Small Wars Journal

French Counterinsurgency in Algeria

Sun, 03/14/2010 - 9:06pm
French Counterinsurgency in Algeria:

Forgotten Lessons from a Misunderstood Conflict

by Commander H. Canuel

Download the full article: French Counterinsurgency in Algeria

While Henry Kissinger encouraged President Bush to read Alistair Horne's seminal study of the Algerian War of Independence, A Savage War of Peace, during the debate on the troop surge to Iraq, this conflict remains largely ignored as a source of inspiration for the conduct of counterinsurgency operations in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Iraq and Afghanistan have generated a new body of literature on the subject but authors studying the pre-9/11 era continue to look for lessons largely through the American and British experience of fighting communist insurgents in the jungles of Vietnam and Malaya. Much less exists when it comes to drawing lessons regarding the conduct of operations in a large, desert-like, Middle-eastern country where a widespread insurgency is conducted in both urban and countryside environments by different elements of a Muslim population often motivated by diverging tribal, nationalist and Islamist aims.

The Algerian War of Independence does provide such similarities in terms of geography and topography, social makeup, as well as military and insurgent forces at play. The French, however, lost Algeria after eight years of bitter fighting and the subject is further obscured by the emotions surrounding the atrocities by both sides, thus making the collation of objective testimonies difficult. Most confusing, though, are the circumstances specific to a troubled France at the time, such as the profound tensions that existed between citizens in the métropole and French immigrants in Algeria proper, the continued effort to resume its former place as a major power in the world, the collapse of the Fourth Republic in 1958, as well as the return to power of de Gaulle amidst popular turmoil and threatened coup d'état by the military.

Nevertheless, once these various elements are peeled away, one realizes that the Algerian conflict offers an indispensable insight, truly relevant to the conduct of counterinsurgency operations (COIN) in today's security environment. While avoiding the political debate over the validity of France's claim over her North African possession, this article will demonstrate that French military forces actually waged a successful campaign in Algeria, virtually eliminating the insurgent forces in the field but losing the war at home. Such success was long in the making, following years of trial and errors before culminating in the required, all-encompassing structure under the plan Challe of 1959. Before drawing such conclusions, however, the reader must be introduced to the conflict that started rather innocuously in the morning hours of the Toussaint of 1954.

Download the full article: French Counterinsurgency in Algeria

Commander Hugues Canuel assumed command of the replenishment ship PRESERVER in December 2009. He holds two MAs from the Royal Military College of Canada and is a graduate of the Command and Staff Course at the Canadian Forces College. He has deployed twice to Southwest Asia since 9/11. The opinions expressed in this paper do not necessarily reflect those of the Canadian Forces.

About the Author(s)


Hugues Canuel (not verified)

Thu, 05/13/2010 - 6:29am

The previous posts are much appreciated and, indeed, make excellent points on the lack of legitimay of the French and Pieds Noirs position in Algeria. Nevertheless, as clearly stated in my introduction, the purpose of this article is not to discuss such legitimacy but rather focus on the military conduct of the conflict at the strategic and operational levels. I clearly accept that the French political stance was flawed and that it was irrealistic to hope for a French Algeria over the long term. It does remain, however, that some important lessons on how to and, as importantly, how to not conduct counter-insurgency operations can be drawn from the conflict.

M-A Lagrange

Wed, 03/17/2010 - 6:10am

Any conception of a French Algeria that would both continue to privilege the pieds noirs over the Muslim population (as the pieds noirs demanded) and remain an integral part of a democratic France is, to my mind, a fantasy.

It is not a fantasy: it is just a misunderstanding of what was Algeria war perception in France. And worst, it is a falcification of History.
Majrity of the French did want to see Algeria independant and this war has had a lot of impact (I would say benefits) on the French society. Abolition of death penalty is one of them.

tequila (not verified)

Tue, 03/16/2010 - 4:52pm

CMDR Canuel's article assumes that the French snuffed out the FLN militarily, but asserts that the decision to negotiate with the FLN led to disaster through alienation of the pieds noirs, the formation of the OAS, and "discredited the legitimacy of a French Algeria."

But did French Algeria have any legitimacy left in the majority of the population? If it did, why was the referendum on the Evian Accords such a foregone conclusion?

Any conception of a French Algeria that would both continue to privilege the pieds noirs over the Muslim population (as the pieds noirs demanded) and remain an integral part of a democratic France is, to my mind, a fantasy.