Myth-Busting French Counterinsurgency

December 3, 2015

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In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, French President François Hollande’s declaration of war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State and U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s deployment of a new permanent “expeditionary force” to Iraq make it clear that “small wars” have not yet become a thing of the past. As these limited operations move forward, policymakers and military leaders in America and Europe have to prepare for the very real possibility that mission creep will bring the need to wage another large-scale counterinsurgency.

The counterinsurgency (COIN) debate is one of the most controversial and divisive in recent strategic memory, and I will not weigh in on the utility — or futility — of COIN writ large. Rather, I suggest that as we consider the future of irregular warfare, we fundamentally rethink our approach to the historical case studies that have stood at the center of American counterinsurgency since 2007. For U.S. military leaders on the hunt for new strategic orientations ahead of the surge in Iraq, the challenges the French Army faced in Algeria seemed to offer remarkable parallels. In the wake of the U.S. Army’s publication of its counterinsurgency field manual FM 3-24, critics and defenders vigorously debated the extent to which American military commanders looked (or should look) to the French experience in Algeria to glean insights for population-centric COIN. For all the heated discussion about the Algerian War’s appropriateness as a case study, however, we’ve forgotten to examine French strategy itself. Our understanding of French “pacification” efforts in Algeria remains at best underdeveloped and at worst critically misinformed.

Before we can draw any practical lessons from the Algerian War, we need a deeper, more analytic, more rigorously researched history of French strategy. And we can gain it by altering our perspective on the war in three ways.

First, we must stop taking thinkers of the period at their word and engage critically with the theories and operational doctrines produced during war.

Much of the recent interest in the Algerian War focuses on the rediscovered writings of two French officers, David Galula and Roger Trinquier. Leafing through Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare or Trinquier’s Modern Warfare, it is easy to see why their theories are seductive. The two men appear uniquely positioned to diagnose clandestine insurgencies. Galula and Trinquier each spent time at the French embassy in Beijing and fought the Viet-minh in Indochina before arriving in North Africa. Both authors offer clear models to describe insurgency and outline concise methods to combat it. Galula and Trinquier argue that modern conflicts are less about controlling territory than winning the support of a given population’s loyalty — their “hearts and minds.” As a result, they have been celebrated as pivotal strategic thinkers, offering unique insights into the mechanics of modern war.

The high visibility of the two officers, however, does not reflect their strategic importance during the Algeria War as much as their success in marketing themselves to an international audience afterward. The focus on Trinquier and Galula misunderstands who they were, and thus truncates and distorts our understanding of French counterinsurgency in Algeria. Trinquier became a prolific political commentator in the 1960s. Galula worked short stints at RAND and at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. But neither officer stood at the center of French strategy-making during the conflict. Galula, for example, was a mere sub-district commander who, despite his current popularity, rarely appears in the key strategic documents of the period. The very test operation in Orléansville that Galula dismisses as a “failure” in Pacification in Algeria — aptly christened Pilot Operation by its architects in the French Army’s Psychological Warfare Bureau — in fact became the model for the French Army’s operational doctrine across the whole of Algeria. As my own research reveals, it was this Pilot Operation that laid out the multi-stage procedure to eliminate insurgents and reconquer the population through aid, social services, and psychological operations that became the Challe Plan in 1959.

Second, we need to develop a better understanding of the political context of the conflict in order to gauge its ongoing impact on French Army strategy. We are not just reading wrong sources — we are also reading them the wrong way.

Texts written by French officers are not simply factual reflections of what happened, but aspirational works intended to justify their actions and to convince their audiences — French, American, or otherwise — that they had developed new military practices better suited to the Cold War world. The French military command in Algeria struggled not only to defeat the FLN, but to legitimize its vision of the war in the eyes of skeptical civil leaders and the distrustful public in mainland France. This shaped the way officers wrote about and understood their role in Algeria. The officers outlining the grand pacification strategies in Algeria were often the same officers defeated at Dien Bien Phu. They were not simply innovating for a new era. They also sought to justify — to themselves as much as their superiors — the expansive and frequently excessive measures they took to “pacify” Algerians, whether the frequent use of torture for intelligence-gathering or the massive forced population resettlements that reshaped rural Algeria.

