James Holmes

Counterinsurgency, Politics and War

“…the burden on the government is heavy, whereas the insurgent often gets off scot-free.”

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.