«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 ...»
With the insurgency isolated within the borders of Algeria, the French focused on elimination of the internal insurgent cells. Operations were mounted to provide security for citizens and facilities. These operations included passive checkpoints and defenses as well as patrols to locate and intercept insurgents. These activities were accomplished by organizing the country using what was called the quadrillage system. This system divided the country into quadrants. Each quadrant was assigned a garrison force which provided security within the quadrant through static positions and mobile patrols. The garrison had the primary mission of providing security tailored to the threat and needs of their area of operations.
Backing up the quadrillage system was a mobile strike reserve of elite mechanized, airborne, and Foreign Legion forces. These units could move rapidly anywhere in the country to reinforce local security forces. Their primary purpose was to conduct strike operations against key insurgent targets when they were identified. Because of their mobility and their elite personnel, they were very effective in this role.
Also existing in each quadrant, but separate from the garrison security forces, were Special Administrative Sections (SAS). These units worked to establish French political legitimacy among the local population and to build indigenous democratic institutions. They reformed local government, set up medical services, and trained local officials and police forces. The SAS also were heavily engaged in education. They were integral to reestablishing local educational institutions, to building and monitoring schools, and they made great efforts to emphasize democratic ideals to the Algerian youth.
68 Parameters Another area of SAS responsibilities was training harka forces.
Harkas were indigenous military units that could provide local security, and, as they became better trained, could conduct offensive operations against the insurgents. As harka units stood up and proved themselves, they relieved regular French Army forces in a security role. Because of their extensive contacts with the local population, the SAS units also became an important hub of intelligence information. At the conclusion of the Algerian war the SAS detachments, usually led by captains and lieutenants, were considered by both the French and the Algerian insurgents to constitute one of the most important and effective counterinsurgency programs. The political and social impact of the SAS was felt among Algerians long after the war.10 Backing up the French tactical and operational systems was an increasingly robust human intelligence (HUMINT) system. This system was multilayered, including local loyal Algerians, turned former FLN members, paid informers, and aggressive interrogation and detention practices. It was linked to strategic intelligence operations in France as well as to the intelligence operations of other nations—notably Israel. It was managed by a combination of SAS, police and constabulary forces, and unit intelligence officers.
The key to the success of the intelligence system was the rapid dissemination of critical information to strike units. The French standard was to strike at targets identified through their intelligence system within hours of uncovering the information. High-stress interrogation techniques and torture were an integral part of this system—and its major defect. The failure of the French to recognize this flaw would have immense strategic consequences.
The French adapted their operations and tactics, techniques, and procedures in recognition of the importance of intelligence. They adjusted their organizations to ensure that the most competent and qualified officers were assigned to the intelligence positions. The intelligence staff positions became in effect the key operational staff positions in battalion-level organizations and higher. The French ensured that intelligence was linked tightly to the elite mobile forces. They understood the fleeting nature of good intelligence and thus developed the ability to react to acquired intelligence quickly with their mobile strike units. The French recognized that human intelligence was most important. They built multiple, overlapping layers of HUMINT networks to provide and reference information. They also understood that the environment in which the insurgents operated was the population. The French Army therefore sought to organize that environment. This took the form of a very detailed and accurate documentation of the population. Censuses were conducted and identification cards were issued that enabled files to be established on the civilian population and gave the army the ability to track individuals within the population.
Summer 2006 69 The French Army implemented its doctrine and supporting tactics with increasing effectiveness beginning in 1957. The insurgency found itself unable to bring supplies and personnel across the Algerian borders. The groups already within the country found it harder to operate. Where once they were able to assemble in battalion-strength numbers, the quadrillage system caused them to break down into increasingly smaller groups to avoid detection and retain mobility. Every time the Algerians attempted to move to phase-three operations—conventional operations—they were decisively crushed by mobile French reaction units and air power. By 1959 the insurgency had lost its capability to operate except in isolated small cells. Many of the leaders of the insurgency had been identified and located by the French intelligence system. They were imprisoned, turned, or killed. Those insurgents still able to operate were reduced to mounting limited, uncoordinated terror attacks, and even these became more difficult and less frequent. Harka units became increasingly effective, and in the areas where they operated the insurgents found it impossible to hide among the local population. By 1960 the French Army had essentially eliminated the insurgents’ ability to conduct effective military operations and had significantly degraded the insurgent organization in Algeria. From a purely military point of view, the French Army had pacified the country.
Despite this success, the French Army had unknowingly sown the seeds for losing the war. Though pacified, the Algerian Muslim population was less inclined to accept French rule in 1960 than they were in 1954. By 1960 a significant portion of the French population and body politic that had supported the war in 1954 had turned against the government’s Algerian policy.
Within the army itself, dissension ran rampant as various factions viewed government policy as too aggressive, not aggressive enough, or immoral. All of these conditions were directly or indirectly related to command policies which condoned harsh tactical interrogation techniques including torture.
Flaws in the French Approach French doctrine, tactics, and procedures had fundamental weaknesses that ultimately contributed to the loss of Algeria and almost led to civil war in France. One weakness was an incomplete understanding of counterinsurgency at the strategic level. The French doctrine overemphasized the spiritual and ideological component of the struggle between the insurgency and the French Army. It also did not account for strategic information operations.
