The Algerian War’s effect on American Counterinsurgency Doctrine: Part 2


The Setting: A Foundation for Revolution

generally blazing down without pity or moderation, but capable of unpredictable, fierce change. Immense, beautiful, sudden, savage and harsh; one gropes inadequately for the right adjectives to describe the country1

Understanding the starting point of the Algerian Revolution is requisite to comprehending the nature of the subsequent counterinsurgency. The United States military has decided that during any counterinsurgency, the primary goal must be to win over the native population, which is something the French government failed to do in Algeria. The root of the problem for many Muslims in Algeria was a lack of representation in local and national governments as Algerians were promised citizenship, which they never really received. This problem was exacerbated by the hostile treatment at the hands of the European colonists who appropriated much of the best land and disproportionately dominated Algerian local politics, which resulted in biased laws meant to keep the Europeans in nearly complete control. While many in the French government identified this as a problem, their efforts to enact reform failed repeatedly for a number of reasons that will be discussed in this chapter. The French failure to overcome the practical difficulties in instituting reform characterized politics in French Algeria for its duration. The failure to solve these problems resulted in an insurrection, known as the Algerian War.

The French counterinsurgency effort was made unusually difficult by the pieds noirs. European pieds noirs, also referred to as colons by many Muslim Algerians, were adventurous people of various European descents and had conspicuously different interests than the mainland French. The pieds noirs enjoyed a substantial advantage in terms of living conditions and government representation. Dominating French Algerian politics, these settlers feared that an increase in representation for Muslims would threaten the way of life they had worked so hard to establish. Therefore, pied noirs logic held that oppression of Muslim Algerians equated to protection of their own interests. Moreover, this oppressive attitude, a problem in itself over time, was coupled with racism and vitriol. As a famous pied noirs poet, Jules Roy, admitted, “One thing I knew because it was told to me so often, was that the Arabs belonged to a different race, one inferior to my own.”2 In this environment, some members of the French government, who will be identified later, claimed prematurely, though their reform efforts never yielded anything substantial, that Muslim Algerians were really French citizens and that they were being assimilated. This rhetoric was obviously not true because it never translated into tangible reform, which enhanced dissent among Algerian Muslims. Even if the French government realized the dislocation between its rhetoric and reality, it failed to evaluate adequately the potential dissent it would create, or to overcome the significant roadblocks that certain elements of French domestic politics provided.

This would explain why assimilationist rhetoric, explained later, essentially fell on deaf ears and undermined the support for the French of Arab moderates. Time and time again, pieds noirs interference was responsible for blocking political reforms intended to improve the political and social predicament of Muslim Algerians which might have precluded insurrection. The extent of the difficulties faced by the French did not mean they were insurmountable. After all, at the start of the insurgency in 1954, the FLN likely did not have the support of a majority of the Muslim population, or even for that matter of the Algerian Nationalists, who were fractured into several rival groups. The French claim, made throughout the insurrection, that the FLN insurgent group did not represent Muslim Algerians as a whole was justifiable for much of the Algerian War. However, French political failures, due to several complex factors, contributed to the FLN’s ability to win enough support of the Muslim population to supplant French authority. David Galula, a counterinsurgency specialist who experienced more success than most as the commander of a French unit that was tasked with pacifying multiple regions in Algeria from 1956 to 1958, concluded that:

There was no doubt in my mind that support from the population was the key to the whole problem for us as well as for the rebels. By “support” I mean not merely the sympathy or idle approval but active participation in the struggle.3

If the population was the key, then the political failures of the past had to be confronted if their support was to ever materialize. Thus, the mentalities of various French government officials, the French military, pieds noirs and Algerian Muslims at the outbreak of the conflict are crucial to understanding the entire conflict.

