Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks: The Delicate Nature of Military Action and Intelligence Gathering
The United States cannot afford to take the attitude that civilian casualties are unfortunate but unavoidable. Expressions of regret cannot repair the political damage caused by harming people whom U.S. troops are supposed to protect. When the U.S. military is entrusted with responsibility for security in another country, that country’s inhabitants should be accorded the same protection from death and injury that Americans enjoy at home. A lower standard is indefensible on strategic, political, and logical grounds.1
The tactics of military operations involved in counterinsurgencies are, as previously stated, profoundly different from the tactics of conventional warfare.
When conducting counterinsurgencies, militaries must account for their own weaknesses and the strengths of the enemy, and devise strategies consistent with whatever conclusions they reach. In many ways, the French destruction of the FLN during the Algerian War was a textbook case in how to neutralize a guerrilla enemy, though with a few important caveats, as this chapter will elucidate. This chapter will focus on three key areas, based on the works of American military officers and experts, which illustrate the way the Algerian War directly affected the U.S. military approaches to counterinsurgency operations. These particular aspects focus on how careful modern counterinsurgency forces must be in carrying out their military operations. While there are several military lessons from the Algerian War that deal specifically with how best to destroy the enemy force, this chapter will focus on the modern necessity of conducting counterinsurgency operations that cause minimum harm to the target population. This is important so that the cooperation of the population—the central objective in American counterinsurgency doctrine—can be achieved. The overarching theme in this chapter focuses on the way the American military has adjusted its fundamental approach to military operations in support of counterinsurgencies, making them population-centric, rather than myopically focused on the destruction of the enemy. U.S. naval officer Robert Riggs, writing for the Naval War College, organized his four lessons as: the importance of “Psychological Operations,” “Human Intelligence,” “Employment of Forces,” and a “Measured Response,” which will be explained later. 2 This chapter will adopt a similar organization and examine three essential lessons learned by the American armed forces: the primacy of intelligence, the importance of engaging in an appropriate use of force, and the emphasis on psychological warfare.
Counterinsurgency, as has been mentioned, is primarily a political endeavor, but military operations are a necessary and significant part, as physical security is required for those entities tasked with the establishment of political stability. As the counterinsurgency field manual makes clear, it is imperative to “establish and expand secure areas.”3 Political measures alone will not initially secure anything or anyone, even if such measures represent the ultimate basis of permanent, lasting security. Once elements of an insurgency establish their control over a certain area, the counterinsurgents must use force in order to take control back. Naturally, this force must occur within close proximity to the very populace the counterinsurgents hope to win over. Whether purposefully or accidentally, killing members of the target population undermines any effort to persuade them to cooperate with the government. Therefore, great effort must go into keeping the non-insurgent population safe from violence. Historically, this has been an extremely difficult task and virtually impossible to do perfectly, as collateral damage eventually occurs. The extreme difficulty of avoiding this, coupled with the U.S. military’s objective to win over the population, explains why this matter is so important to the United States military. As this chapter will demonstrate, the experience of the Algerian War has heavily influenced the current U.S. military’s perception of the importance of what is termed “appropriate use of force.”
