods used by the French in suppressing the terrorism of the FLN.7

Similarly, a Washington Post editorial said about the film,

The French, nominally the ‘villains’ in this story, would have no monopoly on evil… The revolutionaries, nominally the ‘good guys,’ would have no monopoly on virtue: They would be murderers, thugs, cutthroats, given entirely to a war of terror and bringing death to the innocent…8

Because of its efforts at balance and its relative lack of pronounced bias or political agenda, the film has generally been treated as a quasi-historical study of the war. The film’s structure and narrative are quite persuasive in this regard. For Pontecorvo shows, in an apparently logical and dispassionate manner, the unfolding of events, the escalatory nature of urban terrorism and the counterinsurgency it prompts. This point is made by one of Pontecorvo’s colleagues, PierNico Solinas, a fellow intellectual, filmmaker and writer, who offers his own characterization of the universal, practical use of the film, which turns out to be consistent with the attitude certain Pentagon officials have shown towards Pontecorvo’s film. Solinas’s prose serves as a useful summary of the logic that justifies the film’s relevance to the determination of public and military policy.

In exploring its most significant implications, [Pontecorvo] seeks to draw from history a critical conclusion that can exist independently of the Algerian struggle. That very struggle becomes a proving ground which elevates to the level of an archetypal situation from which a theory can be deduced. By illustrating the teachings and methods of revolutionary struggle, The Battle of Algiers offers a blueprint for other struggles and other revolutions…. Thus the movie resists being dated or limited to a specific historical setting…. The action takes place in Algiers but it very well could happen anywhere else.9

For 21st century audiences, the use of the phrase “anywhere else” evokes American -occupied Iraq, as the Pentagon likely concluded. Specifically, in the film, FLN attacks were shown to cause the French to implement tighter security measures. These were countered with new FLN attacks to which the French respond by pressing harder and harder. The way in which the movie portrays the cycle of escalation, leading to more death and destruction, is extremely accurate as a depiction of events, but it also serves as a useful summarization of historical precedent that can be related to later, similar situations. It is hardly surprising, then, that one reviewer notes that the film was used by the Pentagon as a “source document,” for the events it portrays represent a realistic representation of the reality of counterinsurgency.10

This point has been made by others as well. A 2003 article written for the New Yorker, by Phillip Gourevitch, suggests a very clear connection between the contents of Pontecorvo’s film and the events in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Gourevitch writes:

For all the differences between France’s fight to keep Algeria… and America’s current dispensation in Iraq, the parallels between the drama of insurgency and counter-insurgency in The Battle of Algiers and our present Iraqi predicament are as clear as day and as depressing as the Pentagon film programmers promised.11

Using the lens of the film, Gourevitch immediately senses the parallels between the events of the Algerian War and those of Iraq. He goes on to juxtapose the rhetorical question asked by Mathieu, the composite character commanding the French paratroops in the film, “Is France to remain in Algeria? If your answer is still yes, you must accept all the necessary consequences” with George W. Bush’s assertion that America intended to “stay the course” in Iraq.12 The connections made in this article are direct and specific, indicating that Pontecorvo’s film has a place not only in film history but in the history of counterinsurgency as well.

Indeed, in an age of heightened awareness of terrorism and the methods of counterinsurgency, journalists, government officials, and military officers have revisited the Algerian War via The Battle of Algiers. Carlo Celli, in his 2004-2005 review in Film Quarterly entitled “Gillo Pontecorvo’s Return to Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo” confirms this. “Since the attacks of 9/11,” he notes, “there has been increased interest in the film… The Battle of Algiers received a limited re-release in major cities in late 2003.”13 “Late 2003” obviously coincides with the early American occupation of Iraq, which almost certainly prompted this renewed interest in Gillo Pontecorvo’s film. Another journalist, writing for the New York Times, in an article titled “Film; Lessons of the Pentagon’s Favorite Training Film”assumes the film’s importance with regards to policy, though he also warns that “its lessons ought to be applied to other situations cautiously, precisely because of the film’s principal strength: its deep roots in a specific time and place.”14 Various other articles–the film became available on DVD once again in 2004–confirm the renewed interest in the film because of its relevance to American foreign policy and military strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Simply put, as former national-security adviser Zbigniew Brezezinski put it, “If you want to understand what’s happening in Iraq, I recommend The Battle of Algiers.15

