French Counterinsurgency Failures in the Algerian War of 1954-62
In recent years, it has become fashionable in the minds of some to belittle France. A rather boorish joke follows along the lines of arguing that the French have big heads only in order to accommodate their big mouths. This colloquial anecdote can be used to demonstrate that outsiders often view the behavior and policy of French government with contempt at their perceived arrogance. An example can be found in the case of Algeria’s decolonization.
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The failures and arrogance of the French allowed insurgents to emerge the victors of the Algerian War of 1954-1962. To understand why this occurred, it is imperative to examine how French military arrogance, political arrogance, and a failure to use military and political capabilities in combination doomed the French to defeat at the hands of the Algerians. Before beginning an in-depth examination of French failures, it is necessary to provide background information regarding the years preceding the Algerian War.
France began its occupation of Algeria in 1830 on the pretext of an offense by the reigning dey against the French consul; further, as Algeria was suffering from internal political difficulties while under the name and flag of the Ottoman Empire, it presented a lucrative target for imperial expansion (Horne 2006, 29. ) Following years of warfare, while establishing the tradition of French military atrocities – such as lighting fires at the opening of a cave sheltering 500 refugees and asphyxiating all but 10 – “the Second Republic declared Algeria an integral part of France…” in 1848 (Horne 2006, 30. With military conquest, the process of colonization commenced. European settlers became known as the pied noir, or black feet, and this group came to dominate the people and land. Indeed, for as long as it was a French possession, “the Algerian people did not enjoy the same status as Frenchmen. ” (Millen 2008, 24) With the precedents of military atrocities, colonial arrogance, and a clear schism between the native Algerians and the pied noir, conditions were ripe for future conflict as the tides of economic, political, and military events would shift over the many decades of French occupation
When the Algerian War of did arise on November 1, 1954, from the agitations of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN,) it was the first and perhaps most significant type of French failure in Algeria – the arrogance and misconduct of the military – that proved a decisive factor in the outcome of the war. The pride of the French military had been ravaged by the dark, embarrassing, and recent shame experienced through failures in World War II and French Indochina.
Indeed, the compensatory arrogance of the French military became apparent as both insurgent and counterinsurgent operations escalated. Following the notorious loss to the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu in what would become North Vietnam, civilians, politicians, and military personnel in both metropolitan France and French Algeria sought to align themselves against the global trend toward decolonization in the 1950’s and 1960’s as the Cold War raged throughout the world (Goldstein and Pevehouse 2008, 68. Further, these previous defeats eliminated the image of French military supremacy (Millen 2008, 25) and emboldened insurgents. With each side confident in the justice of its cause – and with the causes at odds with one another – the circumstances of prevailing sentiment were favorable for conflict. Extreme violence characterized French military actions. Brutal and exorbitantly excessive reprisals, along with torture, marked the counterinsurgency tactics used.
The military presence in Algeria swelled from 3,500 French troops at the commencement of hostilities in November, 1954 to over 200,000 by December, 1955, and the FLN’s actions “were met with French repression, mass arrests, false imprisonment, collective punishments, torture, atrocities, and other pernicious acts associated, with ratissages that drove ordinary Algerians into the FLN ranks. ” (Millet 2008, 28-29) As the war progressed, torture became the policy of the French military.
In attempting to justify the use of torture, military leaders posited that the unconventional style of war being waged did not merit following rules of conventional war, that it was a controlled and limited way to quickly gain intelligence of tactical value, and it came to pass that “[t]he ideological and spiritual nature of the conflict was internalized by many in the French Army and became one justification for torture,” (DiMarco 2006, 70-71. Regardless of justification, “failure to comply with moral and legal constrictions… severely undermined French efforts and contributed to their loss despite several significant military victories. ” (Counterinsurgency Field Manual 2006, 252) It is obvious that with such improper conduct – such as the counterinsurgency tactics used and torture of captured enemy personnel – the demonstrated arrogance of the French military contributed to its eventual defeat by emboldening its opposition.
