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«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 ...»

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Torture deprived the army of its moral authority. Not only did it undermine support among the Algerian population, it also eroded support for the army on the home front. By 1961 there were widespread protests by the French civilian population against the army, the war in general, and against army torture in particular. Former soldiers were closely associated with these protests. Politicians lost confidence in the army’s view of the war, and the army was not seriously consulted as the government devised a political solution to the conflict.

Rationalizing the permission of torture as a tactical operational necessity to achieve a greater operational or strategic aim soon was applied to justify even greater crimes. These included the murder of prominent prisoners such as the FLN leader in Algiers, Larbi Ben M’Hidi; retired French General Paul Aussaresses admitted personally hanging him in a farm outside of Algiers because “a trial was not a good idea.”19 Little consideration for morality, law, or strategic consequences entered into Aussaresses’ description of the army’s decision to kill M’Hidi. Ultimately, senior French commanders became willing even to take up arms against their own government and in effect against the French people when they perceived these to be obstacles to success in Algeria and obstacles in the death struggle against communism.

Summer 2006 73 The accelerating trend to sanctioned lawlessness within the army culminated in 1961 with an aborted coup attempt involving elements of the French Army. The coup was prompted by the announcement by French President Charles DeGaulle that he would permit a free and open vote in Algeria in which the people could choose independence or could choose to remain part of France. Army leaders knew that the more numerous Muslim population would vote for independence. The government was permitting the democratic process to give the insurgents that which they were unable to achieve by force of arms. Despite the overwhelming popularity of this policy in France, army leaders in Algeria decided to try to overthrow the French government to prevent this from happening.

The coup was led by former army generals and supported in the army by a cabal of colonels commanding some of the army’s most respected elite units. The coup was aborted when key officers vacillated and units failed to support the conspirators. The mutineers were tried in military court, and more than a half dozen general officers were sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

Three of the most senior generals who fled French custody were sentenced to death in absentia.20 Ultimately, the logic of the mutineers derived from the same flawed logic that permitted them to abuse individuals in pursuit of a moral and lawful strategic objective.

The policy of condoning torture provided the FLN with an incredible opportunity to propagandize against the French Army and French policy. This propaganda was extremely effective inside Algeria among the Muslim population, and it was equally effective in the United Nations and in the French media.

The French Army did not appreciate the political effectiveness of strategic information operations. Again, the advocates of guerre revolutionnaire were not able to envision the linkages between their tactical techniques and the strategic level of war.

Conclusions The Algerian War contains numerous lessons. The French demonstrated that aggressive tactical counterinsurgency operations facilitated by accurate intelligence can effectively eliminate the military capability of the insurgents, yet will not win the war. The French experience revealed that torture is only marginally effective and has tremendous negative strategic consequences. Finally, the Algerian conflict showed the clear and direct links between how counterinsurgency operations are executed tactically and the attainment of strategic objectives. The strategic level of war must dictate the manner in which tactical operations are conducted.

The Algerian experience validates the conclusion that the fight for the loyalty of the people is the main effort in insurgency warfare. This main 74 Parameters effort is not just a military effort. In fact, the effort to win the loyalty of the population is primarily a political, economic, and information-based task. In their effort to win the loyalty of the people of Algeria, the French were decisively defeated.

The French Army’s nominal acceptance of torture as an intelligencegathering technique was fundamentally flawed. The inability of many French officers to recognize this fact represented moral weakness and professional incompetence by many in the French Army’s senior leadership. The inability to establish a command climate conducive to disciplined counterinsurgency efforts was a profound weakness. The army’s failure to accurately review its performance in Indochina, to assess lessons from the application of different approaches by other colonial powers, or to adjust doctrinal concepts based on its own experience did not mark it as an effective learning organization. Nor did the army exhibit the ability to assess or acknowledge the larger strategic context between France and Algeria. Victory was defined in military rather than political terms, without regard to costs or means.

Despite their tactical successes, the French lost the war. The insurgents were able to achieve politically and strategically what they were unable to achieve tactically and militarily because of the French Army’s inability to appreciate the strategic context of the war. Had the army been more politically astute or conscious of the internal corrosion fomented by their aggressive interrogation techniques and indiscriminate use of force, they may have been able to snatch victory from a difficult situation. Instead, their tactical successes only undercut the French political aim and their own moral foundation and legitimacy. Senior leaders are charged with ensuring the synergy between tactics, operations, and strategy. Firmer and more ethically founded leadership, clearly articulating and enforcing professional standards, could have prevented the strategic dilemmas caused by the army’s tactics.

