Thursday, June 01, 2006

French Lessons

A while ago, I wrote a three-part post (starting here, continuing here, and concluding here) on the war between France and Algerian insurgents in the 1950s. It seemed to me the essential birth of the asymmetrical brand of warfare that has so hamstrung American foreign policy from Vietnam to Iraq.

The revolt of Algeria in 1954, and the French attempt to repress it, are worth examining in some detail. For one, the revolt itself entwined the nightmares that evolved in the first half of the 20th century: in the fascist states, Lenin's Russia, and the Palestine wars. And when they merged they gave the world the modern terrorist movement in the form we are fighting it now, in al Qaida especially. Also, the French response offers some instructive counter-examples.

Others have noticed this, too, of course. Now the Rand organization has republished a timely analysis of the Algerian War [PDF alert] by David Galula, who deliberately sought a leadership position on the French side during the rebellion, the better to understand the tactical challenges.

Timely, because, as Bruce Hoffman writes in his forward, "This inability to absorb and apply, much less even study, the lessons learned in previous counterinsurgency campaigns is a problem that has long afflicted the world’s governments and militaries when they are confronted with insurgencies. Guerrilla groups and terrorist organizations, on the other hand, learn lessons very well."

Insurgent and terrorist movements as diverse as al Fatah, the African National Congress, the Provisional Irish Republican Army, and the Tamil Tigers, for example, have cited the Algerian struggle’s influence on the strategies and tactics that they later adopted. Among the officer corps of most countries’ standing armies, however, counterinsurgency -- at least until very recently -- was disdained as a “lesser included contingency” unworthy of contemplation, much less serious study.

See if any of this sounds familiar:

  • “In my zone, as everywhere in Algeria, the order was to ‘pacify.’ But exactly how? The sad truth was that, in spite of all our past experience, we had no single, official doctrine for counterinsurgency warfare.”

  • “‘Ordinary banditry,’ said a highranking government official in Algiers.... By the time the insurrection was finally recognized for what it was, only drastic political and military action would have reversed the tide, and slowly in any case....”

  • “The rebels realized that they could achieve the greatest psychological effect on the French and on world opinion at the cheapest price by stepping up terrorism in the main cities, notably in Algiers, which served as headquarters to most French and foreign correspondents and thus acted as a natural amplifier. A grenade or a bomb in a café there would produce far more noise than an obscure ambush against French soldiers in the Ouarsenis Mountains.”

  • "Our forces were vastly superior to the rebels. Then why couldn’t we finish with them quickly? Because they managed to mobilize the population through terror and persuasion.... It was therefore imperative that we isolate the rebels from the population and that we gain the support of the population. This implied that under no circumstances could we afford to antagonize the population even if we had to take risks for ourselves in sparing it.”

  • “If we distinguish between people and rebels, then we have a chance. One cannot catch a fly with vinegar. My rules are this: outwardly treat every civilian as a friend; inwardly you must consider him as a rebel ally until you have positive proof to the contrary.”

  • “Reflecting on who might be our potential allies in the population, I thought that the Kabyle women, given their subjugated condition, would naturally be on our side if we emancipated them.”

  • “While the insurgent does not hesitate to use terror, the counterinsurgent has to engage in police work.... The police work was not to my liking, but it was vital and therefore I accepted it.”

  • “Then, five top leaders of the rebellion, including Ben Bella, had been neatly caught during a flight from Rabat to Tunis. Their capture, I admit, had little effect on the direction of the rebellion, because the movement was too loosely organized to crumble under such a blow.”

  • “If there was a field in which we were definitely and infinitely more stupid than our opponents, it was propaganda.”

  • “The borders with Morocco and Tunisia would easily have required 100,000 men to control with reasonable effectiveness, given their length and the local terrain. In order to save personnel, it was decided to build an artificial fence, a project which was completed along both borders by the spring of 1958.”

  • “Throughout the war our prisoner camps were open for unannounced inspection by the International Red Cross, the reports of which were made public.... In the best camps, efforts were made to sift the tough prisoners from the soft; where it was not done, the camps became schools for rebel cadres.”

Algeria was the first modern terrorist thugocracy, a nation born of a cowardly father -- European lack of will -- and a cruel mother -- unrelenting terrorism on a grand scale. Naturally, the country fell into complete economic collapse. Twenty years after he served at its first president Ben Bella admitted, "We have nothing. No industry -- only scrap iron." That would have been bad enough, but throughout the '60s and early '70s, Algeria served as "the chief resort of international terrorists of all kinds." The terrorist-state survived there, and spread its seeds across Africa and the Middle East.

The FLN in Algeria polished the model of 20th century state power in the hands of rotten-hearted leaders. Islamists later would take that model in hand, and, under a coat of green paint, attempt to pass it off as the new Caliphate.

[Hat tip: Marc at American Future, who passed this along privately]

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