Commentary Magazine


A Reply to Max Boot

Editor’s Note: Read Max Boot’s post here, and Herman’s original article here.

At one level Max is perfectly right: every war is sui generis and comparisons between them are bound to distort or ignore important differences. Iraq in 2007 is not Algeria in 1957, or even Vietnam in 1967. Yet the sequence of shifts in tactics in combating a terrorist insurgency, and the interplay between the military and political fronts, seem to me strikingly similar. Hence my article, and hence the lessons to be learned from how the French managed to win on the battlefield but lose at home.

All the same, I think Max may be over-stressing some of the differences between Iraq and Algeria. For starters, I’m not sure whether describing the FLN guerrillas of the 1950′s as “nationalists” or “secularists” in contrast to today’s al Qaeda makes sense. In fact, our recent experience with al Qaeda figures like Zarqawi sheds a lot of light on what made men like Ben Bella and Boumedienne and Belkacem Krim really tick. Essentially, they were power-hungry nihilists willing to use any ideological excuse in order to pull down the existing order and grab power for themselves and their followers. In the 1940′s, they looked to Jerusalem’s Mufti and the Nazis for inspiration; in the 50′s, they mouthed pan-Arabist slogans in order to get support from Egypt and Tunisia. Yet once in power, the different factions within the FLN turned on each other; and the ultimate winner, Boumedienne, proceeded to declare Algeria an Islamic state and to punish women for not wearing the veil!

Nor was the FLN any less inchoate or disorganized than today’s Iraqi insurgency, especially in Algeria’s rural areas, where Galula had to develop his tactics. It certainly followed the same pattern, with the murder of moderates and with a handful of committed terrorists using family and clan connections to intimidate an entire village or neighborhood into supporting (or at least acquiescing to) their attacks on government forces.

At first, the French responded in much the same way as the Americans did in Iraq. They mounted regular patrols to protect their forces and key assets, interspersed with large-scale sweeps to capture weapons and take out the FLN leadership. But they soon discovered, just as the Americans did, that the leadership wasn’t the key to the problem: kill or capture one insurgent leader, and another takes his place. The key was the grassroots support, as Galula (who was Tunisian by descent) himself had said. Assessing the situation in November 1956, he wrote that as long as those who want the war to end and the killing to stop “fear us less than they fear the rebels, they will never dare come out. As long as they avoid a commitment,” he continued, “we shall never succeed in pacifying Algeria.” And that clearly is also the key in pacifying Iraq.

The question is how—and that is the salient issue. Certain facts are plain. The counterinsurgency tactics developed by Galula and his colleagues to do the job in Algeria worked, and they represent the last, best hope for turning things around in Baghdad and Iraq.

Max will be in a better position than I by this time next month to know how successful they will be. But regardless of how the Petraeus offensive (which seems a more accurate term than “surge”) goes, the decisive factor in victory or defeat will be perceptions in Washington. The Bush administration had better stop hoping that positive results alone will silence critics: it hasn’t worked in the past, and it won’t work this time. As Galula wrote in that same 1956 memo, “Our actions seem to [the insurgents] inspired by our mood of the moment, whereas we ought to impress on them that we are acting according to a well-thought-out plan that leaves them no room for maneuvering.” The Bush people might do worse than to start applying some of the same tactics against the “insurgency” here at home before time runs out on Petraeus, and on the future of Iraq.