As stated earlier, over the course of the French presence in Algeria, the universalist French notion of sovereignty, which dated from the French Revolution, was repeatedly contradicted by the actual French involvement with Algerians on Algerian soil. In 1955, the French Governor-General of Algeria, Jacques Soustelle, appointed by Prime Minister Pierre Mendes-France, opined:

France is at home here… or rather, Algeria and all her inhabitants form an integral part of France, one and indivisible. All must know, here and elsewhere, that France will not leave Algeria any more than she will leave Provence and Brittany. Whatever happens the destiny of Algeria is French.4

Even though it can be said that Soustelle’s words were likely genuine and there was serious consideration among reform-minded French politicians like Mendes France and Soustelle for minor liberal reform in Algeria, from the perspective of an Algerian, these sentiments were undercut by the memory of poor treatment at the hands of French colons. After Algeria had been effectively “pacified,” following the 1830 invasion, the French took a large majority of the best land for themselves. Even so, there were multiple efforts at reform to “assimilate” the Muslims of Algeria, as Todd Shepard has written the French government “expected all male inhabitants of Algeria to become French citizens eventually.” 5 However, even considering these good intentions, reality took a very different course. Progress towards actual equality for Muslim Algerians was repeatedly stalled. The “native code,” promulgated in 1881, indicates that French promises reform were not really powerful enough to make Muslim Algerians equal to European pieds noirs. According to Shepard, the code “instituted exorbitant penalties” for “infractions” that could only be committed by “natives,” which obviously referred to Muslims. “This inscription,” Shepard explains, “signaled the close of an active French policy of legal assimilation.”6 “The National Assembly’s repeated re-authorization of the supposedly temporary native code offered constant reaffirmation of the presumed inferiority of ‘Muslims.’”7 Shepard argues that an “embrace of pragmatism over principle” by the French incubated the failure to reform from 1881 until well into the 20th century.8 By the 1950s, he adds, “The architects of integration admitted that official failure to grapple with the reality of the mass exclusion of ‘Muslim’ Algerians from citizenship had institutionalized discrimination.”9 In short, Algerian society and culture were replaced with that of the French for the duration of Algeria’s colonization.

If a lack of meaningful political reform was at the heart of the mounting Muslim Algerian dissent to French rule, it cannot be said that such reform had not been attempted repeatedly. However, due to the realities of French politics, characterized by a general lack of any sustained, cohesive political front that could actually push reform through the intricate law-making process as well as bitter resistance from pieds noirs who were desperate to protect the way of life they had worked so hard to create, reform was constantly adulterated, delayed or defeated. Alistair Horne discussed a process that repeated itself throughout his narrative of the French in Algeria: “By and large, [attempts at reform] had followed a dismally stereotyped pattern, initiated by metropolitan France, frustrated by pieds noir pressure-groups.”10 Furthermore, France, following World War II was preoccupied with its own economic problems following the extreme destruction of French cities and industry during the war. Charles de Gaulle once said that it would take “a whole generation of furious work” just to bring France back to what it had been in the 1930’s.11

Thus, although there were a number of efforts by the French government to effect political change in Algeria after 1830, the failure to implement significant reforms represented the root of the problem for France’s effort to retain Algeria. There were in fact a significant number of Muslim Algerians who wanted to be a part of France, and a majority probably who would have accepted some form of French presence. After all, France did provide many observable benefits to Algeria, things like education, agriculture technology, improved public sanitation for cities and villages, and many other benefits. However, the failure to implement meaningful political reform damaged the ability of French politicians to point to these benefits as reasons why Algeria should remain French. Failing to satisfy even the more modest political demands of Algerian moderates undermined the government’s efforts to win Muslim support and precipitated the uprising.

Between the French invasion and the days leading up to the revolution, although occasional half-measures—the number of political reforms intended to increase representation for Muslim Algerians—had been attempted by French officials, the cold reality was that the pride of many Muslims had been assaulted by the colons for over a century. In 1847, Alexis de Tocqueville, then a deputy in the French National Assembly, told his government that “We have rendered Muslim society much more miserable and much more barbaric than it was before it became acquainted with us.”12 One hundred and twenty years later, William Polk, a political scientist and advisor on American foreign policy in the Middle East sent to Algeria in the 1960s, similarly noted that he “found that Algerians were so totally excluded from the colon economy that even ‘mom and pop’ laundries and bakeries were European monopolies.”13 Therefore, failed reform efforts did not do enough to secure and sustain the loyalty of Muslim Algerians. The French plea that Algerians were actually French, meant to stem the tide of dissent, did not improve the economic and social realities on the ground and was constantly belied by daily experience.