Fighting a war is necessarily a violent, brutal endeavor. Regardless of technological advances, the essence of war is the killing of other human beings. Such brutality has become more and more loathsome to the populations of liberal democracies. While war is certainly not an extinct endeavor, the ability of liberal states to maintain public support for protracted, costly wars diminished during the 20th century. While clear, rational objectives and demonstrated success can alleviate such inherent difficulties, the particular nature of counterinsurgency warfare brings with it a different set of obstacles. Therefore, it is extremely important for modern states to maximize their military efficiency by killing more of the enemy and fewer innocent civilians. Additionally, it is crucial for states to practice internationally acceptable methods and follow international rules of warfare even if the United States military believes that “the contest of [this type of] war is not ‘fair;’ [and] many of the ‘rules’ favor insurgents.”4
One aspect of counterinsurgency that is crucial is intelligence. An article entitled, “Intelligent Design: COIN Operations and Intelligence Collection and Analysis” concludes that
In COIN, the environment is as important as the enemy, because the neutral majority, the center of gravity, resides there. COIN requires an appreciation of cultures, religions, tribes, classes, ethnicities, and languages, so that the people will view U.S. forces and their own government positively and work against an insurgency. Consequently most intelligence is collected by human intelligence.5
Even before the Algerian War France recognized that intelligence was vital to combating an insurgency. One of the “forgotten successes” of the French in Southeast Asia is the very accurate intelligence they gathered despite unfavorable conditions. Dien Bien Phu, the famous military defeat of the French by the Vietminh, Alexander Zervoudakis has noted, came about more as a result of political meddling than a failure of military intelligence.6 Continuing their habit of putting a high priority on good intelligence into the Algerian War, French forces during the Battle of Algiers were quite successful in piecing together an accurate picture of the FLN network, and eventually bringing the group to its knees. French intelligence even went as far as to follow closely several key FLN members in New York City.7 One especially memorable element of French intelligence is the way in which it was willing to use torture to derive information. However, regardless of the methods the French used to gather information, which are discussed in greater detail later in the chapter, the priority they gave to intelligence, and its tremendous impact on the destruction of the FLN, demonstrates how essential such a priority is in counterinsurgency warfare.
As David Galula pointed out in Algeria, borrowing from Mao Tse-tung, “[the Algerians were] Moslems, and we were not. The rebel fish could swim better in Moslem water than the counterinsurgent land mammal.”8 Therefore, it was imperative for the counterinsurgent forces to obtain as clear and realistic a picture of the “Muslim sea” as possible. The French realized their innate disadvantages were thus aggressive in their efforts to obtain knowledge of the FLN’s tactics, its patterns, its composition, its operational strength, and the relationship it had with the population. Methods of obtaining useful information about an enemy that are more significant in conventional wars are signals intelligence (interception of electronic communication between different enemy elements) and airborne intelligence (using airpower to catch a glimpse of the physical presence and movements of the enemy). While the French put these methods to use and achieved some observable results, in Algeria, the more useful form of intelligence was “human intelligence.” Human intelligence refers to information that is obtained from individuals who are involved with the conflict that may be useful to the counterinsurgent force. Sir Robert Thompson explains the purpose and objectives of this kind of intelligence in wars involving insurgencies:
Whatever the circumstances of the insurgency, there will nearly always be some people who are prepared to surrender for one reason or another and join the government side. Well-treated and carefully interrogated, sometimes over a long period, they reveal a tremendous amount of information. A situation gradually develops whereby any later individual who is captures or surrenders can be interrogated on the basis of a mass of information already available to the intelligence organization. This shocks the truth out of him far more effectively than torture.9
More recently, an American military research report, drawing upon the French experience, explained:
The key to an effective HUMINT [human intelligence] capability is to foster trust and build relationships with the local population. As these relationships grow and the local population recognizes that the insurgents are a greater threat than the military, and that the military is capable and willing to protect them, they will come forward and deliver intelligence. The French found this to be true as their HUNINT network strengthened in proportion to their ability to understand and work with the local population.10
Even though American military thinkers concluded that torture was counterproductive to overall counterinsurgency efforts they still saw the French as an example to follow in other aspects of their human intelligence gathering.
Because they lack the resources of conventional armies, insurgent groups generally adopt different methods, which conventional military forces like the French in Algeria are not trained sufficiently to deal with. Most of the time, these methods involve the pre-planned killing of civilians and other brutal atrocities, such as the setif massacres. When, in response, developed states partake in similar methods and tactics they likely suffer from international backlash, like official condemnation which may damage that nation’s image; at least this was the fear of de Gaulle’s administration during the Algerian War which why international opinion contributed to the cessation of the french effort to retain Algeria. This helps explain why France’s military success did not translate into final victory as de Gaulle ordered France out of Algeria with international opinion in mind. The French example in Algeria taught that regardless of the methods that insurgents were willing to use, the counterinsurgent force was held responsible for its actions and must live up to the national standards they profess. As Sir Robert Thompson explains:
There is a very strong temptation in dealing both with terrorism and with guerrilla actions for government forces to act outside the law, the excuses being that the processes of law are too cumbersome, that the normal safeguards in the law for the individual are not designed for an insurgency and that a terrorist deserves to be treated as an outlaw anyway. Not only is this morally wrong, but, over a period, it will create more practical difficulties for a government than it solves. A government which does not act in accordance with the law forfeits the right to be called a government and cannot then expect its people to obey the law.11
While Thompson’s observation was not derived specifically from the Algerian War, its logic fits the lessons the Americans have derived from both Thompson and the French experience in Algeria.
