How to fight insurgents? Lessons from the French

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

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.

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.

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.

"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.

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