Furthermore, the promulgation of biased and racist laws, like the native code, created a rift between the French and the Algerians. This rift was ripe for exploitation by nationalist Algerians. Though much of the immediate culpability for the treatment of Muslim Algerians belongs to the pieds noirs, the French government was responsible for making good on its self-proclaimed duty to help Muslim Algerians attain political, social and economic equality. Furthermore, the French Government remained dangerously inactive regarding the building tension. Finally, the French effort to impose their culture upon Muslims in Algeria characterized the thoroughly unproductive effort to “assimilate” Algerians into France. Assimilation appeared to many Muslims as mere talk, and real progress for Algerians came too little, too late.

As a preview of things to come, during the late spring of 1945, Muslim separatists viciously unleashed their pent-up fury on the relatively unsuspecting pieds noirs in and around the Algerian town of Setif. The implications of the Setif massacre for the 1954 revolution are significant, as the brutal and atrocious acts committed by Algerian terrorists burned themselves into French collective memory. Alistair Horne wrote of the uprising:

The accumulated casualty reports made grisly reading: 103 Europeans murdered, plus another hundred wounded; a number of women brutally raped, including one aged eighty-four. Many of the corpses were appallingly mutilated: women with their breasts slashed off, men with their sexual organs stuffed into their mouths.14

For a society that historically thought of their Algerian neighbors as inferior, such brutal actions could only fuel that perception. Reinforced by the Setif massacre, this perception would lead to the justification of later controversial methods utilized by the French against the insurgency, such as of collective punishment and torture. The Setif massacre thus further dehumanized Muslim Algerians in the minds of pieds noirs and mainland French alike. As will be evidenced in later chapters, American military scholars later concluded that such dehumanization influenced the nature of the counterinsurgency.

Between the Setif massacre in 1945 and the outbreak of revolution nine years later, the French government failed to appreciate the signs of mounting unrest among Muslim Algerians. They continued to fail to enact any meaningful political reforms in Algeria that might have avoided, or at least have postponed, a violent revolution. Pieds noirs opportunists used the emotions that the Setif massacre stirred up in France to justify their expansion of political control over Algeria. Therefore, the outrage initiated by the massacre altered the political environment in a way that facilitated harsh reprisals by the army and the colons. Further exacerbating the situation was a significant growth in the Muslim population (the Muslim population jumped from 5.6 million in 1931 to 8.5 million in 1954)15 that coincided with economic troubles stemming from an influx of agricultural technology that made the labor of several thousands of Muslim agriculture workers obsolete.16 All of these problems—the resistance of pieds noirs to reform, Muslim restlessness, and widespread unemployment–made Algeria a difficult nut for Paris to crack.

On 1 November, 1954, All Saints Day, groups of armed separatists attacked military and government targets all over Algeria. At the same time, the FLN broadcast a communiqué explaining the ideological impetus for the violence. The communique read, “Goal: National independence through… [the] …restoration of the Algerian state, sovereign, democratic, and social, within the framework of the principles of Islam. “17 The FLN and its allies wanted nothing less than full autonomy. Almost two weeks later the Mendes-France administration responded that “one does not compromise when it comes to defending the internal peace of the nation, the unity and the integrity of the Republic.”18 This rebuttal was a clear indication that France was again defining Algeria as a part of the Republic, and perceived the issue to be a domestic matter. The two opposing premises regarding the sovereignty of Algeria were mutually exclusive, so no common ground could be found. This essentially left the French with two options: withdraw and lose Algeria or destroy the FLN and secure permanent political stability. France’s Prime Minister, Pierre Mendes-France, the same man who had negotiated France’s withdrawal from Indochina, set the tone for the next five years: France was going to fight.