The advantage in this respect was with the insurgents, for as Galula puts it, “The insurgent, having no responsibility, is free to use every trick; if necessary, he can lie, cheat, exaggerate.”12 Even if Galula’s claims are somewhat disingenuous, the FLN could murder its own civilians, as it did, with few or no real international repercussions, while French prestige would take a serious blow from revelations of torture. This meant that the FLN simply had to “wait it out” as the populations of larger democracies—in the court of international opinion—grew critical and the French themselves grew weary of war and became more divided on the use of torture. Such was the case in the Algerian War: the FLN hoped its terrorism would induce French reprisals, which would bring forth international condemnation of the French, and thus obviate its significant military and economic advantages. One such atrocity occurred in May of 1956, when French special forces responded to the death of two of their own by killing nearly 80 Muslims in a Turkish bath. None of the French troops were held responsible for the massacre. Such actions, the American naval officer Robert Riggs, has pointed out, only fueled the fire of the insurgency and improved the FLN’s position in the international arena.”13
One of the salient memories of the Algerian War that shapes its legacy and has affected the debate on counterinsurgencies today is the French army’s recourse to torture as a means of gathering information. Torture was justified by French commanders, and it seems to have greatly enhanced the ability of French authorities to gain valuable intelligence on the FLN.14 During the Battle of Algiers, several methods of torture were extensively employed which have since been condemned. The adoption of torture has, and remains, a subject of much discussion and disagreement. Torture is also, of course, a matter of definition. What is acceptable? What makes one method unacceptable but another acceptable? Wuillaume, a French senior civil servant, endorsed certain forms of torture, contending that they were effective and “no more brutal than deprivation of food, drink, and tobacco, which is always been accepted.” Among the methods he accepted included “water and electricity methods provided they are carefully used.” He reasoned that they would “produce a shock which is more psychological than physical and therefore do not constitute excessive cruelty.” 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.”15 Several individuals within the American military, as will be evidenced later in this chapter, argued that such methods, while justified by many French soldiers and leaders, greatly contributed to the erosion of public support for the war.
General Massu, the commander of French paras—the elite paratrooper unit deployed to exterminate the FLN—during the Battle of Algiers—as even that film reveals, was not the monster some suggested, or a commander who relished torturing prisoners. Rita Maran’s work Torture: The Role of Ieology in the French Algerian War, cogently lays bare the predicament Massu found himself in.
Mutilations carried out by the FLN and its supporters were atrocities that qualified as private acts of torture. Massu was responsible, as military commander in Algiers, for the protection of its inhabitants and was especially concerned with stopping these particular acts of terrorism…. [Among the evidence of atrocities committed by the FLN were] Children wounded by gunshot because they continued to attend school…men whose nose and lips were sliced off because they did not honor the FLN interdiction against smoking…families whose dead bodies were lumped together in horrible resemblance to…concentration camp atrocities. Against such atrocities Massu acted in accordance with what he considered the responsibilities of his post. The great mass of Muslim Algerians whom he respected and wished to protect were, he said, his major consideration as governor of Algiers. As for the small segment among them who were terrorists and rebels, he was not constrained from taking reciprocal action against them.”16
Such logic is attractive to those “on the ground” in Algeria, like Massu, who had the responsibility of defeating the insurgency. However, as history generally and the Algerian War specifically taught the American military, in the long run torture does more harm that good. Albert Camus, the brilliant novelist and eminent French intellectual who sympathized with the plight of Muslim Algerians, said that, “torture has perhaps saved some at the expense of honour, by uncovering thirty bombs, but at the same time it created fifty new terrorists, who operating in some other way and in another place, would cause the death of even more innocent people.”17 An American officer has similarly noted in 2007 that the French suffered from their “misuse of force when they used torture” because “inappropriate tactics and disproportionate use of force could backfire, turn the population against the counterinsurgent and create an environment ripe for recruitment by the insurgents.”18 Even if it were provable that torture leads to short-term intelligence breakthroughs, given the objective of counterinsurgency warfare of winning over the civilian populace, torture is now considered by many counterproductive.
