counter-insurgency in algeria


Wilaya 4
Armée française



Comments as prepared for presentation by Monsieur Remy Mauduit, to the

Centre d’Etudes Stratégiques Aérospatiales, Ministère de la Defénse

Paris, France

December 3, 2008

Drawing lessons from the conduct of operations in the Algerian insurgency (1954-1962) provides such a model in terms of geography and topography (physical dimensions, desert, plains, mountain ranges); social make up (mainly Muslim population divided in three basic groups hardly united in purpose as well as a small local elite collaborating with the occupier); open borders allowing the influx of foreign support; attempts by the occupier to provide greater local autonomy within a larger alliance; and a technologically advanced army fighting militarily inferior forces resorting to terrorism and guerrilla tactics.

These strong parallels with the war in Iraq and Afghanistan are the reasons we are interested in the Algerian war. Lessons, both in their positive and negative aspects, are as relevant today as they were in the post-colonial era.

In both cases, a Western power with great technological advantages confronted an Arab insurgency that relied heavily on urban terrorism but also maintained a rural guerrilla across the country. And in both cases, the wars grew in unpopularity back home. Another striking parallel––Just as in Iraq five decades later, civil and military authorities did not realize they were facing an embryonic insurgency, admittedly small in number in the beginning but with the potential to degenerate into a widespread movement threatening the very foundations of their power over the territory and facing the difficult adaptation of their forces to the fight (It took the French more than 5 years to come up with the Plan Challe and about the same time for the U.S. to come up with the Surge).

In addition, had proper planning been conducted in Washington and Tampa in preparation for Operation Iraqi Freedom Phase IV, consideration of some key lessons from the Algerian insurgency could have made an important difference. Events in Algeria demonstrated that policy coordination and unity of command are the fundamental elements required at the strategic level in order to be able to plan and execute a viable counterinsurgency campaign at the operational level. The Algerian command was divided in the early years between a civilian governeur général distrustful of the military leaders while the latter did not respect the civilian administrator to stand up to the insurgents. Police raids in the cities and military operations in the field were not coordinated and the fight against the insurgents was limited to arresting or ‘neutralizing’ the rebels without addressing the larger cause of the war or seeking popular support for the French administration. This phenomenon was reflected in 2003 in the convoluted command relationship between policy makers in Washington, the theater commander in Qatar and then Tampa, the land forces commander in Iraq and the successive civilian administrators Garner and Bremer.

The Algerian War had many unusual features. Once the various typical circumstances to that conflict are peeled away, the Algerian insurgency provides valuable lessons, relevant to the conduct of counterinsurgency operations in today’s security environment. The Algerian experience might provide some of the initial and very basic elements of a framework that could eventually lead to a generic model for the conduct of counterinsurgency operations in the Greater Middle East (defined as ranging from North Africa, through the Arabian Peninsula, to Iran) and the Muslim world at large. In order to do so, it will be necessary to explore the Algerian insurgency in depth by detailing the relevance of the conflict today and then exploring the conduct of operations (both by the FLN and the French) in the field prior to drawing pertinent lessons at the operational level.

In late 1954, a group of young Algerians organized the FLN (Front de Liberation Nationale). The FLN was a liberation movement with no political or ideological affiliation. The long-term strategy of the FLN was to build a counter-state and to organize guerrilla forces to wage an offensive war against the French. The FLN was organized into six regional commands called Wilaya. On November 1st 1954 (the Christian festival of All Saints’ Day), the FLN launched a military offensive to drive out the French. But the initial attacks were a series of disjointed terrorist attacks that, instead of inspiring panic and withdrawal, gave the French the impression that they were dealing with a minor rebellion instead of the beginning of a people’s war. Although the French had only a small military presence in Algeria at the time, they managed to track down and kill several top leaders and disperse the insurgent bands.

Recognizing its military weaknesses, the FLN resorted to political mass mobilization and a large-scale terrorist campaign. By means of terror, the FLN ensured that there would be no neutrals in the insurgency. Algerians would be forced to support the FLN and independence or else.

As the insurgency strengthened, the French Army took on the central role in pacification efforts and by 1957 had largely supplanted the French civil administration in Algeria. In doing so, the French Army developed a theory of counter-insurgency warfare, called “La guerre révolutionnaire” (Revolutionary War) and an operational art concentrating on such measures as anti-infiltration barriers (the Morice Line), the use of armed helicopters, psychological warfare, and the quadrillage (sectioning off the country and putting it under military administration). Most importantly, the French Army sought to identify and “neutralize” the insurgency cadres that formed the political center of gravity of the insurgency. This task, which entailed detaining and interrogating thousands of Algerians, proved to be a double-edged sword. Whatever success the Army had in identifying the political cadres, the Army’s methods provided the insurgents with an informational weapon that was used to great effect against the French. Report of the use of torture to extract information from Algerian detainees undermined France’s image around the globe and among its allies, most notably the United States.

