«O ne of the keys to success in the US war on terror and counterinsurgency, in Iraq and around the world, is the ability to use intelligence to ...»
Losing the Moral Compass:
in the Algerian War
O ne of the keys to success in the US war on terror and counterinsurgency,
in Iraq and around the world, is the ability to use intelligence to effectively target the adversary. Obtaining useful intelligence is one of the most
important challenges of counterinsurgency operations. This requirement has
focused attention on the interrogation of combatants captured on the battlefield and in raids on safe-houses in third-party states.
Almost from the beginning of US counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, accusations have been made that US interrogation techniques have included torture. Typical of the domestic reporting is an article in Newsweek in June 2004, titled “New Torture Furor,” which states that the US Defense Department was exploring legal means for justifying torture.1 The foreign press has echoed what was reported in the United States, and expanded upon it. The German magazine Der Spiegel asserted that torture was rampant among US forces, and it represented the United States as “exempting itself from international criminal jurisdiction. While the rest of the world is expected to abide by the UN Convention against Torture, for example, the Americans evaluate international law on the basis of whether it serves their interests.”2 This type of reporting is a strategic distraction and has the potential to cause a crisis in American foreign policy. It erodes international and domestic support and can embolden the enemy. Senior US officials have had to speak forcefully on the subject of torture to control the domestic and international damage, distracting their focus from the details of nation-building in Iraq. Secretary of Summer 2006 63 State Condoleezza Rice has had to invest considerable effort in reaffirming that US policy officially prohibits torture and affirming American support for the UN Convention against Torture (CAT), indicating that “it [CAT] extends to US personnel wherever they are, whether they are in the US or outside the US.”3 Still, rumors and accusations persist that US forces routinely abuse prisoners. The French newspaper Le Monde reported in March 2006—without any hint of ambiguity—that the United States has condoned the “use of torture in secret prisons on foreign soil, and... justif[ied] the illegal treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.”4 Torture also has been the subject of much domestic political debate in the United States, but this debate has largely been over the legality of interrogation techniques. The debate usually misses the central point illustrated by the negative impact of international reaction to reports of torture on US foreign affairs: in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations, although torture may bring about some short-term tactical and operational advantages, officially or unofficially condoning its use is a major strategic blunder. The disadvantages of sanctioned abuse or torture, or even the perception of torture, at the strategic level dwarf any short-term payoffs, regardless of technical legality. In counterterrorism and counterinsurgency warfare, the moral component of the fight is strategically decisive. Commanders are obligated to maintain both the reality and the perception of impeccable moral conduct within their commands. Senior commanders have the responsibility of ensuring that the tactics of their subordinates reinforce strategic goals and objectives.
History offers no modern examples of the strategic effectiveness of harsh interrogation techniques, but it is replete with examples of the negative strategic effects such techniques have on the counterinsurgency force. The French experience in Algeria from 1954 to 1962 is one of the clearest examples of how ill-conceived interrogation techniques contributed directly to the strategic failure of a counterinsurgency and the success of an insurgency.
In the Algerian War, a very sophisticated insurgent movement with many advantages opposed a modern and well-led counterinsurgency force.
This clash of forces and doctrine revealed the effectiveness of well-considered counterinsurgency tactics, techniques, and procedures, as well as showing how a lack of understanding of strategic vulnerabilities can negate tactical and operLou DiMarco (Lieutenant Colonel, USA Ret.) is a faculty member at the US Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he teaches military history and courses on urban warfare and warfare in the Middle East. Mr. DiMarco has written and presented lectures on a variety of topics relating to urban warfare and counterinsurgency.
64 Parameters ational success. It also demonstrated that the particular stresses of counterinsurgency operations, especially the quest for good intelligence, can challenge the professionalism of the counterinsurgency force. If these stresses are not surmounted by a clear and well-articulated professional ethic and aggressive senior leadership, the strategic consequences can be disastrous.
Background The French Army occupied Algeria for more than a hundred years prior to the beginning of the war in 1954. France became involved in Algeria in the 1830s and achieved effective control over the area when French General Thomas Robert Bugeaud led a French expeditionary force that conquered the native forces of the Arab leader Abd-el-Kader in 1847. In 1848 the French declared Algeria an integral part of France and organized it into three departments. Despite this official incorporation, the local population was not completely subjugated until well into the 1870s.5 Banditry persisted in the border regions of Algeria well into the 20th century.
Algeria’s subjugation by French military force was an ominous beginning to the relationship between the French and Algerian peoples. The French view of this relationship was strikingly myopic and self-absorbed.
Rather than recognize and mitigate the animosity of the indigenous population, the French deliberately took steps to politically and economically marginalize the Muslim inhabitants. Inexplicably, at the same time that they were denying the majority population political rights equal to Europeans, the French proceeded to politically absorb Algeria, not as a colony of France as might be expected, but rather as a province of France. Part of the reason for these unusual and contradictory policies is the geography of Algeria.
Algeria is located, at its nearest point, only two hours’ flying time from France. Thus the important agricultural coastal plain of Algeria north of the Atlas Mountains, an area of about 40,000 square miles where over 90 percent of the population was located, was closer to France in terms of simple distance than were many parts of Europe. The coastal plain was the part of Algeria in which France was most interested. South of the coastal plain was the significant barrier of the Atlas Mountains and then beyond the mountains lay hundreds of thousands of square miles of virtually uninhabitable Sahara Desert.