The effectiveness of torture as a method of intelligence gathering is presently a matter of heated debate and differing opinions.19 In a recent study of the Algerian War, by a “consultant to the Social Science Department” of the RAND Corporation the author asserts for example that torture, despite its alleged moral problems, actually has produced observable results. “Whatever the moral judgment of such methods may be,” the report indicates, “the extreme effectiveness of those offensive operations which resort to them is undeniable.” The report concludes that intelligence directly resulting from torture contributed more than anything else to the destruction of the FLN. However the reports also warns that “the difficulties and inconveniences of such operations must not be overlooked…. such methods cannot be used without shocking the population itself… one may ask if, in the long run, the negative feelings thus repressed are not reasserted to the benefit of the rebellion.”20 So while there exists a legitimate debate regarding the efficacy of such methods, torture has been largely rejected as an acceptable action by the United States military.
Comparing the current U.S. attitude towards the use of torture to that of the French in Algeria, an American major has written:
Much of the French failures can be attributed to the tactical methods employed that, despite success, resulted in strategic failure. FM 3-24 [the counterinsurgency field manual] devotes a chapter to addressing the legal considerations and ethical actions required in a counterinsurgency. U.S. doctrine clearly articulates the importance of adherence to strict guidelines of international law, U.S. policy and regulation, and legal precedence. The French did not address such considerations. In many cases, they attempted to justify their actions by citing the nature of the enemy and enemy terror tactics. The French suspended the rights of the individual in their single-minded pursuit of the FLN/ALN.21
While there is still considerable debate on the subject, there has thus recently emerged an acknowledgment of the long-term, negative effects that torture can have on counterinsurgency operations, which has been reinforced and enhanced by the French experience in the Algerian War. The U.S. counterinsurgency field manual dedicates an entire section on the French decision to use torture during the Algerian War. There it notes,
This official condoning of torture on the part of the French Army leadership had several negative consequences. It empowered the moral legitimacy of the opposition, undermined the French moral legitimacy, and caused internal fragmentations among serving officers that led to an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1962. In the end, failure to comply with moral and legal restrictions against torture severely undermined French efforts and contributed to their loss despite several significant military victories. Illegal and immoral activities made the counterinsurgents extremely vulnerable to enemy propaganda inside Algeria among the Muslim population, as well as in the United Nations and the French Media. These actions also degraded the ethical climate throughout the French Army. France eventually recognized Algerian independence in July 1963.22
The United States military’s current official stance on torture in support of counterinsurgencies is as follows:
Abuse of detained persons is immoral, illegal, and unprofessional. Those who engage in cruel or inhuman treatment of prisoners betray the standards of the profession of arms and U.S. laws. They are subject to punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The Geneva Conventions, as well as the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, agree on unacceptable interrogating techniques. Torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment is never a morally permissible option, even if the lives depend on gaining information. No exceptional circumstances permit the use of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.23
This conclusion by the U.S. military is the result of a progression, even since 2001, that is characterized by shying progressively away from such methods. It is likely that the “lessons” of Algeria regarding torture have been retroactively embraced after the United States’ own encounters with related controversy. The lesson here seems clear, that while the justification that French political and military leaders used for the torture of FLN suspects may have seemed reasonable and justifiable at the time, the American view is that it led to bad policy, and contributed to national failure.
Psychological war is a crucial aspect of military operations in support of counterinsurgency. Psychological operations revolve around the conviction that the primary objective is the cooperation of the population. As this thesis has argued, counterinsurgency is in its core objective a political endeavor. This means that all military actions in support of this political mission must be designed to affect change that is productive to that end. Therefore, force that may destroy the enemy is necessary, but only if such actions do not send many of the neutral population into the waiting arms of the insurgency. A RAND report written shortly after the Algerian War proposed a useful hypothetical scenario.