French General Jacques de Bollardiere, a veteran of World War II and Dien Bien Phu and a contemporary critic of guerre revolutionnaire, commented that the French Army had lost the ability to “coldly [analyze] with courageous lucidity its strategic and tactical errors.”11 These factors, combined with the 70 Parameters previous humiliating national defeats at the hands of the Germans and Vietnamese, caused many leaders in the French Army to view operational success in Algeria in stark terms. They believed that the army and France itself could not survive another military defeat, and thus all necessary means were justified to ensure victory. These circumstances inclined many of the army’s leaders toward condoning torture as a tactical intelligence technique. These conditions also made many in the French Army blind to the linkage between tactical methods and strategic outcomes.
A major weakness of the French strategy is that it contained the assumption that the primary ideological focus of the insurgents was Marxist communism. It did not account for an ideological motive based on indigenous nationalism and anti-colonialism. Also, the Christian religious overtones of guerre revolutionnaire were unattractive to Muslims. Thus, though the doctrine correctly identified the end which was the strategic focus of French operations—the population—the means the doctrine advocated to influence the people were fundamentally flawed.12 The ideological and spiritual nature of the conflict was internalized by many in the French Army and became one justification for torture. They saw the enemy as communist and therefore as inherently evil. The struggle was one of ultimate national and ideological survival. A leading French counterinsurgency theorist at the time stated, “We want to halt the decadence of the West and the march of communism. That is our duty, the real duty of the army. That is why we must win the war in Algeria. Indochina taught us to see the truth.”13 This extremely ideological view of the war justified any tactical technique, regardless of its illegality or immorality, in order to achieve success. One French officer testified that young officers “were told that the end justifies the means,” and that, regarding torture, “France’s victory depended on it.”14 Many French Army leaders believed that the extremely high stakes of strategic success or failure justified moral compromise at the tactical level.
Another justification for torture was that insurgent warfare was completely different from conventional warfare, and therefore required a different operating approach: “Conventional patriotism and esprit de corps were inadequate weapons against revolutionary élan.”15 In accordance with this view, the laws of conventional land warfare were considered inappropriate and countereffective in the context of counterinsurgency warfare. The French also understood the primacy of HUMINT to successful counterinsurgency. And they believed torture was an effective way to quickly get tactical intelligence information. This combination of perceptions led to the official condoning of torture.
A third justification for torture was that it was a controlled application of violence used for the limited purpose of quickly gaining tactical inSummer 2006 71 “In counterterrorism and counterinsurgency warfare, the moral component of the fight is strategically decisive.” telligence. Toward this end some French officers subjected themselves to electric shock to ensure they understood the level of violence they were applying to prisoners. What these officers did not understand was the huge difference between pain inflicted in a limited, controlled manner without psychological stress, and pain inflicted in an adversarial environment where the prisoner is totally under the control of the captor. They also failed to understand that once violence is permitted to be exercised beyond the standards of legitimately recognized moral and legal bounds, it becomes exponentially more difficult to control. In Algeria, officially condoned torture quickly escalated to prolonged abuse, which resulted in permanent physical and psychological damage as well as death.
The official condoning of torture by French Army leaders had numerous negative effects that were not envisioned because of the army leadership’s intensive focus on tactical success. The negative results of torture included decreasing France’s ability to affect the conflict’s strategic center of gravity; internal fragmentation of the French Army officer corps; decreased moral authority of the army; setting the conditions for even greater violations of moral and legal authority; and providing a major information operations opportunity to the insurgency. The irony is that even though some tactical successes can be attributed to their use of torture, the French had numerous other effective HUMINT techniques and were far from reliant on torture for tactical success.
French doctrine and counterinsurgency theorists recognized at the time that the goal of both the insurgents and the counterinsurgents, the center of gravity for both, was the support of the population. French Major Roger Trinquier, a participant in counterinsurgency in Vietnam and Algeria and an intelligence expert, wrote, “We know that the sine qua non of victory in modern warfare [insurgency and counterinsurgency] is the unconditional support of a population.”16 Despite this knowledge, many French commanders tolerated or encouraged widespread and often random torture. By one estimate, 40 percent of the adult male Muslim population of Algiers (approximately 55,000 individuals) were put through the French interrogation system and eiParameters ther tortured or threatened with torture between 1956 and 1957. This action likely irrevocably alienated the entire 600,000 Muslim population of the city from the French cause. The French did not understand the link between their tactical procedures and the strategic center of gravity.
Condoning illegal and immoral practices also destroyed the internal integrity of the officer corps. The officer corps was divided into two camps— those who opposed the unlawful activity and those who professed that it was necessary in a new age of warfare. Within the officer corps, opposition to the tactics of the army in Algeria was considered by many to be both disloyal and operationally naïve. In some cases officers in the former camp were forced to resign or had their careers damaged for voicing their concerns. General Jacques Paris de la Bollardière, serving as prefect of Algiers in 1957, resigned his post over the torture tactics used within the city. He also went public, stating that the tactics undermined French moral authority. He was sentenced by a military court to 60 days of detention for criticizing the army in public.17 Army chaplains protested to their bishops regarding the immoral behavior of some army officers and units.18 Ultimately the officers loyal to the government and to the rule of law prevailed; however, clarity on this issue was never truly obtained within the army. Some officers who were closely associated with extreme interrogation techniques, such as General Jacques Massu, commander of the 10th Paratroop Division, went on to high rank and important NATO command positions after the war.