Another reason for the unusual French interest in Algeria was its large European population. These inhabitants, know as the pied noirs or colons, were European immigrants to Algeria. They came from European communities all along the northern Mediterranean coast. They adopted the French language, culture, and citizenship, and were predominantly Roman Catholic. By 1954 this group was the most economically and politically powerful segment of the population. They had all the political rights of French citSummer 2006 65 izens. The one million colons made up approximately ten percent of the total Algerian population.
When the French arrived in Algeria in 1830 they found two distinct non-European populations living in the region. The first were the Berbers. The Berbers were the indigenous population that had lived in the region since antiquity.6 They spoke a unique language and had a distinct tribal-centric culture.
They were located in the foothills and mountains away from the coast. The second important population in the region was the Arabs. They were primarily traders and managed their trade through the seaports, by land along the coast, and by caravan into the mountains and through the desert into Africa. Before the arrival of the Europeans, the Arabs were the dominant group in the region and were predominantly located in the immediate coastal areas, cities, and towns. The Arab population brought to the region the one characteristic that provided a unifying identity to the population of Algeria, and that was Islam.
Insurgent Doctrine The Algerian resistance to French rule had a long history dating to the French arrival and was often characterized by open hostilities. Uprisings against the French were brutally suppressed by the French Army. In 1945 a small riot took place in the city of Setif, sparked by nationalistic expressions during a World War II victory parade. The French response was typically extreme and included martial law, wholesale arrests, and military force including air attacks. Moderate estimates counted over 6,000 Algerians killed.7 The violent overreaction by the French at Setif became a rallying cry for Algerian separatists.8 Over the next several years various independence movements formed, were broken up by French police, reformed, and consolidated. By 1954 the Front de Libération Nationale, the FLN, had emerged as the composite group with the greatest organization and popular support.
Some analysts believe that the FLN, though schooled in Maoist insurgent theory, did not consciously pursue a Maoist three-stage insurgency strategy. Regardless of conscious intent, the evidence appears to indicate that the course of events in Algeria followed relatively closely the three-stage model advocated by Mao. In the first stage, the FLN eliminated or absorbed rival nationalistic movements and began to build a base among the poor Arab and Berber population. This initially occurred in remote areas far from French control and eventually expanded into the urban centers where French control was complete. During the course of the eight-year struggle, the FLN’s politicking among the population was unceasing. In the second phase, small bands executed hit-and-run guerrilla tactics, including urban terrorism. These tactics were designed to win additional followers, provoke an overreaction from French forces, and to materially damage the prestige and structure of French 66 Parameters governmental institutions—particularly local government and police. In the final stage, the military arm of the FLN, the ALN, sought to control territory and defeat French units in conventional battle.
The FLN strategy also included a strategic information plan. This was an added dimension to Maoist insurgency strategy. The FLN waged an aggressive propaganda campaign not just at the local tactical level but also at the strategic level. At the tactical level the target audience was the Muslim population.
The purpose of this campaign was to win local popular support. Simultaneously the FLN waged a strategic campaign that had two different target audiences: the international community represented by the United Nations, and the French population. The purpose of this strategic campaign was to undermine international and French domestic political support for the war. The technique of the FLN was to attack the legitimacy of the French occupation by focusing on the inequity of political power and the undemocratic methods used by France to govern Algeria. The FLN also highlighted the illegal and immoral use of force by the French Army. Allegations of the torture and killing of prisoners by the French were a major subject of FLN propaganda.
French Army Doctrine At the beginning of the war, French forces in the country did not completely understand the nature of the enemy with which they were engaged. The initial actions of the FLN were viewed as criminal terrorism to be dealt with by the police. By 1956 the French recognized the scale and effectiveness of the insurgency, and the French response was large but conventional military operations. These proved generally ineffective against the insurgency, which by then had been active for two years, was well organized, and was skilled in conducting hit-and-run guerilla operations.
Beginning in 1956 the French started to adjust their tactics and operational approach.9 This was mainly due to the arrival in theater of experienced officers and troops from Indochina who understood the Maoist approach to revolutionary warfare. The new French leaders began to informally articulate a counterinsurgency doctrine known as guerre revolutionnaire, and the tactics, techniques, and procedures to implement it.
Guerre revolutionnaire was not a formally adopted doctrine of the French Army. Rather, it was a counterinsurgency doctrine articulated by influential French officers and disseminated unofficially through association and private and professional writing. The crux of the new doctrine was that the objective of the army was the support and allegiance of the people. This support had to be won by providing a promising alternative ideology to the population. That ideology was a liberal French democratic ideology with strong Christian overtones.
Summer 2006 67 The tactics that supported the French doctrine were in general very
effective. These tactics rested on five key counterinsurgency fundamentals:
isolating the insurgency from support; providing local security; executing effective strike operations; establishing French political legitimacy and effective indigenous political and military forces; and establishing a robust intelligence capability.
The French understood that the insurgency had to be isolated from support. At the operational level, the French constructed the Morice Line along the Tunisian border, and similar fortifications were also built along the Moroccan border. These static, fence, minefield, and guard tower positions were reinforced by mobile patrols, aerial reconnaissance, and powerful mobile reaction forces. Their purpose was the strategic isolation of the insurgency from external support. They were very expensive, but also very effective in denying material aid as well as preventing an estimated 35,000 trained fighters from moving from bases in Tunisia and Morocco into Algeria to support the insurgency. Attempts to breach Algeria’s borders were decisively defeated by French air power, artillery, and reaction forces.