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How to fight insurgents? Lessons from the French

The US military – and President Bush – is studying the Algerian war for independence.

By Jill CarrollStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 29, 2007

Algiers, Algeria

The Pentagon held a screening in 2003 of "The Battle of Algiers," a movie about French troops winning control of the Algerian capital. President Bush says that he recently read Alistair Horne's authoritative history on the war, "A Savage War of Peace." And last fall, Christopher Harmon, who teaches a course on the Algerian war at the Marine Corps University (MCU) in Washington, lectured marines in Iraq about the Algerian model.

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Here in Algeria, some of those who participated in that war find little use in the comparison. But the US military – and the American public – continues to study the 1954-62 Algerian war of independence for lessons on how to fight the insurgency in Iraq.

"There are very, very few examples of modern insurgency, and for urban [insurgencies] it's basically this [war]," says Thomas X. Hammes, a US insurgency expert and author of a book on guerrilla warfare, "The Sling and the Stone."

While France ultimately withdrew from Algeria, "the French did much of the counterinsurgency very skillfully," says Mr. Harmon, who is the Kim T. Adamson Chair of Insurgency and Terrorism at MCU. "The American military has been intrigued by the case study for a long time ... it's a very good parallel."

As in Iraq, a foreign, largely non-Arab military occupied an Arab country. The French forces also faced a protracted insurgency that used "extreme and systematic use of terrorism" and was aided by neighboring countries, says Harmon.

In response to those conditions, the French built a complex system of barriers that effectively shut Algeria's borders. In the Battle of Algiers, the French mapped out city residents and their social networks. This understanding of the society helped in the successful operation to win control of the capital and shut down bomb-making rings there. They also identified local leaders and then held them accountable if someone in their area attacked the French. Small groups of French soldiers were also stationed among the general population, getting to know the communities they were trying to control. This last tactic is now being employed in Baghdad.

France deployed 500,000 soldiers

Many steps taken in Algeria offer valuable lessons for Iraq, say Harmon and Hammes, but not all are applicable. The Algerian and Iraqi insurgencies are different as are the French and American military forces and their strategic goals. The French went in with an overwhelming force determined to permanently control Algeria. Some 500,000 French soldiers occupied a country of 9 million Algerians and were aided by skilled Algerian soldiers called harkis. In Iraq there are roughly 150,000 troops in a country of about 26 million where efforts to train strong, nationalist-minded Iraqi security forces have had spotty results.

Sealing off the borders is a lesson "the US has totally been unable to use ... this is one of the problems of going in with the small force [former US Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld chose. This is something the French didn't make a mistake on," says Harmon.