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Algeria and Iraq: Yes, There Are Parallels

In my book, My Battle of Algiers, I tell the story of my military service as a second lieutenant in the French army. After four months in a combat unit south of Algiers, I was assigned to help write and edit an army-run weekly newspaper called RéalitésAlgériennes. Thus I lived through and took part in the Battle of Algiers.

There is no strict analogy between the wars in Algeria and Iraq. Algeria was considered part of France, and the 400,000 French troops who were sent there to put down a nationalist rebellion that began in 1954 were not “fighting a war” but “maintaining order.” The word “war” was never used in government documents. The French were there to protect the lives and interests of one million settlers (known as pieds noirs or black feet), who formed a powerful lobby, a settler tail wagging the French government dog, in order to keep down the nine million Moslem Algerians. In addition, there was no radical Islamist element to the Algerian FLN (National Liberation Front) that was conducting the war. They simply wanted their independence.

There are, however, several similarities between the wars in Algeria and Iraq. The first is that both wars are unwinnable. It took the French eight years to realize that. They had some success with sealing the borders with Algeria’s neighbors, Morocco and Tunisia, but men and weapons still came through. They mounted a number of well-run military operations, but there were always rebel bands in the mountains harassing them. Gen de Gaulle, who came to power in 1958, was convinced after several visits to Algeria that the best he could get was a draw. He could occupy the cities and the coastal area. But he could never obtain a surrender, and would have to maintain a high level of troops. There was no end to it and the war was draining the budget and dividing the nation. So he got out.

In a war between nations, one side usually surrenders to the other, but neither Algeria nor Iraq are wars between nations. In Iraq, as in Algeria, the insurgents, both home-grown and imported, are supplied with a steady stream of funds, weapons and manpower. They are able to sustain intolerable levels of carnage. The radical Moslems and the Baathists want to kill Americans, so the paradox is that as long as our troops are on the ground, they provide a magnet for new recruits. The situation reminds me of Peter Arnet’s quote from an officer in the Vietnam War: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” But this time we are destroying an entire country.

Thus, the departure of American troops may be the only hope for a negotiated solution. Once there are no more Americans to kill, the Iraqi government might be able to negotiate with the insurgents. Some of the guerrilla groups could convert into political parties, as Hamas has done in the Gaza strip. But it may be too late, in view of the growing civil war that further destabilizes Iraq. Here again, the Algerian experience is instructive. For as soon as the French left Algeria in 1962, the Algerians started fighting among themselves. Civil strife was interrupted by long periods of authoritarian rule. The French left behind a corrupt democratic model, that is, an electoral process that was stacked so the French minority could govern the Arab majority. The incoming rebel leaders, now governing the country, embraced this debased French model in order to maintain their authoritarian regimes.

This led to nearly 30 years of dictatorship under the guise of democracy. In the ‘90’s a violent Islamic revolution erupted, and the country became a killing field. Though Algeria is finally making some progress, more than 40 years after independence it is still not a stable democracy. If history provides any lessons, the United States has two choices: Keep troops in Iraq for many years to come. Or pull out and let civil war lead to more destruction and eventual fragmentation in three parts, like Caesar’s Gaul. Here is the final link between Algeria and Iraq: This month, the Algerian government announced it has completed the release of about 3000 jailed Islamists. One can only wonder how many of these freed Islamists are now fighting in Iraq.

Related Links

  • Shawn McHale: Torture Didn't Work for the French in Algeria Either By

  • Sheila K. Johnson: Why Algeria Should Be on the Minds of the Pentagon Generals