Counterinsurgency, Politics and War
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Counterinsurgency, Politics and War


And now for something completely different: the latest stop in our progress through military history (from the Strategy & War Course at the U.S. Naval War College I teach) is Algeria, where France waged counterinsurgent warfare from 1954-1962 and lost. The French-Algerian War is another one of those obscure conflicts that’s rich in insights. We examine the war in part through the lens of David Galula, a French officer-turned-strategic-theorist who took part in these events before taking up the pen. The Frenchman entered the mainstream Western lexicon when the U.S. Army published Field Manual 3-24, the counterinsurgency doctrine under which American forces prosecuted operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The framers of FM 3-24, notably General David Petraeus, openly acknowledged their intellectual debt to Galula.

Galula devotes most of his pages to techniques for battling insurgent groups. That’s clearly a major piece of the puzzle, but three intriguing (to me) parts of his theory straddle the boundary between politics and war. One, the counterinsurgent—the government—finds itself in a jam before the outbreak of violence. That’s especially true of a republic, whose leaders labor under constitutional constraints and are accountable to popular sentiment. Striking at a nascent insurgency preemptively would be an obvious stratagem. Why not forestall a challenge before it takes form? But however obvious,throttling an insurgency in its infancy is seldom an option for liberal societies. Until the insurgent reaches for the gun, it remains unclear whether there will be an insurgency at all. The loyal opposition works through normal political channels. So does an insurgent movement at its inception.

What’s a lawful government to do? Indecision is a typical result. That’s a quandary since the incumbent needs to act speedily—preferably before the onset of armed rebellion—and without betraying the standards by which regimes with moral standing conduct affairs of state. After all, as Galula points out, the populace judges the government by its actions. That’s point two. Officials profess ideals and have a track record against which to measure their deeds. People judge the insurgent by what he says. He has no track record. He can say anything he wants, and his words will remain abstract—and thus unverifiable—until such time as he wrests power from the government. Advantage: insurgents.

And three, government strategy unfolds along dual tracks both during the “cold revolutionary war,” to use Galula’s evocative phrase for uneasy peace, and during the hot phase of counterinsurgent warfare. In peacetime, governments exercise what lawyers term the “police power.” The police power involves providing security for the populace. That’s the normal understanding of the term police. But governments also promote the health, welfare, and morals of the people. My hero Theodore Roosevelt saw himself as a faithful executor of the police power. TR crusaded against execrable conditions in New York tenements, suppressed labor revolts, and took a host of other actions under this rubric. Similarly, counterinsurgents must safeguard the populace against the insurgents while nurturing economic development, public health, and all the other trappings of civilized life. That’s tough in the face of armed opposition.

Again, the burden on the government is heavy, whereas the insurgent often gets off scot-free. The FLN, or National Liberation Front, promised Algeria’s majority Muslim populace little in the way of social services or economic development. It promised only national unity and independence of outside rule. In a sense, perversely, this holiday from responsibility leaves victorious insurgent groups at a disadvantage the day after they win. They now have to govern—yet many have given their newfound duties little forethought. That’s why so many insurgent chiefs are tough, determined war leaders but abysmal founders and statesmen. Caveat emptor.

andrew galea
January 23, 2013 at 04:39

All colonial powers tend to destroy  the exisitng institutions so they  can then conquer and rule.  The only exception to this rule of thumb might be the Phoeniciansm who were not interested in conquering peoples and territories but where content with establshing trading posts until they decided to act like everyone else in Carthage, and we all know what the Romans thought about that.
The point I am trying to make is that we will all act the same given half a chance, it's human nature, it's the loot we are after.
In the colonial cruelty  tables most powers were and are gold medallists with perhaps a special mention to the Belgians and their obscene Leopold of Congo fame.

Thomas Fox
January 21, 2013 at 15:47

Thank you Mr Holmes for a well written, insightful history lesson.

January 21, 2013 at 02:30

To quote John Chan,
"It seems James Holmes has not learnt a Chinese ancient political wisdom that is “可以馬上得天下,不可以馬上治天下” (can conquer on the horseback, but cannot rule on the horseback). Every successful revolution in China, its first major test is to disarm the veterans and replace them with civilian administration for nation building, if the leader is wise, a successful new dynasty established, otherwise chaos
 John Chan actually said something thoughtful, perceptive and intelligent. If one substitutes enslave for rule in, "cannot rule on the horseback." and agree that the American 2nd Amendment places the entire citizenry ""on the horseback," I think you come to the essence of Liberty.