Less tangible a form of failure than military arrogance, the political arrogance of leaders among both the pied noir and metropolitan France contributed to the Algerian victory. Policymakers were, like military leaders, interested in preventing another incident as embarrassing as Dien Bien Phu. However, the long, pronounced history of division between natives and Europeans, as described by Alistair Horne, made difficult any hope of reconciliation: “The Muslim Algerian and pied noir were separated by a wide gulf that was at once religious, cultural, and economic,” (2006, 50. This gulf would prove too wide for French political leaders to overcome. As the early military acts of the FLN’s military arm were far from resounding successes, the French still held out for the possibility of recovering control and achieving victory. However, some insurgents adhered so strongly to the cause that they took to “characteriz[ing] their struggle as a jihad, and termed their fallen as “martyrs,’” (Gray and Stockham 2008, 2. ) With such a substantial divide between the two sides, there was no chance for political reconciliation.
Further, the power of the pied noir contributed greatly to the difficulties French government faced in deciding on courses of action in Algeria. “[P]ied noir political pressure on the French government…and its political power in all matters concerning Algeria cannot be overstated. Its political clout… determined the rise and demise of several metropolitan French governments during the war. Hence, there was tremendous political pressure within the government to appease pied noir interests to the detriment of the Algerians – even if this meant an escalation of the insurgency. (Millet 2008, 28) Aforementioned military failures that contributed to the Algerian victory were due, in part, to political arrogance at both the local and national levels. “The over-reaction was symptomatic of the schizophrenia infecting the various French governments. Domestically, they wanted to appear strong against the insurgents, [and] forbad any military action that might result in collateral damage… [yet] authorities in Algeria either ignored the official rules of engagement or failed to implement them in a timely manner,” (Millet 2008, 29. With such an unstable approach to counterinsurgency, it is small wonder that when the FLN changed its approach, the French response was not only utterly inappropriate, but shattered any remaining hope of reconciliation. Following the atrocities committed in and near Philippville on August 20, 1955, the “French government placed the crushing of the rebels above any compromise or negotiations, and now considered the conflict as total war,” (Millet 2008, 30. This narrow government focus on military action in counterinsurgency strategy proved to be the final nail in the coffin of any hope of political reconciliation. This is a profound example of how French political arrogance cost them victory. The lack of unity in French political and military action allowed the Algerian victory. “Most significant, the French government ceded its political authority to the military leadership in Algeria to end the insurgency by any means,” and this “decoupling [of] political control from military strategy,” proved to be France’s greatest mistake,” (Millet 2008, 30, 41. By not having a coherent counterinsurgency strategy that involved organization and planning of how to best utilize military and political capabilities, French leaders set themselves up for failure. Indeed, it was their misguided confidence, kowtowing to the whims of the pied noir, and lack of regard for both their enemies and the people of Algeria that demonstrated the severe arrogance that was so prevalent among French leaders. This arrogance doomed the French to defeat at the hands of the Algerians.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Horne, Alistair. ed. 2006. A Savage War of Peace: Algeria, 1954-1962. New York: New York Review of Books. Millen, Raymond. 2008. The Political Context Behind Successful Revolutionary Movements, Three Case Studies: Vietnam (1955-63), Algeria (1945-62), and Nicaragua (1967-79). Strategic Studies Institute, United States Army War College. . 22 JAN 2009. Goldstein, Joshua, and John Pevehouse. 2008. International Relations, 4th ed. New York: Pearson Longman. United States Department of the Army. 2006. U. S.
Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual: U. S. Army Field Manual 3-24; Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 3-33. 5. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Gray, David, and Erik Stockham. 2008. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb: the evolution from Algerian Islamism to transnational terror. African Journal of Political Science and International Relations 2:91-97. . 22 JAN 2009 DiMarco, Lou. 2006. Losing the Moral Compass: Torture and Guerre Revolutionnaire in the Algerian War. Parameters Summer 2006:63-76. . 22 JAN 2009