Lessons from Algeria: counter-insurgency, commitment and cruelty

By Ethan Brooks and Thomas Giles:

French troops in Oran, northwest Algeria, 1956. Photo:  JP Vasse (CC)
French troops in Oran, northwest Algeria, 1956. Photo: JP Vasse (CC)

In the Algerian War of 1954-62, the belligerents tore apart a society that had coexisted for a century. The wounds they left were too deep to heal. But the continuation of theviolence after the war and the spiraling civilian-targeted terror campaigns conducted by both French colonists and Algerian independence fighters was not inevitable. Avoiding this type of outcome is the point of counter-insurgency operations today. More than sixty years later, we can see that no counter-insurgency campaign can succeed with aggressive ‘search and destroy’ tactics against embedded insurgentsif the ultimate aim is peaceful coexistence in a divided society. The United States failed to take this lesson to Iraq and as a result had to adapt during its operations. Any country considering a counter-insurgency operation in the future must weigh up the extra costs of attempting it without this tool. France’s experience in Algeria shows that restraint and long-term commitment are vital if conflicts are to be resolved without the kind of fallout seen in Algeria in the 1960s and Iraq since 2011.


Even today there are parts of France that have been part of the country for less time than Algeria was. Fully incorporated as an extension of metropolitan France from 1881 under the Second Republic, it was organized into partements like continental France and was complete with all the trappings of the French state.[1] After the war, the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan spoke of ‘Winds of Change’ drawing the imperial era to a close, but in French Algeria the reality was different. For the colons (the Europeans living there) Algeria could never be just another colonial outpost to abandon during the seemingly inevitable tide of decolonization.

The French Empire was a civilizational mission to make Algeria and the rest of the colonies part of France. By contrast, while India had been ‘the jewel in the crown’ of the British Empire and its loss in 1947 had meant a loss of prestige, Britain did not feel as if it was losing a part of itself. The opposite was true of France. In the words of the French Prime Minister at the start of the conflict, Algeria was “irrevocably French”.[2]

If we read history through the lens of its destination, the gradual build-up of Algerian nationalism after the First World War is plain to see. Our eyes are drawn to the violent elements we recognize as important later on. But this is a mistake. The savage war and terror campaigns can in no way be described as inevitable.

Up until the end of the Second World War, French Algerian society was able to function as normal. Terrible violence did occur in the Sétif massacre in 1945 that followed police clashes with Muslim Algerians celebrating the German surrender, but Algeria was to have another decade of the peaceful coexistence it had enjoyed for over a hundred years. The majority of Arab Algerians favoured – or at least saw as the only viable outcome – a variation on the status quo with more political rights and the accompanying economic benefits.[3] Demands for violent overthrow of French rule were limited to the fringes. Nor for that matter were the colons too worried about their future. The idea of having to flee for their lives across the Mediterranean with their worldly belongings in suitcases would have seemed absurd.

To find the cause of the horror story, we must point to decisions made by both sides. In this case, to blame are, on the one hand, the civilian-targeting tactics of the Algerian revolutionary National Liberation Front (FLN), and on the other the unrestrained response of the French army and their failure to control the illegitimate combatants on their side. These combatants included the colon paramilitaries and the French intelligence services which operated in secret via proxies. Aggressive ‘search and destroy’ tactics cannot succeed in the long-term if the insurgents cannot be separated from the population. Hearts and minds cannot be won later on when the force aiming at ‘pacification’ is indistinguishable from the insurgents in the brutality of its tactics. Seen in this light, the bulk of the population can be seen as bystanders who were gradually sucked into the conflict as it grew in intensity. Civilian-targeting forced people to choose sides. The resulting divide was unbridgeable after the fighting. The only option for the Pied-Noirs and the Harkis (the Muslim Algerians who sided with the French) was to flee to France.[4]

The spark for the war came in November 1954 when the FLN carried out its first attacks, a series of over thirty bombings that left seven people dead, five of whom were European civilians. This shocked the French and triggered the deployment of paratroopers to Algeria. But even this event is easily exaggerated in importance. It was the response that leant the attack its significance.