The film accurately depicts the decentralized structure of the FLN, a structure typical of most historical insurgent groups. Similarly, there are scenes of military officers marking on chalk boards, filling out recent information obtained through interrogation which are largely accepted as accurate by the U.S. military. Detreux, in his military research report, points to these scenes in discussing the importance of “French forces,” he notes, “were able to systematically break down the organization. This cellular structure of the FLN/ALN was depicted in Gino Pontecarvo’s [sic] movie, The Battle of Algiers, where the paratrooper commander, working on a blackboard, was systematically filling in the wire diagram of those insurgents identified, captured or killed.”16 This particular quote is significant because it represents a direct link between military analysis of historical precedent in counterinsurgency and the Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. The fact that Detreaux, himself a military officer, referenced the film as an example of a representation of counterinsurgent intelligence analysis proves The Battle of Algiers’ significance to the U.S. military.

However, as valuable as watching Pontecorvo’s film was likely to have been to Pentagon officials and military officers, as indicated by the counterinsurgency field manual, The Battle of Algiers includes only a snapshot of the Algerian War, as the events it depicts are limited to the actual urban battle. Study of the larger Algerian War from historical documents, monographs and government reports have had a much larger impact on counterinsurgency thinking than Pontecorvo’s film.

A leading voice on counterinsurgency, John Nagl, has written:

The ultimate determinant of the success or failure of counterinsurgency theory and practice is the attainment of national objectives; neglecting the explicit consideration of this characteristic would only relegate it to the realm of unstated but inescapable facts. It is better to confront it directly.17

Nagl’s “national objectives” are political ones, and he argues that to ignore this “characteristic” of counterinsurgency operations would be detrimental. While there have been other successful methods of counterinsurgency in the past, like the American focus on military solutions and coercion during the Philippine Insurrection, the current U.S. military has decided that such methods cannot work in today’s liberal, inter-connected global society. The eminent British counterinsurgency expert, Sir Robert Thompson, also lists as his first and foremost “principle of counterinsurgency” that “the government must have a clear political aim: to establish and maintain a free, independent and united country which is politically and economically stable and viable.”18 The Algerian War, more than other wars, strongly suggests this. The FLN had been completely militarily defeated by the French, yet it was the political environment surrounding the war that precluded a French victory. This chapter deals with the particular lessons derived by military thinkers from the Algerian War, which are more political than military in nature.

Lt. Colonel David Galula, the French military officer and one of the most internationally influential counterinsurgency thinkers, has been the subject of many United States Army and Marine Corps studies. Several American War College and Strategic Studies Institute theses and research papers have been dedicated to the study and evaluation of Galula’s theories and his experience in the Algerian War. The Military Review’s massive, two-hundred page “special edition” titled, “Counterinsurgency Reader,” for example, begins and ends with quotes from him.19 Also, the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual quotes him several times. Galula’s experience with counterinsurgency came largely from his direct involvement in the Algerian War. He contributed to the establishment of the view that counterinsurgency was “a political war” with his Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, published in 1964.20 Serving in Algeria from 1956 to 1958, Galula observed first-hand the nature of counterinsurgency warfare. Galula’s experience and the importance of his testimony have been widely noted; in the introduction to a 2006 article in the RAND Review, the anonymous author observed that

The recollections of RAND consultant Lt. Col. David Galula… have a remarkable, almost timeless resonance nearly half a century later, with striking parallels to America’s recent experiences in Iraq…. He died in 1967…depriving America of his guidance at a time when the United States was becoming more deeply involved in Vietnam.21

Similarly, a United States Army Colonel went so far as to say,

While [Galula’s] strategy should be purely applied in hot revolutionary insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, I contend that his strategy is also broad enough to apply against non-state actors, or an insurgency without state borders, such as al-Qaeda and its ilk.22

Such quotations make it clear that Galula’s contributions, chiefly derived from the Algerian War, had a great influence on the development of American counterinsurgency strategy.

