Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Algeria 2

The FLN didn't want to liberate Algeria from France so much as it wanted to wreck it, then rule it. Its policy was to carve a riverbed through the nation and fill it with blood. Its path for this project ran through the bodies of the most decent, or innocent, among the Arabs and the French: the moderate, the civil servants, the teachers. The tactic was pure Leninism, as was the cell organization that effected it. This was not an Islamist project, as this was the days when Arab anger flowed into Marxist models, not religious ones. Yet the methodology has served the Islamists well in more recent years, with a few juggled Quranic verses to justify what is a deeply atheist tactic.

The French government of 1954, at the start of the rebellion, was more sympathetic to the political aspirations of the Algerians than perhaps any that had ruled in Paris since 1830. It was headed by Radical-Socialist Pierre Mendès-France (his Interior Minister was François Mitterand), whose initial response to the uprising was to attempt, at last, to build Algeria into a genuine multi-racial society and to transplant there the noblest of French values; the liberty-egality-fraternity package.

Whether this could have been done after more than a century of colonial attitudes is an open question. It's even more doubtful that it could have been done in light of the explosive birth rate of the Muslims compared to the stagnant population of the Europeans. But idealism and generosity never stood a chance in a confrontation with FLN's fascist barbarity.

Mendès-France dispatched as governor-general Jacques Soustelle, who sought to give the Arabs social justice and real democracy. He set up social centers, created local police in the outlying towns, and involved moderate Muslim leaders in his administration. One by one, the FLN blew them to smithereens or tortured them to death and left the corpses in public places.

The FLN killed 1,035 Europeans in its first two-and-a-half years of open warfare. But it killed Arabs at about 20 times that rate (unofficial figures). Having gone far toward its goal of eliminating the Algerian moderates and thwarting Soustelle, however, the FLN turned increasingly to European targets. And here, too, the goal was not a military victory, but a bid to provoke the French to a savage response that would alienate the Arab silent majority. This, too, was a pure Leninist tactic: turn the political situation into a military confrontation, the better to exploit the suffering of the people.

By 1955, the FLN was pursuing a policy of open genocide: Kill all the French. Civilians of all ages and conditions were hacked to pieces, infants ripped from the womb and dashed to pieces in front of dying mothers, all the depths of depravity of terrorism. If it managed to kill a French official, it then tried to bomb his funeral, too.

The French soldiers responded to this with furious reprisals that killed Arabs indiscriminately. That was exactly what FLN sought. The FLN, of course, was the one group that knew when and where a bomb was going to go off, so it cleared the area of its operatives before the French paratroopers began shooting wildly in response, insuring that only innocent Arabs were hit by the bullets.

The violence spiraled in 1956. The French got tough. In January 1957, Soustelle's successor gave Gen. Jacques Massu and his 4,600 men carte blanche to clean the insurgents out of Algiers. Torture, which had been banned to French soldiers since the Revolution, crept back into use. A secret report as far back as March 1955 had recommended its use, in limited form, to prevent unlimited use of unauthorized torture. Soustelle had rejected this, but Massu authorized it.

The argument was that successful interrogation saved lives, chiefly of Arabs; that Arabs who gave information would be tortured to death, without restraint, by the FLN, and it was vital for the French to make themselves feared more. It was the Arab belief that Massu operated without restraint, as much as the torture itself, which caused prisoners to talk.

Torture was not the end of it. According to one French official in a position to know, some 3,000 prisoners "disappeared" during the Algiers battle.

But it was the one battle in the insurgency that the French clearly won. Fighting the FLN near its own level, with matching weapons of terror, Massu won the fight for Algiers. But civilized France all but tore itself to pieces in the process.

On the one hand, by freeing army units from political control and stressing the personalities of commanders, it encouraged private armies: colonels increasingly regarded themselves as proprietors of their regiments, as under the monarchy, and began to manipulate their generals into disobedience. In the moral confusion, officers began to see their primary obligation as towards their own men rather than the state.

At the same time, news leaking out of what the army had done in Algiers began to turn French liberal and centre opinion against the war. From 1957 onward, many Frenchmen came to regard Algerian independence, however distasteful, as preferable to the total corruption of the French public conscience. Thus the demand for the restoration of political control of the war -- including negotiations with the FLN -- intensified just as the French army was, as it believed, winning by asserting its independence. This irreconcilable conflict produced the explosion of May 1958 which returned General de Gaulle to power and created the Fifth Republic.