As the US government debates the merits of harsh interrogation techniques today, it should be careful to not limit the debate to a technical discussion of legal matters. The key questions that should drive American policy are those of operational and strategic effectiveness. Harsh interrogation can provide some valuable tactical and operational intelligence. However, the advantages that such intelligence provides may be totally negated by a plethora of strategic dangers arising from the methods used to gain it. These dangers include effects on military and political cohesion; national and international legitimacy; and, most important, decisive negative effects on the hearts and minds of the population. As discussed previously, isolated cases of abuse and rumors of torture in the Global War on Terrorism have chipped away at international perceptions of US legitimacy, and, as recent polling tends to indicate, they have contributed to the decline in domestic support for the US counterinSummer 2006 75 surgency effort. US Representative John Murtha cites “incoherent messages from the very top of the American government regarding the use of torture” as one of the reasons for his opposition to continued US operations in Iraq.21 American leaders must understand that in counterinsurgency war, the moral component can be strategically decisive. They must ensure that they provide clear ethical guidance to young soldiers and officers who operate in the stressful and obscure tactical counterinsurgency environment.

The French government under Charles DeGaulle recognized the internal discord and corrosion created both in the army and the nation by the conflict in Algeria. The army’s ambivalent view of torture contributed to these conditions. DeGaulle had the political insight to understand that despite a favorable military situation, the war was politically lost. He stated that the FLN had “created a spirit; hence a people; hence a policy; hence a state.”22 In March 1962 the FLN and the French government agreed to a cease-fire, and France recognized the right of Algerian independence. On 1 July 1962 the Algerian people voted overwhelmingly for independence from France.


1. Michael Hirsh, “New Torture Furor,” Newsweek, 8 June 2004, http://www.keepmedia.com/pubs/ Newsweek/2004/06/08/529819?ba=m&bi=2&bp=7.

2. Spiegel Online, “Excesses of Sex and Violence,” Der Spiegel, 10 May 2004, http://service.spiegel.de/ cache/international/spiegel/0,1518,299193,00.html.

3. BBC News, “US ‘Shifts’ Position on Torture,” 7 December 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/


4. Ignacio Ramonet, “Democracy to Order,” Le Monde Diplomatique, 16 February 2006, http://www.


5. J. W. Woodmansee, “Algeria (1954-1962),” in History of Revolutionary Warfare, Volume IV, The British and French Experiences (West Point, N.Y.: US Military Academy, Department of History, 1974), p. 100.

6. Alistair Horne, A Savage War of Peace, Algeria 1954-1962 (New York: Penguin Books, 1974), p. 49.

7. Ibid., p. 27.

8. Woodmansee, p. 101.

9. Alf Andrew Heggoy, Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Algeria (Bloomington: Indiana Univ.

Press, 1972), pp. 159-61.

10. Woodmansee, p. 116.

11. Horne, p. 176.

12. Heggoy, pp. 176-77.

13. Horne, p. 165.

14. Peter Paret, French Revolutionary Warfare From Indochina to Algeria: The Analysis of a Political and Military Doctrine (London: Pall Mall Press, 1964), p. 72.

15. Ibid., p. 26.

16. Roger Trinquier, Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency, trans. Daniel Lee (London:

Pall Mall Press, 1964), p. 8.

17. Horne, p. 203.

18. Paret, pp. 67-68.

19. Paul Aussaresses, The Battle of the Casbah: Terrorism and Counter-terrorism in Algeria, 1955-1957 (New York: Enigma Books, 2002), pp. 137-40.

20. George Armstrong Kelly, Lost Soldiers: The French Army and Empire in Crisis, 1947-1962 (Cambridge, Mass.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1965), p. 327.

21. John Murtha, “Dear Colleague on Redeployment of Troops in Iraq,” Congressman John Murtha website, 14 December 2005, http://www.house.gov/apps/list/press/pa12_murtha/2005_12_14_dear_coll_iraq.html.

22. Quoted in Woodmansee, p. 120.

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