If Galula’s writings indicate the Algerian War’s impact on American counterinsurgency strategy, it is his “essential laws of counterinsurgency” that are his greatest contributions. The first law, “the objective is the population,” which has already been discussed, has become the cornerstone of U.S. counterinsurgency strategy. The Tactics in Counterinsurgency field manual (2009), which is less focused on the strategic aspects of counterinsurgency and more focused on the tactical methods American soldiers should use, states, “At its heart, a counterinsurgency is an armed struggle for the support of the population. This support can be achieved through information engagement, strong representative government, access to goods and services, fear, or violence,”23 and in support of this strategy cites David Galula’s laws of counterinsurgency.24 While it may now seem obvious that the population is the key to counterinsurgency, this was not the attitude of past military generations. This is exactly why Galula, writing in 1964, referred to counterinsurgency as a “new mission” and asserted that military minds had to be “adapted… to the special demands of counterinsurgency warfare.”25 But even up until the 2003 Iraq War, American military leadership still regarded the destruction of opposing forces as paramount. Nagl writes,

[The U.S. Army during the Vietnam War] saw its raison d’etre as winning wars through the application of firepower and maneuver to annihilate enemy forces simply could not conceive of another kind of war in which its weapons, technology, and organization not only could not destroy the enemy, but usually could not even find or identify him.26

Thus, when the United States finally took counterinsurgency doctrine seriously, it was seen as a new concept. Likewise, to focus on winning over the population was not an established concept even by the late twentieth century.

Galula’s second law of counterinsurgency states that “support [of the counterinsurgent force by the target populace] is gained through an active minority.” Essentially, Galula relies here on the tested assumption that “in any situation, whatever the case, there will be an active minority for the cause, a neutral majority, and an active minority against the cause.”27 Such was the case in Algeria, as the FLN represented a minority that wanted to gain majority support. Commenting on this situation, a major in the United States Army who wrote his master of military art and science thesis on David Galula’s doctrine and its implications for American counterinsurgency efforts asserted that the creation of a political party in a host nation was essential to building support from those elements of the population that were formerly pro-insurgent or passive-neutral.28 The U.S. Counterinsurgency Field Manual dedicated a whole section to the importance of both “active” and “passive” supporters. Known as FM 3-24, this part of the field manual recognizes that, just as Galula said in the 1960’s, that “active internal support is usually the most important to an insurgent group.”29 Galula observed during his command in Algeria that most of the native populace remained neutral observers, which in fact was the case in virtually every historical example of counterinsurgency before Algeria or since.30 While evidence of this went virtually unheeded before, Galula emphasized this aspect of revolutionary warfare. The costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan led American military strategists to show renewed interest in ideas of counterinsurgency.

Galula in his writings has also stressed the importance of institutionalizing a doctrine to serve as a template for combating insurgencies throughout the world. However, he has suggested that the application of such a doctrine should not be rigid because successful counterinsurgencies require dynamic, flexible leadership in order to deal with multifaceted problems. He emphasized that

There is clearly a need for a compass [regarding counterinsurgency], and this work [his book] has as its only purpose to construct such an instrument, however imperfect and rudimentary it may be. What we propose to is to define the laws of counterrevolutionary warfare, to deduce from them its principles, and to outline the corresponding strategy and tactics.31

This is what led one later American military official to refer to Galula as “a comprehensive theorist. ”32 The Department of the Army’s Tactics in Counterinsurgency field manual, has drawn the same conclusion as Galula, indicating that “this manual gives the U.S. Army a common language, concept, and purpose to fight and achieve success in a counterinsurgency.”33

Perhaps Galula’s most important contribution to the history of American counterinsurgency has been his views about what the central emphasis of such operations ought to be. Thus, while the destruction of the enemy force is necessary and important, Galula emphasizes that it is not of primary importance relative to political endeavors. He writes:

The destruction of the guerrilla forces in the selected area is, obviously, highly desirable, and this is what the counterinsurgent must strive for. One thing should be clear, however: This operation is not an end in itself, for guerrillas, like the heads of the legendary hydra, have the special ability to grow again if not all destroyed at the same time. The real purpose of the first operation, then, is to prepare the stage for the further development of the counterinsurgent action.34

With the Algerian War, and specifically Galula’s observations in mind, the United States armed forces have reached the same conclusions. Table 1-1 of the U.S. Army/ U.S. Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual lists an array of what it refers to as “Unsuccessful practice[s].” The first entry is: “Overemphasize killing and capturing the enemy rather than securing and engaging the populace.”35 A leading thinker on the topic of counterinsurgency stated, “What renders the U.S. military’s experience with counterinsurgency so cyclical is its seeming inability to learn either from its lack of preparation…[and tendency] to revert instead to a singular focus on high-intensity warfare.”36 These conclusions were inspired at least partially from David Galula’s writings on the subject, as is confirmed by the field manual’s “selected bibliography.”37 The juxtaposition of these quotes clearly indicates a strong link between the Algerian War, as interpreted by Galula, and the American military’s recently adopted counterinsurgency doctrine. The United States is convinced, largely due to the prevailing interpretation of historical precedent and the circumstances of its recent counterinsurgency experiences, that the population is the key to success.

Galula’s mark on American counterinsurgency policy is therefore unmistakable and he can be said to represent one of the “founding fathers” of modern doctrine, along with other leading thinkers on the topic such as Sir Robert Thompson. This shows how the authors of the counterinsurgency doctrine from which American strategists have recently drawn their own ideas are not Americans, since, as previously discussed, American lessons from the Vietnam War were interpreted in such a way that led to the belief that counterinsurgency should be completely avoided. In contrast, French and British thinkers retained much of their experience and attempted to make the lessons of places like Malaya and Algeria permanent.

The French counterinsurgent force failed, then, as American doctrine based in part on the writings of Galula has since stated, to “focus on the population, its needs and its security,” and because of this failure of the French they lost the war, despite their military victory. 38 As previously stated, though French politicians considered Algeria to be a legitimate part of France instead of a colony, Algerians perceived the opposite because they were repeatedly denied equal treatment under French law. This represented a key difference in perceptions between the French government and native Algerians, and led to ineffective political maneuvering by the French, as Algerians simply did not trust French promises of reform after so many failed attempts. Moreover, for their part, because many Frenchmen claimed they were extending the possibility of equality to Algerians, when the latter failed to be persuaded that they were in fact equal to Europeans, many French politicians were convinced that Muslim Algerians were an unreasonable opposition.

Eventually, American policy-makers took note of this and applied the lessons of the French blunder in arriving at their own doctrine. An American military officer, writing a few years after the Second Gulf War, seemed to praise French tactics:

Political and economic change allowed French forces to regain the initiative against the FLN/ALN by 1956. Many aspects of the French efforts were successful: dramatic increases in manpower, quadrillage and re-settlement removed portions of the population from the influence of the insurgents; the SAS deprived the insurgents of mobility and provided actionable intelligence for the French to exploit. These efforts showed the sustained attempts by the French to counter the problems of civil administration through other than military means.39

The Major went on to note, however, that

despite recognizing the importance of other than military efforts and the attendant paradox of COIN operations, the French Army could not gain the confidence of enough Algerians to counter the political actions of the FLN/ALN.40

The implications of this assessment for counterinsurgency theory are tremendous. It suggests that an implementation of a seemingly effective strategy—one that obeys Galula’s “laws” and is employed by a nation possessing extensive resources—can prove worthless in a counterinsurgency if it does recognize as its central objective the active participation of the population. Therefore, the truly important battle is fought in the realm of ideas, culture and perception where convincing is more important than killing. This maxim, often contested by military commanders throughout the history of counterinsurgency, lies at the heart of the tension between military tradition and military innovation.