But, in retrospect, the Algerian insurgency holds many lessons for us today. Whether or not the French could have held on to Algeria by using a different strategy is open to debate. But many scholars believe the French could have succeeded. Throughout the conflict, the French Army achieved measurable success at the tactical level in terms of suppressing terrorist activities in Algerian cities, interdicting foreign support by land and by sea, and in crushing insurgency forces in the countryside in a series of well executed “search and destroy” missions. But the absence of an overreaching political game plan, tactical success did not translate to strategic success, and the French Government under President Charles De Gaulle (President of the Fifth Republic, 1958-1969) elected to negotiate a settlement with the insurgents. In short, the French Army won all the battles but France lost the war.


From the military perspective and until the end of 1958, the counter-insurgency was virtually based on the quadrillage system (a grid system), mobile units and the air force for close air support, intelligence and reconnaissance. The heavy Army presence in the quadrillage demonstrated the French government determination to maintain Algeria French and helped wavering Algerians decide against supporting the F.L.N. But occupying and holding ground was tying up half the French armed forces and was very costly. This was a slow, expensive, and inefficient way to fight an insurgency.

The Plan Challe was named after Air Force General Maurice Challe, commander-in-chief of French forces in Algeria from 1958 to1960. The Plan Challe was an offensive plan that took the war to the insurgents. The French relegated reserve and conscript units to static defense roles, e.g., protecting roads, quadrillage, etc, in order to free up regular units to conduct mobile “search and destroy” missions in the mountains where guerrilla bands had taken refuge. Employing helicopters, the French inserted special mobile units composed of elite troops such as Foreign Legionnaires, paratroopers, marines, special commandos units, and airmobile regulars. These elite forces never exceeded 20,000 troopers. Operationally, the Plan Challe comprised a series of sweeps against known insurgent spots. Releasing troops from static quadrillage duties, Challe broke down large formations into small units, many of which were mixed Franco-Algerian in make-up, that could move quickly and bring the guerrillas to battle in rough country.

The highly sophisticated operational and tactical scenario was virtually the same. Utilizing primarily air-gathered intelligence and without warning, the elite units and the air force move at tremendous speed on enemy territory. The strike usually takes place at dawn. First, the target area is bombed out of existence and showered with cluster bombs from fighter jets and bombers. Within few minutes, the paratroopers land in the heart of the insurgent territory, close air support provided by armed helicopters. The elite force engages immediately the insurgents while fighters, bombers, armed helicopters patrolled the battle space and strafe or bomb any insurgents leaving the area. Additional troops are brought in by helicopters to close the immediate net around the insurgents. A larger contingent of regular troops and « Commandos de chasse » are convoyed to several spots around the battle space to ambush and pursue the survivors. The aircrafts are relieved when the area is under control by the elite troops and when the regular contingent is in place. The command and control post (Joint Operations Command) is always shared by Air Force and Army commanders. The operation is dismantled at sundown and the elite troops are withdrawn leaving the local (secteur) regular troop to finish the job and keep the area clean. It was devastating to the F.L.N., in terms of lives and moral.

It was terrifyingly efficient and for the insurgents, it was hell on earth, believe me: I was at the receiving end during two excessively long and horrifying months.

These cleaning sweeps started from the most western part of the country and ended up at the boundary with Tunisia. After each successful operation, more soldiers were taken from the static quadrillage system and added to the Reserve générale since there was no more need for a large defensive shield.

Close working relationships between Air Force and Army were the sine qua non conditions for the success of such a plan. Joint planning, command and control were the names of the game.

Operations were planned in details. Operational command and control were exercised by both Army and Air Force commanders either in the same aircraft, or in the same ground command and control post. If, for operational or tactical necessities, the commanders were not together, the air commander would frequently take the lead. Conversely, on unplanned missions, the Army commander takes control of participating airpower until the arrival of an air officer.

Monsieur Remy Mauduit is the editor of Air University’s French Edition of the Air & Space Power Journal.  He has extensive personal experience in irregular warfare specifically as part of the Algerian insurgency between 1954 and 1962.   He is an accomplished writer with several books to his credit and he is the subject of an upcoming French television documentary on the Algerian insurgency.  He is a subject matter expert on insurgency and counterinsurgency at the Air Force Research Institute, Maxwell AFB, Alabama. 

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