John Chan
January 20, 2013 at 02:35

French is the most wicked colonial imperial power in the world, wherever they go the first thing they do is to destroy local civilization and impose their culture on the locals.
When the Muslims overtake France with birth rate, the French will finally reap what they sow.  

John Chan
January 18, 2013 at 23:49

History has proven, by the time insurgent exists, the ruling class is already rotten to the core, they are beyond help, in the French-Algerian War, the French was the corrupted colonial oppressor, David Galula was just figuring out ways to exacerbate the agony of the Algerian people at the great cost to the French people, it was most retard thing he could do, creating a lose-lose situation for the future.
French seems a slow learner, it just suffered humiliating blow at Dien Bien Phu and yet it turned around continue the same failed behave in Algeria. It seemed the French was a die-hard regressive colonial imperialist.
It seems James Holmes has not learnt a Chinese ancient political wisdom that is “可以馬上得天下,不可以馬上治天下” (can conquer on the horseback, but cannot rule on the horseback). Every successful revolution in China, its first major test is to disarm the veterans and replace them with civilian administration for nation building, if the leader is wise, a successful new dynasty established, otherwise chaos follows.

January 18, 2013 at 03:02

Counterarguement: the 13 colonies have had periods of democratic self governance when the British were not heavily involved. This gave them a helpful advantage when setting up their new nation as a democracy. This probably helped make their transition less painful than Iraq's or Revolutionary France.

andrew galea
January 18, 2013 at 01:16

Whilst I agree with you,  please do not forget how much  the French  are hated in most parts of ex-French  Africa.
When writing about these matters I wish people would talk to the ordinary citizens of these countries and not the elite. The French were both arrogant and racist. and that is why they  were  never sucessful in any counter insurgenc in their territories..

MAJ McCleish CNCS 2011
January 17, 2013 at 09:56

Thanks to NWC, I view so much through the Galula lenses. How do our politicians keep getting it wrong when the Galula counter insurgency model clearly points out COIN is no quick fix and the investment in blood and treasure must be palpable to the deploying nation? Dr. Vego told me to keep writing. Eventually, someone will listen. James, i urge you to follow Milan’s advice. Some politician has got to understand eventually.

Dan Pendleton
January 17, 2013 at 06:15

It also does not help that a new nation does not have a history of democratic principles. Once free of the French yoke, then what? Thus far, the only constant in their lives has been subjugation just as the Russians only knew tyranny under the czars before the Bolsheviks came to power. If democracy is to take root and flourish, it must be guided along by an enlightened leadership. Fortunately, we had that under the founding fathers during the early American republic of 1776.

Chuck Hill
January 17, 2013 at 04:33

FDR undercut Communists in the US by mitigating the worst excesses of capitalism.

January 17, 2013 at 01:36

Well it looks like France will have another try at counter insurgency in that region. From my POV the elephant in the room when debating the prospects of success is the degree to which the intervention force is similar to the population vs. the degree to which the insurgency is similar to the population. Such things as language, religion, culture must have a real affect on the population when deciding which way they will lean. It would certainly save alot of blood and treasure if we could figure out which way the population will lean before we get involved. There really isn't much point in Americans trying to convert hardcore Taliban tribes into our way of thinking just like there was zero prospect of converting Apache Indians to our way of life. If we cannot see that some people and cultures are just too different than we will be doomed to repeating past mistakes. We must be realistic and rational about the prospects of assimilating very different people. There was no way for Apaches to convert to us just as there is no way for the Taliban to convert. Yes, individual Taliban or Apache can convert but the majority will not because such conversion would be like Americans swithching lifes on the whole…not going to happen. Such a conversion would be tantamount to unconditional surrender of everything they hold dear and would only happen after extreme pressures. It is pretty much impossible to make life more difficult, to the point where they surrender themselves completely, when they live in dirt and know nothing but brutal life already. Hopefully France receives significant help from African and Arab countries but such partners might be as useful as the Mali partners the US thought we had before they set about their coup which caused Mali to fail.

Major Lowen Gil Marquez, Philippine Army
January 16, 2013 at 23:42

 The insurgency was a complicate problem of a certain states, it is the combination of unconventiona stratagem to conventional at the end of the day, it inludes the wheels of politics, military, business and social approach, to counter it just a simple as in the bible,  when you say it, you mean it, if you mean it then say it for it will spread like a fire in everycorner of the earth, dedication and priciple which one of the  ingredients to counter the insurgents…..

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