One of the most important lessons of the Algerian War has been the importance of the cultural intelligence and awareness of the soldiers and commanders of the counterinsurgent force. Specifically, cultural intelligence refers to an understanding of the values, political habits, perceptions, and social tendencies of a particular population group. The needs, concerns and desires of a particular culture are usually at the root of its political issues. Since counterinsurgency is itself a political endeavor, such an appreciation is crucial. This lesson has not been lost on military planners. The Counterinsurgency Field Manual states:

Cultural awareness has become an increasingly important concept…[military officers] study major world cultures and put a priority on learning the details of the new operational environment when deployed. Different solutions are required in different cultural contexts…. Like all other competencies, cultural awareness requires self-awareness, self-directed learning, and adaptability.41

In Algeria, many French, especially the pieds noirs, openly displayed their contempt for Muslim society or culture. This is a another lesson that American doctrine has incorporated from this conflict. In a 2005 report written for the U.S. Army War College, Karl Goetzke, in a section entitled A review of the Algerian War of National Liberation Using the U.S. Army’s Current Counterinsurgency Doctrine, observes:

While limited concessions were made [by the French government to the Muslim Algerians], they were insufficient to assuage pent-up demands of the indigenous people of Algeria. An extremely violent French response to a terrorist incident that occurred on VE day further fanned the flames of discord. By 1954 the simmering conflict came to a boil. The indigenous people of Algeria lost confidence in their ability to achieve self-determination through political dialogue with France. Instead, military action, coupled with diplomatic outreach efforts to the international community, was embraced as a solution to their predicament.42

As this quote suggests, the lack of cultural awareness by French soldiers and officers limited their ability to readily identify the “population’s grievances,” a topic which is listed as imperative by the counterinsurgency field manual.43

Ken Booth, in his prescient work Strategy and Enthnocentrism, ironically published in 1979 during the Iranian Revolt, has similarly argued the strategic importance of taking into consideration the understanding of an opposing culture. Booth argues that such considerations are central to the success or failure of political stability operations. “When ethnocentrism interferes with knowing the enemy,” he writes, “various unfortunate political and/or military consequences may follow,” and he lists these as “misplaced confidence,” “misplaced suspicion,” “surprise,” “inflexibility,” “rigidity in crisis,” and “self-fulfilling prophecies.”44 Such theories seem especially fitting not only to the French experience in Algeria but to nearly every counterinsurgency since. This was already the case of 19th Century Algeria when French ethnocentrism led to the abrupt forced dissolution of traditional power bases in Algerian culture. Thus, the governor-general of Algeria in 1894, as Alistair Horne has pointed out, complained of the “consequences” of the “French policy of breaking up the great traditional families of Algeria,…” Horne quoted Jules Cambon,

[this policy was undertaken] because we found them to be forces of resistance. We did not realise [sic] that in suppressing the forces of resistance in this fashion, we were also suppressing our means of action. The result is that we are today confronted by a sort of human dust on which we have no influence and in which movements take place which are to us unknown.45

Failure to craft policy that reflected an appreciation of the importance of traditional social and political structures had enormous implications for the revolution and the counterrevolution in Algeria, and this logic still applies today. Examples of counterinsurgent forces dissolving the existing power structures in host nations has consistently led to negative results. An analysis of these examples prompted the inclusion of section 5-71 of the counterinsurgency field manual: “Population control includes determining who lives in an area and what they do. This task requires determining societal relationships– family, clan, tribe, interpersonal, and professional.”46 Undoubtedly, the Algerian example was important in the development of this conclusion.

David Galula makes this point when he recalled a conversation he had with a soldier under his command in Algeria. Galula was attempting to explain the need to focus on the population as the objective, which meant listening to them and treating them well. This proved to be a difficult task, he recalled, as the soldier responded, “Sir, these Kabyle people (ethnic group in Algeria), they are all bastards, they are all hypocrites, they all support the rebels.”47 This type of attitude is common with many young soldiers who have a limited perspective due to a lack of familiarity with other cultures. Galula responded to the soldier:

Our job is precisely to stop this support. If we lump together all rebels–and this is what the FLN want us to do–we are sure to keep the population supporting them. If we distinguish between people and rebels, then we have a chance…. My rules are: outwardly you must treat every civilian as a friend; inwardly you must consider him a rebel ally until you have positive proof on the contrary.48

Many American military leaders have slowly incorporated the same logic and especially the importance of cultural intelligence. In a 2003 report for the Joint Forces Staff College, written during the early stages of what was to become a paroxysm of insurgent violence and general lawlessness in Iraq, its authors criticized the shortcomings of the then-prevailing concept of “winning over the hearts and minds” as the catchall key to victory. However, they admitted its essential importance.

