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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.

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But Mohamed Debbah doubts that the Algerian experience can prescribe many answers for Iraq. He quit high school in 1956 to join the Algerian nationalist insurgents, the mujahideen. He says that the Iraqi insurgents aren't unified; Shiites and Sunnis are fighting each other, as well as the American-led coalition forces.

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"There are no similarities because there is not one [group in the] struggle against the Americans [in Iraq]. It's such a mess ... we succeeded because we didn't have these religious differences," says Mr. Debbah sitting in the offices of the Ministry of Mujahideen, which provides pensions to veterans of the war and historical resources about the Algerian war.

He notes that there were groups of Algerians who disagreed over whether to fight the French or to negotiate. "But in the end, we got united because we knew it was the only way to fight France."

Unlike the Iraqi insurgency, that unity helped Algerian insurgent leaders develop a strong campaign to undermine political support for the French occupation. They established formal diplomatic ties with other African countries and in Asia and pushed for the United Nations to help end the war and grant Algeria independence. There were also attacks in France proper by Algerian insurgents that killed some 5,000 people, Harmon notes, "to frighten France and make them stop the war."

Torture undermines war at home

But it was the French themselves that dealt the biggest blow to support for their campaign in Algeria, say counterinsurgency experts. The French military's systematic use of torture and extrajudicial killings contributed to France losing the political war at home and in Algeria. "The French defeated the guerrillas militarily but they couldn't deal with the political impetus of revolution. That dramatic imbalance between military success and political failure is interesting to the American mind," says Harmon.

In France in the early 1960s, debate over the war grew so intense that the country was described as being on the brink of civil war. Political opposition to the war was key in President Charles de Gaulle's decision to order the military to withdraw in 1962. That decision helped create a major split in civil-military relations.

The US hasn't faced the same unrest at home over Iraq, but the Algerian war is also a cautionary tale about the importance of political support to winning the overall war. But both Harmon and Hammes agree it's not an exact parallel. The Algerian model "has some lessons, but I'm not sure the right lessons are being taken from it," says Hammes. He says the example is often looked at too narrowly. "Each insurgency rests in the culture, the history, and the situation of that country. Like all military history, you don't look" for specific answers but patterns of thought and ideas, he says.

Still, the American public is apparently interested in those ideas. "A Savage War of Peace," a 624-page tome, was out of print until last fall when the New York Review Books Classics began publishing it. For a historical narrative, it's selling well: 20,000 copies shipped so far and three print runs, according to Edwin Frank, editorial director of the classics series.