The All Saints Dayattack was aimed at the centers of French power in Algeria as army installations, police stations and pieds noir civilians were attacked throughout the country. The selection of the targets was telling, as the insurgent forces had declared war on any “occupying” European foreigner. Mendes-France quickly sent military reinforcements to find those responsible for the attacks and to prevent any future attacks. Since the French had decided that the uprising was a domestic affair, many of the reinforcements were policemen.19 French forces immediately set to work hunting down the attackers. There were mass arrests in which guilty and innocent alike were rounded up and sent to prisons or holding areas. Pieds noirs were enraged by the attacks and pressured Paris for a tougher response. Several known Algerian nationalist groups were outlawed, and the French grip on day-to day life in Algeria tightened.20

One tactic common among French forces in the early days of the Algerian War was the ratissage, literally meaning “raking over,” which was similar to a search and destroy mission.21 Early in the uprising, these missions were usually ill-defined and involved wide sweeps of areas based on incomplete intelligence. These early examples, which often involved collective punishment and acts of violence, did more to hurt innocent Muslims who were “on the fence” than it did to injure the FLN. It is noteworthy that Mendes-France and Jacques Soustelle both issued orders against such policies, but the convoluted political environment of the Algerian War, including disobedience from the French military and significant political pressure from pied noirs interest groups, meant that collective punishment continued.22 Much like torture, these often clumsy, nebulously targeted ratissages, especially those involving the harsh treatment of innocents, actuallyserved to radicalize Algerians who might otherwise have remained neutral.23

As the French military and police worked to stem the attacks on European settlers, the FLN expanded its attacks against Muslims. Muslims were much more vulnerable to the FLN’s attacks than pieds noirs, since France put a higher emphasis on protecting Europeans. The FLN attacks on Muslim civilians were intended to drive a wedge between the Muslim population and the French government. If Muslims could be coerced into disassociating from the French “assimilation” would be impossible, thus making the permanent occupation of Algerian soil untenable. The French political leadership recognized the threat this posed and became convinced that political and social reform were critically necessary. However, the pieds noirs, who believed that their entire way of life rested on their ability to rule over the Muslims of Algeria, bitterly resisted political and social reforms. As one scholar has put it, “The failure of this policy [that is to institute meaningful reform] in all its guises, or its abandonment, meant the end of French Algeria.”24 France was forced to either make difficult, politically unpopular decisions or wage a losing war as best it could.

Early in the war, the FLN lacked a developed organization and adequate funding. The organization was therefore forced to be frugal when planning its operations.25 But although it was poorly supplied, the FLN was able to establish a grassroots movement across many parts of Algeria, indeed, decentralized, local violence spread even as the FLN’s leaders were being apprehended. In spite of key gains made by the French in apprehending FLN leaders, the insurgent organization survived and was able to establish the beginnings of a “state within a state” in Algeria. This “state within a state” concept is essential for the success of any insurgency, as it serves to legitimize the insurgency as an heir-apparent government and helps to convince the populace of its permanence.

In 1954 it was very difficult to determine which side held the advantage. On the one hand, nearly all of the revolutionary leadership had been captured or arrested by French forces and several regional networks were completely bankrupt or dispersed.26 However, the methods by which the French forces accomplished these successes coupled with the political environment of French Algeria did more in the long run to fuel a popular uprising than prevent it. Though shaky and rudimentary by nature, the FLN did succeed in establishing a “state within a state” and, perhaps more importantly, simply survived.

In 1955 the FLN staged a bloody massacre in Phillipville, an action that may have been the turning point in the entire war. The FLN decided to use terrorism, in the form of gruesome attacks on civilians, in an attempt to provoke a heavy-handed response from the French forces. As the FLN leadership had already concluded, the French doctrine of “collective responsibility” served as, according to one FLN official, “our best recruiting agent.”27 In essence, the FLN trap worked, as the French responded with brutality. While militarily French forces benefited in the short term from severe military retaliation, in the long term the insurgency benefited more.