Many roadblocks exist to winning the hearts and minds in post-war Iraq: the most important is American ethnocentrism. U.S. soldiers and statesmen generally lack understanding of the Arab worldview…. Part of America’s inability to persuade the Iraqis derives from their very foreignness and America’s inability to fully understand their psychology. Only Arabs fully understand their own paradigm, but cultural training could help American occupiers to be more attuned to Arab sensibilities.49

A 2008 study on “Successful Revolutionary Movements” by Raymond Millen for the American Strategic Studies Institute represents yet another link between the Algerian War and the current view of the U.S. military regarding soldiers’ and planners’ cultural awareness and the importance of perceptions. In a section with the heading, “State sponsorship or protection of unpopular economic and social arrangements or cultural institutions,” Millen noted of the Algerian War that the stage was set before the revolution ever started for a widening gap in perceptions because of the failure the French to translate their good intentions into good legislation. Specifically, he pointed out the inefficiency of relying heavily on unpopular “intermediaries”— pro-French Muslims and Harkis–within Muslim society. This coupled with “the paltry number of French administrators,” who were “over-worked and understaffed” and had “little contact with the populace,” put the French in a dangerous political situation.50 This can largely be attributed, he noted, to a lack of cultural intelligence, and the failure of the French to appreciate the importance of understanding and then utilizing the host nation’s former, internal political power structures. The United States has since attempted to learn from this example. Millen quoted in this regard Alistair Horne’s observation that “the tragedy of the Algerian Insurgency might have been averted had the French shown ‘a little more magnanimity, [and] a little more trust, moderation and compassion.’”51

The role that international and French domestic politics played in the context of the Algerian War was also crucially important. In fact, much of the tangled confusion of French domestic politics during the Algerian War undercut the effectiveness of French military policy. While the problem of the pieds noirs may be unique to the French predicament in Algeria, as the colonists, who were full French citizens, held such a commanding position in Algeria, the obstacle they represented for the French during the counterinsurgency does provide lessons for others. For instance, French political disunity, and a general lack of a cohesive national will, prompted at least in part by the actions of the pieds noirs, illustrates the obstacles that politically powerful third parties can pose for liberal governments in attempting to deal with protracted, costly wars of insurrection. David Galula explained the importance of the political situation in France this way:

Instability and paralysis of the government had been the dominant feature of political life in France, at least since the end of World War II. Parliament had become the real source of power. There, a cluster of small democratic parties, united against the Communists on the far left and against the Gaullists on the right, sometimes combined but more often competed for the privilege of running the government. A parliamentary majority could always be found for any problem, but when the problem changed, the majority changed with it, so that long-term, coherent policy was impossible to formulate—much less to implement. Short-lived cabinets built on precarious coalitions succeeded each other, often after a long crisis, and fell apart after the first serious hurdle.52

This explains perfectly the situation in France that made it difficult for the various governments of the Fourth Republic to deal with effectively with the pieds noirs or the situation in Algeria. Writing nearly half of a century later for the Strategic Studies Institute, Raymond Millen observed “moreover, the frequent shuffling of government officials undercut a coherent and consistent policy towards Algeria,” which suggests a strong link between the French situation in the 1950s and American counterinsurgency doctrine in the 21st century.53 Such a shuffling of governments reflects a lock of political will, which made it difficult to prosecute a war. This is true for modern democracies as well, especially with irregular wars in which progress is slow and objectives are usually inherently nebulous. By the 21st century, many military experts more thoroughly embraced the principle that military operations be planned with political objectives and popular support in mind. As the U.S. Army/ Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual explains the “political” element in military operations:

At the strategic level, gaining and maintaining U.S. public support for a protracted deployment is critical. Only the most senior military officers are involved in this process at all. It is properly a political activity. However, military leaders typically take care to ensure that their actions and statements are forthright. They also ensure that the conduct of operations neither makes it harder for elected leaders to maintain public support nor undermine public confidence.54

Such a comment’s inclusion in official U.S. military doctrine is surprising given the military’s long-standing position of keeping politics and military operations separate. The experience of wars involving insurgency has brought about a change in military thinking, one in which so far as conflict situations are concerned, has seen as impossible to separate the fighting of a modern war from political concerns.

