If President George W Bush’s political enemies are to be believed, the one thing he has never done is read a book. So, it might come as a surprise that Bush spent part of his holiday last Christmas reading a thick book sent to him as a present by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. In a little note attached to the parcel, Kissinger speculated that the president might find the book of interest in view of the challenges the United States faces in Iraq.
The book in question is “A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962), by the historian Alistair Horne and originally published three decades ago. The book has been a “must-read” for anyone interested in guerrilla wars and the anti-colonial armed struggles in the so-called Third World. It could be read both as a thrilling narrative of the eight-year long conflict and a manual on tactics and strategy in guerrilla warfare.
In a preface for the new paperback edition. Horne clearly draws attention to parallels between the Algerian war and the current conflict in Iraq.
He recalls the fact that the French antagonized many Algerians through indiscriminate mass arrests, at times followed by mistreatment and even torture of prisoners. Although the Abu-Ghuraib incidents in which a dozen or so US soldiers humiliated their Iraqi prisoners did not occur because of official American policy, the impact on many Iraqis was devastating.
Horne also claims that the US policy of enabling the new Iraqi army and police to control the country is doomed. In Algeria, too, more Algerians were fighting in the ranks of the French army than against it. And, yet, a much smaller force of guerrillas and terrorists succeeded in raising the cost of the conflict in human terms to levels that the French public could not tolerate.
According to Horne the terrorist cells operated by the National Liberation Front (FLN) were far more savage in their brutality and violence than the insurgent groups fighting in Iraq. The FLN seldom took on the French army directly, and when it did it always suffered a humiliating defeat.
In purely military terms the French had won the war in Algeria as early as 1958. But that was not a classical conflict. The problem was that the French could never ensure the first duty of a government, that is to say provide security for the citizens.
The FLN, like Al Qaeda in Iraq, made sure that it killed enough people in the capital, Algiers, to make sure that everyone felt unsafe throughout that vast land. The same tactic is used by Al Qaeda in Iraq today by killing a few people in Baghdad every day. The idea is to create an atmosphere in which most people are prepared to trade their freedom for security.
The implicit lesson of Horne’s book is that small groups of terrorists can always win against the biggest and best-equipped armies provided they can continue killing innocent people long enough.
Not surprisingly, Horne’s book has become a kind of bible for all those who opposed the toppling of Saddam Hussein. It is cited by opponents of the new Iraq as a conclusive argument that there is nothing that the US can do to help the people of Iraq protect themselves against the insurgents and terrorists. The only way out is to abandon Iraq, thus allowing a bloodbath from which he who can kill more and stay alive will emerge victorious. The victor will then impose his rule on the country.
Horne’s book, while massively interesting in the areas it does cover, is far from a comprehensive study of the broader aspects of the Algerian conflict.
To start with it pays little attention to the international context of the war. In the 1950s, as the Cold War was reshaping the bane of power in Europe, France boasted the second largest army of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) after the United States. Thus it was important for the Soviet bloc to keep the French army pinned down in as many conflicts as possible. The French had already withdrawn from another colonial war in Vietnam and wee busy shedding their colonial burden in Africa as well.
For anyone interested in making trouble for the French at the time, Algeria was the obvious choice. The French regarded Algeria as part of their national territory, not a colonial possession that might achieve independence at some point. Moreover, one-seventh of the inhabitants of Algeria at the time were ethnic European who could not conceive of themselves as citizens of a non-European state. Fomenting a major rebellion in Algeria, however, would not have been possible without the support of neighboring countries. But that support was not forthcoming until Morocco and Tunisia attained independence in 1955 and 1957. Another event, in 1956, helped tip the balance in favor of anti-French rebels in Algeria. It was the Suez fiasco that dealt a blow to French, and British, prestige, and turned Egypt the Western powers, opening it to Soviet influence.
By 1958 when General De Gaulle seized power in Paris, the Algerian conflict had been transformed into a proxy war waged by the Soviet Union and its Egyptian client against France and its NATO allies.
Another aspect of the Algerian war that Horne does not properly attend to is the violence unleashed by the FLN and the various pro-French Algerian outfits, notably the Organization of the Secret Army (OAS) in metropolitan France, especially Paris, itself.
Horne sneers at the claim of the French generals that France lost the Algerian war for political rather than military reasons.
The truth, however, is that the French political system at the time reached its threshold of pain much earlier than the French military did. A good part of the French political and intellectual elite sympathized with the FLN and saw France as an imperialist power engaged in a colonial war. In a famous comment, Jean-Paul Sartre, the guru of the French left at the time, insisted that the interests of the global revolutionary movement required that France be defeated, and be seen to be defeated, in Algeria. In that sense, a parallel can be drawn between Algeria at the time and Iraq today. Today, there are elements in the US, including in the Congress and the Senate, who would do anything to ensure a clear-cut American defeat in Iraq as a means of humiliating Bush and/or his Republican Party.
Nevertheless, when all is said and done, it is foolish to see the war in Iraq today as a replay of Algeria’s four decades ago. In Algeria a majority of the population, Arabs and Berbers, did not feel they were French and were seduced by the idea of creating a nation of their own. In Iraq, however, a majority of the Iraqis want to protect their new won freedom and broadly support the new system. Moreover, the US is not a colonial power and has no intention of maintaining a permanent military presence in Iraq.
Also, the FLN, although supported by several Arab states as well as the Soviet bloc, was a genuinely Algerian outfit while Al Qaeda is an alien force in Iraq. By 1960 the FLN would have won any free elections in Algeria. In Iraq, however, Al Qaeda and its insurgent allies are unlikely to make much of an impression in a similar exercise. Whether one liked it or not, the FLN was swimming with the tide of history that was directed to decolonization and national independence. In Iraq, however, Al Qaeda and the Saddamites are swimming against the tide that is in the direction of freedom, open markets and pluralism.
Bush would do well to read Horne’s book. But he should not he should not read it as a recipe for policy on Iraq. History does not repeat itself, except, as Marx noted, as a farce.