With the population entirely and profoundly on the side of the established power, one could consider the problem of insurgency solved. Under such conditions the counterinsurgent forces benefit from the information required to localize armed rebel bands and identify the members of their political organizations. Terrorism and secrecy remain the only tactical weapons of the insurgents, who have no opportunity to carry out their political strategy.24
Therefore, a proverbial tight-rope must be walked between not using enough force, which would fail to provide the security necessary for political gains, and too much force which would drive the “prize” of the battle, the population, away from the kind of active participation Galula deemed essential to success.
The Algerian War is perhaps the best demonstration of this concept in 20th-century history, even though for many and complex reasons, it was not successful. The 1964 RAND report on the Algerian War, cited above, argues that “it is indispensable for the counterinsurgents to act psychologically on the population… revolutionary warfare must be considered with certain reservations.” The report continues, “…some French theoreticians go so far as to claim that psychological action on the population is alone important, that the destruction of the rebel para-military forces is only secondary since it is influenced by the effectiveness of the measures taken to conquer the masses… and that the only effective methods are those used by the rebellion itself.” However, the author concludes that such thinking is “more theoretical than practical,” as the counterinsurgent military “engaged in hard daily combat… cannot wait for the problematic effects of psychological action on the population.”25 While this report and current American doctrine do not disagree with the assessment that psychological warfare is of crucial importance, neither sees it as a replacement for military action altogether. United States doctrine itself is clear on this.
Executing a COIN operation is complex, demanding, and tedious. There are no simple, quick solutions. Success often seems elusive. However, contributing to the complexity of the problem is the manner in which counterinsurgents view the environment and how they define success. The specific design of the COIN operation and the manner in which it is executed must be based on a holistic treatment of the environment and remain focused on the commander’s intent and end state. Success requires unity of effort across all LLOs (logical line of operations) to achieve objectives that contribute to the desired end state—establishing legitimacy and gaining popular support for the host nation government. Operational design and execution cannot really be separated. They are both part of the same whole.26
But although military actions are necessary, they must conform to a set of rules that precludes them from detracting from the psychological effort. Therefore, operations that may appear to be purely military, such as search-and-destroy missions, are both inherently political and psychological in this context. This means that combat must achieve a positive psychological impact. For instance, an operation that kills twelve insurgents and contributes to the security of a certain Algerian village without killing civilians or destroying much property is considered ideal. Conversely, an operation that kills or captures one hundred insurgents, but destroys a town full of neutral citizens ends up causing more harm than good. While all of this may seem to make counterinsurgency an exercise in futility, the RAND report cited above on the counterinsurgency lessons of the Algerian War, offers a way to avoid these problems, which represents how American military strategists approach the “mistakes” made by the French.
By rendering participation in the rebellion optional through protection of the population, by proving to the masses through spectacular military victories that armed struggle is impossible, by demonstrating through success and an unshakable will that the rebellion is not and never will be rewarding, and by eliminating the negative feelings and satisfying the positive aspirations of the inhabitants in order to make them understand that rebellion is useless, the counterinsurgents can put into practice numerous methods of psychological action on the population and thwart those which are being used by the rebellion .27
Thus, in a war that is more about convincing than killing, military actions must be conceived and carried out in such a way that takes into consideration their psychological implications on host nation population it impacts.
Another aspect of the Algerian War that has served as a lesson for American military thinkers is the practice of collective punishment, which is the practice of targeting large groups of likely innocent people with the assumption that there will likely be a few insurgents among them. Such a practice ignores one of the central rules of counterinsurgency: the necessity of gaining the population’s support. There are few better ways to lose support than to round up or kill large numbers of people, many of whom may be innocent. As Alistair Horne has written of the tactics employed by the French units,
On the ground, the physical reaction–or over-reaction–was predictable. It was predictable, not specifically because of the pieds noir mentality, but because this is the way an administration caught with its pants down habitually reacts under such circumstances… First comes the mass indiscriminate round-up of suspects, most of them innocent but converted into ardent militants by the fact of their imprisonment; then the setting of faces against liberal reforms designed to tackle the root of the trouble; followed, finally, when too late, by a new, progressive policy of liberalization.28
The reforms nearly always came too late and in too feeble form to pacify people so indiscriminately dealt with. Horne makes the same point when he notes:
[T]he French Conseil-General for the department of Algiers… voted unanimously: that order be firmly and rapidly restored…that the guilty, whoever they are, be exemplarily punished… that, henceforth, no weakness be tolerated… and that French Policy… be founded upon the healthy elements of the population.29
Such actions, according to Horne worked against the efforts of those in the French government sympathetic to the Muslim Algerians’ plight who pushed for political reform that might have created support for the French and the maintenance of their rule in Algeria.