Finally, we need to get our hands dirty doing the close archival research required to gain a full picture of how French counterinsurgency practices unfolded on the ground. The narrow focus on published soldier-scholars like Galula or Trinquier is in some ways understandable. Many of the French archives on the Algerian War remained closed as late as 2012, and until the recent publication of Martin Evans’s detailed history of the Algerian War (which I highly recommend), Alistaire Horne’s 1977 work stood as one of the few comprehensive accounts in English. Even Galula’s own Pacification in Algeria was not de-classified until 2006.

A closer examination of the archives often reveals a very different picture from the one Galula and his contemporaries painted. Douglas Porch and Gregor Mathias have raised significant doubts that Galula’s methods worked as well as he claimed. My own archival work and oral interviews point to similar conclusions. By 1958, Galula claimed the successful pacification of the Bordj Menaïel Sector. And the archival record attests that the sector’s inhabitants did participate in the medical services, youth soccer clubs, and volunteer self-defense companies that the French Army deployed to win Algerian loyalties. But it also reveals that Algerian participation was consistently limited and selective. By 1961, these programs all but collapsed as it became increasingly clear that Algerian independence loomed on the horizon.

Thorough archival investigation can reveal when and why French counterinsurgency failed. It can also yield subtler lessons that escaped contemporary observers like Galula. The fluctuating relationships between French forces and Algerians suggest that on a very basic level, individual relationships between military personnel and Algerians mattered. The differences between Galula’s experiences and those of other officers also suggest that sector by sector, district by district, conditions differed enough to undermine any singular vision of counterinsurgency. These and other preliminary conclusions merit full investigation.

Just as doctrines must be tested and vetted, so too must the histories we use to build them. This crucial work takes time and attention, and yields no clear, single model that translates easily to other war zones in other eras. But it does give us a more realistic picture of what lessons can and should be retained for the future.

As Clausewitz warns: There is little value in a vision of warfare that doesn’t fit with the realities of history.


Terrence Peterson is Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC). He holds a PhD in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is currently writing a book on the theory and practice of French counterinsurgency in the Algerian War.

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One thought on “Myth-Busting French Counterinsurgency

  1. Another excellent analysis appearing on War On The Rocks Web Site of the situation this country (and others) face should we continue along the road of yet another increasing military presence and involvement in the internal struggles occurring in a foreign land.

    Recognizing the French failed to impose foreign rule over multiple culturally different populations willing to resist their presence and domination of their lands (at any cost) due to a failed strategy in one aspect correctly notes the problem. However, should we also fail to recognize and address that using a COIN tactical doctrine (masquerading as a strategy) to impose a successful occupation of a foreign people in geographically and culturally distant lands has repeatedly and will always fail, this country will once again set itself on the path for strategic failure as a result of another costly military intervention.

    There are multiple parties fighting over and for control of some or all of Iraq and Syria. These include the Iranians and Hezbollah, the Iraqi Shiite Militias, ISIS Sunni forces, Kurds in several different groups, the forces backing Assad, various Sunni organizations, etc. None of them has been foolish enough to attempt a COIN tactical approach in their strugges as they realize what is occurring is simply conventional war being conducted by multiple sides against each other — in a rather complex environment.

    The U.S. COIN doctrine is nothing more than a policing and control method / operational doctrine supposedly enabling a large foreign military to occupy a foreign land and force the occupiers will on the people of that land. It will never “strategically” succeed because in today’s world peoples the world over are willing (often in a rather clever fashion) to continue to resist (even) a heavily armed foreign presence. Only self-motivated native inhabitants of a land have some probability of being successful in the internal “Civil Wars” that are raging around the world and in today’s Middle East (Southwest Asia). Sending American Ground Forces into that environment, other than in “support” of an existing self-motivated and dedicated force such as the Kurds, in an attempt to direct its outcome will set this nation’s military on the path to yet another strategic military failure – just as has occurred in Vietnam, Iraq, and is occurring (admit it or not) in Afghanistan.