From Algeria to Iraq
All But Forgotten Lessons from Nearly 50 Years Ago
By David Galula
The recollections of RAND consultant Lt. Col. David Galula, who served as a French commander in Algeria from 1956 to 1958, have a remarkable, almost timeless resonance nearly half a century later, with striking parallels to America’s recent experiences in Iraq. This essay is drawn from a RAND report written by Galula in 1963. He died in 1967 at a young age, depriving America of his guidance at a time when the United States was becoming more deeply involved in Vietnam.
From the time of my arrival in Algeria until October 1957, my battalion’s quartier covered most of the Djebel Aissa Mimoun, an area five miles square. In my zone, as everywhere in Algeria, the order was to “pacify.” But exactly how?
Muslim children march in a parade during official independence celebrations in Algiers, Algeria, on July 5, 1962. The majority of Algerians voted for independence from French colonial rule in a nationwide referendum held July 1 of that year.
The sad truth was that, in spite of all our past experience, we had no single, official doctrine for counterinsurgency warfare. At one extreme stood the “warriors,” officers who had learned nothing, who challenged the very idea that the population was the real objective, who maintained that military action pursued with sufficient means and vigor for a sufficiently long time would defeat the rebels. At the other extreme were the “psychologists.” To them, psychological action was the answer to everything. In between the “warriors” and the “psychologists” stood the bulk of French officers left to their own devices with their practical problems.
I, too, had an axe to grind. There was no doubt in my mind that support from the population was the key to the whole problem for us as well as for the rebels. By “support” I mean not merely sympathy or idle approval but active participation in the struggle.
A thorough census was the first step toward controlling the population. Control also meant that my soldiers had to know every villager by sight. I committed villagers to the French struggle by requisitioning their labor and paying them for their work. I opened a dispensary. I opened a school. Reflecting on who might be our potential allies in the population, I thought that the women, given their subjugated condition, would naturally be on our side if we emancipated them. I took care that the children were kept busy in school and in organized outdoor games.
In March 1957, I was well in control of the entire population. The census was completed and kept up to date, my soldiers knew every individual in their townships, and my rules concerning movements and visits were obeyed with very few violations. My authority was unchallenged. Any suggestion I made was promptly taken as an order and executed. Boys and girls regularly went to school, moving without protection in spite of the threats and terrorist actions against Moslem children going to French schools. Every field was cultivated. As they recognized the difference between their prospering environment and those surrounding areas still in the grip of hostilities, villagers were easily convinced of the need to preserve their peace by helping to prevent rebel infiltration.
French Generals Robert Allard, left, and Jacques Massu oversee their domain in Oran, Algeria, on May 22, 1958. The 1962 referendum ended 132 years of French rule. In 2000, Massu acknowledged the practice of torture and summary executions during the war in Algeria.
Throughout the war our prisoner camps were open for unannounced inspection by the International Red Cross, the reports of which were made public. As was the case with every one of our activities, for a long time no standard pattern governed our conduct toward the prisoners, and the atmosphere varied greatly from camp to camp. In the best camps, efforts were made to sift the tough prisoners from the soft; where it was not done, the camps became schools for rebel cadres. In some camps, by contrast, psychological experts thought they could convert prisoners by having them repeat regularly certain slogans and songs.
The lack of a concrete, precise doctrine resulted in a mosaic pattern of pacification in the field. My battalion’s quartier could be considered as well advanced. Immediately to the north of us, rebels still controlled the population.
The war in Algeria broadly conformed to the characteristics of revolutionary war. And the essential “laws” of counterinsurgent warfare, as I see them, had to be respected by us. In all probability, these laws will apply to counterinsurgencies elsewhere.
The first law. The objective is the population. The population is at the same time the real terrain of the war. Destruction of the rebel forces and occupation of the geographic terrain led us nowhere as long as we did not control and get the support of the population.
The second law. The support from the population is not spontaneous and in any case must be organized. It can be obtained only through the efforts of the minority among the population that favors the counterinsurgent.
The third law. This minority will emerge, and will be followed by the majority, only if the counterinsurgent is seen as the ultimate victor. If his leadership is irresolute and incompetent, he will never find a significant number of supporters.
The fourth law. Seldom is the material superiority of the counterinsurgent so great that he can literally saturate the entire territory. The means required to destroy or expel the main guerrilla forces, to control the population, and to win its support are such that, in most cases, the counterinsurgent will be obliged to concentrate his efforts area by area.
Destruction of the rebel forces and occupation of the geographic terrain led us nowhere as long as we did not control and get the support of the population.
As the war lasts, the war itself becomes the central issue, and the ideological advantage of the insurgent decreases considerably. The population’s attitude is dictated not by the intrinsic merits of the contending causes, but by the answer to these two simple questions: Which side is going to win? Which side threatens the most, and which offers the most protection?
What I achieved in the Djebel Aissa Mimoun was not due to magic and could have been applied much earlier throughout Algeria. I am not writing all this to show what a genius I was, but to point out how difficult it is to convince people, especially the military, to change traditional ways and adapt themselves to new conditions.