Just as domestic support is crucial, international politics has also come to play an important role in counterinsurgency strategy after the Algerian War. As Millen notes, “The French did not appreciate the power of the media, particularly film footage and photos, in defending its policies, and lost an important front in the war.”55 International opinion in fact became progressively more critical of the French actions in Algeria, at the very time the FLN was committing terrible atrocities of its own; the critical focus of the world, however, was squarely on France. This point has become even more important in the early 21st century in an age of unprecedented global interconnectedness. “The advent of global media has only compounded the problem,” a recent RAND research document has noted, “enemy propagandists have a field day when COIN forces kill or injure innocent people.”56 Much as David Galula argued, when a powerful democracy kills innocent people, the world pays extremely close attention, which can easily lead to pressure and even condemnation. The U.S. military has accepted this assessment. Millen, in summarizing the U.S. interpretation of the issue, writes: “Algeria had made France one of the most reviled members in the U.N., prompting de Gaulle to seek an end to the war, even if under less than ideal conditions.”57 The Algerian War is a perfect example of the effect international opinion can have on the ability of a nation to successfully defeat insurgencies. This is true not only in the conduct of war but of organizing coalitions, which has become an increasingly important element in recent wars. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 demonstrates this, but as one multinational research study done on coalition warfare indicated, coalitions “have played an increasingly prominent role in international security policy since the end of the Cold War.”58 A hostile international attitude, as the French interpreted during their war in Algeria, posed serious problems in such protracted hostilities, much as others since have similarly experienced.

A 2007 thesis for the Command and General Staff College, comparing the French practices in the Algerian War and the U.S. doctrine as described in the counterinsurgency field manual, stresses the awareness of international opinion in counterinsurgency operations that American operations must incorporate:

French political and military leaders repeatedly argued against any outside involvement in what they believed to be an internal issue… The continued reporting by the FLN and other groups of the atrocities, brutality, and repression of rights of Algerians were put forth in highly public forums like the UN, and continued to tarnish France’s claim to their legitimate role of maintaining Algeria as a part of the republic. French dialogue with other nations on Algeria did not exist, and they never publicly addressed the issues of repression colonialism. These actions caused French operations to lose legitimacy. Strife in France increased over the course of the direction of the conflict, and world opinion turned against the perceived colonial policies of France.59

While this passage lacks depth and a thorough historical perspective, it does indicate what some American military officers believed they had learned from the Algerian War: that modern military operations must pay close attention to international perceptions of military operations. As the counterinsurgency manual states:

The omnipresence and global reach of today’s news media affects the conduct of military operations more than ever before… Insurgents use terrorist tactics to produce graphics that they hope will influence public opinion—both locally and globally.60

In this way, the United States became committed to avoiding the international backlash that the French suffered during their counterinsurgency in Algeria.

The United States military, as indicated by its current counterinsurgency field manual, (among various other relevant publications discussed in this chapter) developed its counterinsurgency doctrine with several historical precedents in mind. The Algerian War, in particular, offered the United States exceptionally important lessons regarding the prerequisite necessity for a viable political solution during any counterinsurgency. The French failure, despite military success, provides an exceptional lesson which has been incorporated directly into American doctrine.

1 David Galula. Pacification in Algeria: 1956-1958. pg. 5

2Ucko. The New Counterinsurgency Era. p. 78

3Ibid. p. Bib-1

4 Michael Kaufman. “What Does the Pentagon See in the ‘Battle of Algiers’” New York Times, September 7, 2003, pg. WK3.

5Interview with Gillo Pontecorvo in booklet accompanying the Criterion edition DVD.