In terms of the American military’s interpretation of the French use of collective punishment, one American officer has written, “Rationalizing the extreme circumstances warranted extreme countermeasures… General Jacques Massau, [sic] authorized wholesale round-ups of entire neighborhoods in addition to extrajudicial preemptive detentions of FLN suspects.” These actions, “lacked the foresight of the second and third order effects and consequences as a result of their military actions.”30 The lessons from the French practice of collective punishment are firmly entrenched in American doctrine, as is seen in the sensitivity American planners have emphasized in planning military operations and their effect on the target population. Being too harsh can turn neutral members of the population away, while being too soft can cause the population to doubt the resolve of the counterinsurgent force. Successful military endeavors must balance the two. A juxtapositioning of the two current methods “cordoning and entering” and “cordoning and knocking” offer interesting insight into the appreciation the United States has for the importance of winning over the population. Both of the above concepts are subsets of “cordon and search” operations, which are “conducted to seal of an area in order to search it for persons or things such as items, intelligence data, or answers to priority intelligence requirements.”31 Cordoning and entering involves a certain risk level for soldiers, and is authorized when intelligence demands extra security. “Cordon and knock… is less intrusive than cordon and search. It is used when the populace is seen as friendly or neutral, when no resistance is expected, and when the goal is to disrupt and inconvenience the occupants as little as possible.”32
This policy represents a tremendous departure from the attitude of “collective responsibility” that the French followed during certain, sometimes critical points in the Algerian War. While this practice was not commonplace throughout the war’s duration, its occurrences were frequent enough to warrant analysis and adjustments on application when American planners evolved their counterinsurgency doctrine. The Algerian War offered a unique lesson for others. Because the military is the designated entity to conduct counterinsurgencies, and its tradition and history are characterized by a strong preference for conventional warfare, coupled with a tradition of conservatism and resistance to anything that may threaten that tendency, counterinsurgency has been a problematic endeavor. All of which makes historical examples like the Algerian War particularly important for military situations that involve counterinsurgency. This has been especially true for the American military and explains the attention the Algerian War has received from recent American military planners.
1 Underkill p. xv
2 LCDR Robert Riggs. Counter-Insurgency Lessons from the French-Algerian War. p. 12
3 U.S. Army/U.S. Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. p. 1-31
4 U.S. Army/U.S. Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. p. 1-2
5 Dan Zeytoonian et al., “Intelligent Design: COIN Operations and Intelligence Collection and Analysis.” Military Review September-October 2006, p 30
6 Alexander Zervoudakis. “From Indochina to Algeria” The Algerian War and the French Army. p.47
7 Irwin Wall. France, the United States and the Algerian War. p. 167
8 Galula. Pacification in Algeria. p. 69
9 Thompson. p. 87
10 Riggs. p. 10
11 Thompson, Robert. Defeating Communist Insurgency: Experiences from Malaya and Vietnam. pg. 52
12 Galula, David. Counterinsurgency Warfare. Pp. 14
13 Riggs. p. 14
14 William Polk . Violent Politics. 141
15 Horne. p. 197
16 Rita Maran. Torture: The role of ideology in the French Algerian War. New York: Praeger, 1989. pp. 100,101
17 Horne. p.205
18 Rotzien. p. 6
19 Charles Krauthammer. “The Torture Debate, Continued.” The Washington Post. Friday, May 15, 2009. (web accessed)
20 Melnik. p. 197,198
21 Norton. p. 110
22 U.S. Army/U.S. Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. p. 7-10
23 Ibid. p. 7-9
24 Melnik. p. 212
25 Ibid. p. 218
26 U.S. Army/U.S. Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. pp. 5-31, 5-32
27 Ibid. p. 240
28 Horne. p. 96
29 Ibid. p. 97
30 Detruex. p. 9
31 U.S. Army/U.S. Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. p. 5-8
32 Ibid. p. 5-8