Lessons in war for U.S., Canada

March 24th, 2007
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From the editorial pages of the Calgary Herald, March 20, 2007:

The U.S. plan to pacify Baghdad is in its initial weeks — the last of the extra brigades won’t arrive until summer. It’s too soon to know whether the surge (or “escalation”) will work, although some presume to pronounce it a failure already.

But history offers some clues: the French experience in the Algerian rebellion in the late 1950s.

Like the U.S. in Iraq, the French faced a persistent and unspeakably vicious insurgency. (Unlike the U.S., the French held Algeria as a colony, with about 10 per cent of the population being ethnic French pied-noirs or “black feet” farmers.) As in Iraq, the war ebbed and flowed through various regions.

When the rebellion came to the capital of Algiers in 1956, when daylight bombings of cafes and bus stops, and night-time attacks on police, government officials and civilians – as well as brutal reprisals – became routine, it threatened to unhinge France’s hold on Algeria. The Battle of Algiers was on.

The French built their campaign around several key ideas, as British historian Alistair Horne wrote in the authoritative English-language history of the Algerian war, A Savage War of Peace.

The first was simply recognizing that without the capital, the war was lost. As Horne wrote, the “unprecedented crescendo” of violence “had both Muslim and European populations of Algiers in a grip of terror.”

Many claim the U.S. effort in Iraq is undermanned and lacking in reconstruction efforts. Yet the French made do in Algeria with far skimpier resources, including ancient armaments and an army filled out with young conscripts. [Comment regarding crack units such as paratroopers and Foreign Legion regiments was edited.]

The French divided and mapped Algiers, including its dizzying Casbah, block by block and house by house. They built up a huge, manually written, database of the estimated 1,400 insurgent members, their leaders, supporters and contacts. It was a brutal, messy, nasty campaign with numerous reversals. But within three months nearly all the rebellion’s leaders had been killed or captured.

The joint U.S.-Iraqi effort to regain control of Baghdad, “Operation Imposing Law,” has conceptual similarities. The new U.S. commander, Gen. David Petraeus, authored his army’s new counter-insurgency manual and reportedly studied Horne’s book.

The new operation is flooding Baghdad’s neighbourhoods with U.S. and Iraqi troops and police. American units are being pushed out of their mega-bases, where they’re isolated from the population. As terrorism expert Bill Roggio reports on his weblog, “There are now 23 Joint Security Stations established throughout the city. The JSS are the patrol bases where U.S. soldiers, Iraqi police and Army units operate from within the neighbourhoods in Baghdad.”

Algeria also offers lessons for Afghanistan, where Canada is in the thick of the fighting.

After the French regained Algiers, they re-evaluated their approach to the countryside. The new commander, Gen. Maurice Challe, concluded it didn’t make sense to cede large areas – however rugged and isolated – so he forced the army to pursue the insurgents into the remotest mountains.

NATO’s current Operation Achilles seems in this vein, although on a much smaller level.

There was a final key element to the French military victory in Algeria. As in Iraq and Afghanistan today, Algeria’s insurgents-guerrillas-terrorists were supported from the outside, exploiting sanctuaries in Tunisia where they could train, organize, rest, re-arm and plan operations.

The French responded with the Morice Line, an electrified fence and minefield through more than 300 kilometres of wild terrain from the Mediterranean coastline into the Sahara. Its sensors reported the location of breaks in the line and it progressively reduced the rebels’ cross-border movements. [Edited from original: Artillery fire-bases were pre-sighted to rain destruction onto rebel units attempting to cross, while helicopter-borne French troops moved into ambush positions.] Cut off from supplies and reinforcements, the rebellion withered.

Afghanistan’s insurgents have carved out what some are calling a “Talibanistan” in several regions of Pakistan, where they enjoy the same advantages as did the Algerian rebels in Tunisia.

Indeed, recent analysis by a private security contractor shows that nearly two-thirds of the violence in Afghanistan occurs in the provinces bordering Pakistan, one of which is Canada’s operating area.

It severely complicates NATO’s challenge of winning a decisive victory in Afghanistan.

Afghan president Hamid Karzai has called for the border with Pakistan to be fortified. While experts dismiss his idea as amateurish musings, it is strategically sound and firmly rooted in previous experience. Winning the war depends on neutralizing Talibanistan.

In the end, French political will crumbled and the French abandoned Algeria. Men they’d called terrorists became honoured members of a legitimate government, while former supporters were tortured and slaughtered. Unlike Algeria, Afghanistan and Iraq already have legitimate, popularly elected indigenous governments. But as in Algeria, the outcome will be a test of wills.

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