At this point, the FLN was estimated to have only around 500 fighters and was only one small, albeit very violent, group within the broader Algerian independence movement. Before FLN ascendency, there were many moderate parties. These included the Mouvement National Algérien (MNA), which desired Algerian independence, but did not wish to achieve it by violence, the moderate republican party known as the Amis du Manifeste et des Libertés, and the Algerian Communist Party. The FLN rose to prominence because the French authorities allowed it to violently consolidate its dominance over other pro-independence groups, especially the MNA, a failure that stemmed from an unwillingness to distinguish between ‘good and ‘bad’ anti-French factions and engage with them politically before it was too late. Without the MNA, there was no Muslim Algerian voice arguing for a non-violent political solution. FLN dominance dictated the intensity of the conflict and the escalating response of the French authorities sealed Algeria’s fate. Fighting fire with fire, the French military establishment and the colons hit back hard, meeting the FLN’s terror war in Algiers with equal savagery.[5] The popularity of the FLN rapidly grew as ordinary Algerians turned against France.

While the aggressive French tactics were in part the result of existing military doctrine that advocated fierce repression, they were also a product of the military leadership. After humiliation in 1940 at the hands of the German Army, another defeat in Indochina in 1954, and the meekness that accompanied the Suez withdrawal in 1956, another military rout or feeble acquiescence would have shown France to be a cripple on the world stage.[6] The rot had to stop in Algeria. Left to their own devices by politicians in Paris stuck in the deadlock of the Fourth Republic, the generals took the responsibility for holding France together upon themselves. Political oversight should have led to tighter bounds placed on the use of force and long-term goals kept more clearly in mind. Without it, the army made its own decisions as to the lessons it believed it had learned in Indochina. Blaming defeat on a lack of toughness and panicked by the threat of communism, they resolved never to come second best in resolve or forcefulness again. The lack of restraint and the surprising cruelty of the French campaign was a direct result of this. A policy of summary killings, torture, intimidation and terror was carried out. By 1960-61, the FLN had been defeated militarily in Algiers and only small pockets of resistance remained. But during the fighting, aggressive tactics had turned the population of Algeria against the French.

In hindsight, it is difficult to imagine how France ever thought it could keep a peaceful hold on Algérie Française. The Arabs in Algeria were denied many of the political rights that the Europeans had and as a result felt treated as second-class citizens, but the anger and hatred that existed by 1962 did not exist in 1954. French rule could never have lasted in the long-term. However, the massacres, continued terror campaigns and the heart-breaking exodus of colons that followed Algerian Independence in the years 1961-1962 could have been avoided had a different approach been taken.

In looking back at the Algerian War, the goal is not to see how France might have held onto Algeria had it made better decisions. The goal must be to understand how western countries can carry out effective counter-insurgency efforts and avoid the level of suffering and bloodshed that is indelibly linked to Algeria’s independence experience. After the civilian-targeted violence of the war, there was no possibility that Muslim Algerians and the colons could continue to live together as they had done before. The precedent set by both the FLN and colon paramilitaries of targeting civilians with reprisals meant that the cycle of retaliatory massacres was and would have remained intractable.

Any mission that seeks to uphold a central authority against violent challengers must be willing to see the job through without allowing the fight to become personal in the way it was for the French in Algeria. Maintaining this sort of distance above the fray requires enormous sacrifice, restraint, and a willingness to let crimes against you go unpunished. On this last count the United States struggled in its Iraq mission and became the target of violence aiming to provoke a response similar to that of the French in Algeria. The sixty years that have passed since the Algerian War have seen many more counter-insurgency operations, including several in North Africa and the Middle East. Since the Arab Spring, we have seen that nearly every country in the region could find itself needing military help to avoid a drawn-out civil war and mass killings. Given this, it is probable that new counter-insurgency operations will be undertaken. Nor are they likely to be as easy as France’s mission in Mali, where the insurgents were mostly rural and the rebel fighters were geographically, religiously and ethnically distinct from the rest of the population. This especially applies today as events in Syria, Iraq and Libya progress. A lack of long-term commitment wrecked the mission in Iraq. The results of that failure are all too clear today.

Ethan Brooks is in his third year of a BA in International Politics at King’s College London. Thomas Giles is in his third year of a BA in War Studies, also at King’s.


[1] Evans, Martin. Algeria: France’s Undeclared War, 2012, p.19

[2] Merom, Gil. How Democracies lose small wars: State, Society, and the Failures of France in Algeria, Israel in Lebanon and the United States in Vietnam, 2003, p.90

[3]Evans, Martin. Algeria: France’s Undeclared War, 2012, p. 101

[4]Horne, Alistair. A Savage War of Peace. p. 537.

[5] Branche, Raphaëlle. La torture et l’armée pendant la guerre d’Algérie. France: Gallimard (2001), p. 423-24

[6] De Saint Marc, Hélie. Mémoires les champs de braises. France: Perrin (2002), p.173

Share this

Copyright © 2019 Strife Blog. All Rights Reserved.

Designed by Kris Chan