Commentary Magazine


Contentions

A Reply to Arthur Herman

In his article in the April issue of COMMENTARY, Arthur Herman has provided a valuable service by increasing awareness of David Galula and the French experience in Algeria. I agree with much of what he has to say but feel compelled to register some disagreements as well.

First, a minor peeve: I dislike the breakdown of warfare into four generations—a conceit launched by William Lind of the Free Congress Foundation and picked up by Herman in this article. “4GW” theorists, as they are known in military circles, posit that insurgency has now replaced traditional “maneuver” warfare, just as in World War II maneuver warfare replaced industrial warfare. The reality is considerably more complex: maneuver warfare still exists (an example: the three-week U.S. blitzkrieg to Baghdad in the spring of 2003), and terrorism and guerrilla warfare, though growing in importance, are nothing new—they date back to the dawn of warfare. This isn’t meant to deprecate the importance of low-intensity conflict; rather to suggest that it isn’t new and it isn’t necessarily the sum of all warfare today. (Sir Lawrence Freedman of King’s College, London, has written a good refutation of 4GW theory.)

This is a relatively minor matter of categorization. A more serious flaw with Herman’s article is his presupposition that the U.S. will have the same level of purely military success that the French had in Algeria. Maybe so, but there’s little evidence of that yet. Even with the small successes that General Petraeus has registered with the initial stages of the troop “surge,” Baghdad remains infinitely more dangerous than Algiers ever was. We are not close to military victory in Iraq—certainly not as close as the French were in Algeria in the late 1950′s.

Another problem with Herman’s article is that, though it is based on an Algeria-Iraq comparison, the differences between the FLN and al Qaeda and other terrorist groups in Iraq are pretty vast. The FLN, as I understand it, was primarily nationalist, not Islamist, in its orientation; if anything its ideology was secular pan-Arabism of the Nasserite variety. Indeed, the heirs of the FLN, who rule Algeria today, put down an Islamist uprising in the 1990′s with great violence.

The FLN was also a classic, tightly directed insurgency in the mode of the Chinese or Vietnamese communists, with a hierarchical leadership and a clear goal–kicking out the French. The Iraq insurgency is much more inchoate and lacks any central organizing principle or leadership, making it harder to deal with. There are numerous Shiite and Sunni factions pursuing their own agendas, which often involve killing one another as well as coalition forces. This complexity is a source of frustration for counterinsurgents—strategies designed to deal with one enemy in Iraq may actually exacerbate tensions with another group. (For instance: empowering Shiites alienates Sunnis.) Whereas the fight in Algeria was purely about the future of foreign rule, the fight in Iraq is much more about which sectarian groups will rule in a future Iraq.

Another difference: the presence of the French settlers in Algeria and the much greater number of French troops in proportion to the population, along with the much longer standing French familiarity with Algeria–all major advantages we don’t enjoy in Iraq. The French deployed some 450,000 of their own troops, along with lots of Arab auxiliaries, to pacify a population of 10 million (of whom one million were pro-French pieds noir). In Iraq the coalition has never had more than 170,000 troops for a population of 26 million—and indigenous soldiers in Iraq have proven less useful than in Algeria.

A final difference worth noting: While there was some coverage of French misdeeds in Algeria, like torture, media coverage was much less intense than in Iraq today. The French approach, which proved effective on the ground, was pretty brutal—more brutal, I think, than what Galula advocated in his book. The result: France won all the battles but lost the war by losing the support of public opinion back home.

I don’t dispute Herman’s conclusion about the central importance of domestic public opinion in this war (or just about any other war, for that matter). I also agree about the importance of applying Galula’s dicta in Iraq—something I’ve advocated in the past. But I would caution against assuming that all we have to do is win hearts and minds back home. To a substantial degree, the trajectory of U.S. public opinion follows the success or lack thereof of our forces in Iraq. If we were having more success on the ground, we’d be getting more support at home. Of course the French experience in Algeria showed that even on-the-ground success may not be enough to win over public opinion if that success is achieved using repugnant methods. Still, showing progress in pacification is necessary, if not sufficient, for keeping public support.

So how are we doing in Iraq? That’s hard to figure out. While opponents of the war have been prone to excessive pessimism, supporters of the war effort—including myself in the past—have been guilty of excessive optimism. A more balanced assessment is needed, which is what I will try to provide in the next few weeks. I’m now heading off to Iraq to spend much of April visiting with coalition forces. I will try to report periodically while I’m there, if I can find time and Internet access.

*Editor’s Note: Arthur Herman will respond to Max Boot’s criticisms tomorrow. Stay tuned.