During the months leading up to the Battle of Algiers, which occurred in the densely populated Algerian capital, the FLN followed a strategy of terrorism against “soft targets” (usually non-military, lightly guarded civilian targets, which were much easier to attack and more likely to induce reprisals) in order to keep pressure on the French forces and expand their own support. The insurgent strategy had worked in rural areas, and the FLN decided that the time had come to expand the insurgency to an urban setting like Algiers. The battle that ensued, timed to maximize international attention on the conflict as the United Nations was scheduled to debate the “Algerian Question,” was meant to prove that the insurgency was urban as well as rural. The French, maintaining their military-focused tactics over time effectively destroyed the operational capabilities of the FLN in and around Algiers. Following the military victory in Algiers, French forces continued their aggressive pursuit of the remaining FLN apparatus. Using their refined counterinsurgency techniques, they succeeded in improving security in Algeria as the FLN was eventually pushed into bordering Tunisia and Morocco. The French also set up an effective series of fortifications, known as the Morice Line, in order to close the borders to prevent re-infiltration by those FLN members that had been forced out of the country.28

As the sources will demonstrate, valuable lessons have been learned from the effective military operations conducted and perfected by the French during the Battle of Algiers and their subsequent rout of remaining FLN forces. However, these military lessons have been qualified, as successful counterinsurgencies are not typically accomplished by military force alone. The more successful the French were in destroying the FLN, the clearer it was to French politicians that without a political solution, military success would be wasted. However, the growing perception of French politicians, who reasoned that military victory could serve only as leverage for a more advantageous agreement with insurgent forces, was not shared by the military leadership or the pieds noirs.

When De Gaulle moved towards a settlement with the FLN that would recognize a dramatically reduced role in Algeria for France, French military and pied noirs leaders felt betrayed, and a domestic crisis exploded in France. As a result, all the different political entities mentioned earlier, motivated by their own various interests, were unprepared for the disorganized conclusion of the Algerian War. The lack of continuity among these political entities was central to the French national failure. As this thesis will demonstrate, the lack of a coherent, clear and internationally acceptable strategy by the French doomed their efforts in Algeria from the start. Political progress failed to materialize and military success, according to the U.S. military interpretation, was thus wasted. The narrative of French involvement in Algeria involves both effective and ineffective policies, both of which are valuable for later generations of military and political thinkers. The remaining chapters of this thesis trace the lessons learned by subsequent military and political leaders and analysts from both French successes and failures during the Algerian War.

1 Horne. p. 44

2 Ibid. Pp. 54,55

3 David Galula. Pacification in Algeria, 1956-1958. RAND Corporation (1963) p. 69

4 Horne p. 108

5Todd Shepard. The Invention of Decolonization: The Algerian War and the Remaking of France. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2006. pg. 22

6 Ibid. p. 31

7 Ibid. p. 35

8Ibid. p. 23

9Ibid. pg. 47

10Horne. p. 36

11 Ibid. p. 65

12 William Polk. Violent Politics. A History of Insurgency,Terrorism and Guerrilla War from the American Revolution to Iraq. New York: HarperCollins Books, 2007 p. 131.

13 Ibid. Pp. 131

14 Horne. p. 26

15 Ruedy. p. 94

16 Ibid. pp. 120-121

17 Horne. p. 95

18 Ibid. p. 98

19John Talbott. The War Without a Name. Pg 38

20 Horne. pp. 96, 97

21 Talbott p. 39

22Horne. pp. 106-118

23Constantin Melnik. Insurgency and Counterinsurgency In Algeria. RAND Corporation (1964) pp 170-203

24Talbott. p. 40

25Ibid. p. 115

26Talbott. p. 39

27 Horne. p. 110

28Ibid. pg. 230

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