Small Wars Journal

50 Years after Algeria: America’s Endgame in Afghanistan

Thu, 07/05/2012 - 1:53am

THIS JULY 5th, France and Algeria marked the fiftieth anniversary of the latter’s independence. An inglorious seven-year war against a nationalist insurgency was brought to a close by President Charles de Gaulle, and with it, the last significant chapter of Western colonialism in the Arab world.

French efforts to “pacify” Algeria were politically doomed despite growing military successes on the ground. Four long years before the 1962 Evian Accords were signed with the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), the incumbent de Gaulle had concluded that the costs of maintaining the colony had come to outweigh the benefits to Metropolitan France. The war had been socially divisive (leading to a coup against the Fourth Republic), geopolitically counterproductive (isolating France from her NATO allies while creating enmity in the Arab world), and economically disastrous.

De Gaulle wished for a “responsible” pull-out. Subject to a popular referendum, Algeria would be granted its independence in exchange for the promise that France would continue to have access to the naval installations, nuclear sites and gas fields she had invested in there, and that the former colony would not turn into a Soviet proxy-state.

Fifty years later, the United States, which had once been very critical of French objectives in Algeria, would yearn for an analogous conclusion to her own protracted war in Afghanistan.

The general impression of the Algerian War today is that the French lost their colony because the indigenous population kicked them out. The plain truth, however, is that the French were not ousted from Algeria, anymore than the Americans were ousted from Iraq, or will soon be “ousted” from Afghanistan.

Setting the conditions for a “responsible” exit from Algeria in 1962 had required the French to bleed soldiers and treasury for years after the political decision had been made to withdraw. We are seeing the same eerie phenomenon repeat itself in Afghanistan. There, the irony of fighting against insurgencies abroad is emerging in full force; the counterinsurgent’s exit hinges on negotiating with the insurgent he continues to fight.

De Gaulle had negotiated with the FLN from a position of relative weakness; for despite France’s military successes on the ground, her political desire to withdraw was well known to all. The United States is confronted with a similar weakness in Afghanistan. Insurgent groups – the Taliban especially – have capitalized on NATO’s urgency to leave. The Taliban have come to realize that intransigence (to the point of killing negotiators – a recurring theme in Afghan history) will offer the better long-term yield. The more the Taliban wait, the more U.S.–NATO position will become desperate.

One hopes that the difference between Algeria and Afghanistan will lie in the degree to which the insurgent accedes to power in the aftermath of the foreign power’s withdrawal. In Algeria, despite promises of constitutional elections, the FLN had been allowed to achieve quasi-dictatorial control over the entire country following the French pull-out. The repercussions of a similar scenario being repeated in Afghanistan could be worse still. The Taliban’s record of governance offers bleak prospects for Afghanistan's sectarian stability, and more broadly, for the stability of Pakistan and the entire region. The tragedy of such an endgame would lie in the amount of blood and tears spilt by all sides only to yield results that could have been obtained – it will seem in hindsight – without paying such a tribute.

In Afghanistan, it remains to be seen whether the population will muster the strength to reject Taliban rule in the South on the morrow of an American withdrawal, or whether it will cave to the terror and fanaticism imposed by a few, thereby remaining cut-off from the rest of the world.

When national security imperatives or humanitarian concerns justify the toppling of a regime in the future, it is hoped that all efforts towards achieving a revolution from within will first be exhausted prior to contemplating an invasion. Otherwise, the insurgents, regardless of the merits of their banner-cause, will encounter no shortage of recruits to fight against the foreign occupiers of their lands and the perceived domestic lackeys they support.



Mon, 07/30/2012 - 8:15pm

I have to agree with most of Mr. Cohen's points on the U.S. position in Afghanistan. Some deals must be made with the Taliban to secure a semblance of peace once the U.S. leaves Afghanistan. The Taliban has an advantage given the fact that it is their "hometurf" and they can wait for the exit. In order to shape the future in Afghanistan, it is crucial that we set the conditions for a successful and responsible exit. The longer NATO waits the better position the Taliban will hold during the withdrawal of foreign troops. If the withdrawal is done too hastily, the impending effects could mirror those that happened in 1989 when the USSR departed.

MAJ T. Eddy

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government

<blockquote>[…] de Gaulle had concluded that the costs of maintaining the colony had come to outweigh the benefits to Metropolitan France.</blockquote>

Saying that Algeria at the time of the Algerian War was a colony of France would be like saying Corsica today is a colony of France. That’s not a minor point and goes directly to the (in)comparability of the conflicts in Algeria and Afghanistan.