6 Hugh Roberts. “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. ed. Martin Alexander, Martin Evans and J Keigler. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. pp. 151-161

7Ibid. pg. 152

8Steven Hunter. “The Pentagon’s Lessons from Reel Life” Washington Post. September 4, 2003. pg. C01

9 PierNico Solinas, Introduction to the published screenplay of Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons 1973), pp. ix-x.

10 Carlo Celli, “Gillo Pontecorvo’s Return to Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo”. Film Quarterly, vol. 58, No. 2 (Winter, 2004-2005), pg. 49

11 Phillip Gourevitch, “Winning and Losing”. The New Yorker. December 22, 2003.


13Celli. p. 49

14 Ibid. p. 226.

15 Peter Rainer, “Prescient Tense: Re-creating the carnage of fifties Algeria—bombings, assassination, police torture– The Battle of Algiers is as relevant today as it was in 1965.” New York (magazine) (January 12, 2004) (web accessed) <;

16Detreux. p. 6

17 Nagl p. 29

18 Robert Thompson. Defeating Communist Insurgency: Experiences from Malaya and Vietnam. pg. 50

19 Military Review “Special Edition: Counterinsurgency Reader” Combined Arms Center, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas October 2006

20 Galula. Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. (1964) pg. 8

21 Anonymous Introduction. “From Algeria to Iraq: All but Forgotten Lessons from Nearly 50 Years Ago.” RAND Review, Summer, 2006. pg 22

22 Col. Chad Rotzien. Fighting a Global Insurgency Utilizing Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare Theory. p. 13

23 Tactics in Counterinsurgency. Headquarters: Department of the Army. April, 2009. pg. ix

24 Ibid. pg. 3-9

25 Galula. Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. (1964) pp. 94,95

26 Nagl. p. 198

27 Galula. Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. (1964) pg. 75

28 Maj. Steven Vrooman. A Counterinsurgency Campaign Plan Concept: The Galula Compass. pg. 26

29 U.S. Army/U.S. Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. pg 3-16

30 Anthony Joes. Resisting Rebellion: The History and Politics of Counterinsurgency. (The consistency of several examples throughout the book, among others cited elsewhere, contributed to this particular cited conclusion)

31 Galula. Counterinsurgency Warfare. pp. xii, xiii

32 Vrooman. p. 26

33Tactics in Counterinsurgency. pg. ix

34 Galula. Counterinsurgency Warfare. pg. 107

35 U.S. Army/U.S. Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. pg 1-31

36 Ucko. The New Counterinsurgency Era pg 44

37 Ibid. pg. Bib-1

38 U.S. Army/U.S. Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. pg 1-31

39 Maj. Jason Norton. The French-Algerian War and FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency: A Comparison. pg. 58

40 Ibid. pg. 58

41 U.S. Army/U.S. Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Pp. 7-3,7-4

42 Karl Goetzke. A Review of Algerian War of National Liberation Using the U.S. Army’s Current Counterinsurgency Doctrine. pg. 2

43 U.S. Army/U.S. Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. p. 3-13

44 Keith Booth. Strategy and Ethnocentrism. 1979 pp.104-107

45 Horne. p. 37

46 U.S. Army/U.S. Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Pg. 5-20

47 Galula. Pacification in Algeria: 1956-1958. pg. 72

48 Ibid. p. 72

49 Maj. Justin Gage, Maj. William Martin, Maj. Tim Mitchell, Maj. Pat Wingate. Winning the Peace in Iraq: Confronting America’s Informational and Doctrinal Handicaps. pp. 1,2

50 Millen. p. 25

51 Ibid. p. 25

52 Galula. Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. (1964) p. 7

53 Millen. p. 35

54 U.S. Army/U.S. Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. p. 1-26

55 Millen. p. 40

56 Underkill: Scalable Capabilities for Military Operations Amid Populations. RAND research document. p. xv

57 Millen. p. 41

58 Coalition Military Operations: The Way Ahead Through Cooperability. Report of a French-German-UK-U.S. Working Group. 2000 (updated in 2010) p. ix

59 Norton. p. 85

60 U.S. Army/U.S. Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. p. A-6

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s