Shortly after it became clear that the United States faced a long-term problem securing Iraq, word spread that major Pentagon figures were busily watching the film, The Battle of Algiers. I saw that film when it first appeared in the late 1960s and I have seen it many times since, and I couldn't quite imagine what hopeful message they might get out of it. The film portrays the outbreak of the anti-French campaign in Algiers, the systematic French effort to defeat the Algerian National Liberation Front's (FLN's) urban network that carried it out with the help of torture and systematic investigative work, and the eventual capture of Aly La Pointe, the last surviving bomber. But by 1960--about two years after the end of the battle of Algiers--Muslims were back in the streets by the thousands, and in the next year President Charles de Gaulle made it clear that Algeria was going to receive independence. Despite an attempted military coup and a terrorist campaign by dissident officers--including the former commanding general in Algeria, Raoul Salan--de Gaulle pushed independence through during the next year.
The FLN was a strange organization. Its organization fell somewhere between a rigidly controlled Communist revolutionary movement like the Viet Cong on the one hand, and the host of autonomous terrorist groups and militias now operating in Iraq. Like the Palestinians in the 1970s and 1980s, it found it prudent to base its political leadership overseas, in friendly Arab neighbors, and it won largely because elements of the world community, and then de Gaulle himself, decided to regard it as the legitimate representative of the Algerian people. It tried, but never succeeded, in building up effective conventional forces across the border in Tunisia. It initially got the world's attention by massacring dozens of French settlers in 1955, and triggering even worse reprisals from French soldiers. The course of its war with the French, though, does tell us quite a bit about what to expect in Iraq.
The French, to begin with, enjoyed much more favorable numbers than the Americans ever have in Iraq. Iraq's population is more than double that of Algeria's in the late 1950s, but even now the United States has less than half as many troops in Iraq as the French did. (That may actually represent a similar ratio, however, since American troops are confined almost exclusively to the Sunni areas.) The Algerian population was also more concentrated, but some remnants of the FLN did flee to the remote interior during the war. And the French enlisted more than 150,000 Algerians--the Harkis--on their side--a larger force than the FLN ever disposed of. They did all this largely on behalf of Algeria's one million European inhabitants, known as the pied noirs, who eventually won the support of some of the leading French generals. There are, of course, no pied noirs in Iraq.
The French did manage to dismantle the FLN's urban terrorist networks in 1957-8, and in 1959-60, de Gaulle, who had come to power as a result of a generals' revolt over his predecessors' Algerian policy in 1958, authorized the Challe Offensive, a large-scale move into the hinterlands of Algeria designed--exactly like our own surge--to establish more of a presence among the people and marginalize the FLN. It also involved putting as much as a third of the Algerian population into concentration camps--a parallel, oddly, the massive regroupment of millions of Iraqi Shi'ites and Sunnis. The Challe Plan appeared to have the insurgency on the run, and many French officers always claimed that they had won the war, only to be sold out by the French government. But they did not succeed in securing the enthusiastic support of the population for continued French rule, largely because of the brutal but effective tactics of the FLN.
From the beginning of the war the FLN ruthlessly targeted any Muslims who collaborated with the French--a tactic copied by the Iraqi insurgents, who have put every single Iraqi who works for the Americans at deadly risk and who in the last few months have killed more than 100 leaders of the "Sunni Awakening Movement." The FLN, unlike the Iraqis, even targeted Arabs whom the French had arrested and released, on the assumption that they would only have been released if they had talked. And in so doing, they apparently managed to convince the population that peace would never come so long as the French remained in Algeria. De Gaulle, meanwhile, reached the same conclusion.
De Gaulle's handling of the Algerian situation from 1958 through 1962 was cold-blooded and in some ways cruel, yet it remains one of the masterpieces of late twentieth-century statecraft. On the one hand, he ordered, and welcomed, the Challe offensive, because it showed that the French could restore order in Algeria. On the other, he not only decided to withdraw, but also sold withdrawal to the French nation as a victory. Ever since he burst upon the scene as the self-anointed government in exile of France in 1940, de Gaulle had focused upon the restoration of France as a great power. The generals had helped bring him to power under a new constitution in 1958 because they assumed he would be the last person to give up Algeria. But de Gaulle also had an extraordinary sense of history, and he had realized that the age of formal colonialism was over. He wanted to give France a more prominent role in NATO and in Europe, reduce the influence of the United States over the western alliance, and build a modern nuclear deterrent force--and he realized that it would be impossible to do all this while the Algerian war continued. The Empire, he told his countrymen time and again, had in the past been a mark of France's greatness, but now it had become a burden which France must let go. That was a cruel decision, resulting, inevitably, in the emigration of the one million Europeans from Algeria and the deaths of tens of thousands of Harkis after the Algerians took power, but the French people ratified it in a referendum and never looked back. Algeria has had a turbulent and bloody history in subsequent decades, including another ferocious civil war in the 1990s--but its destiny has been its own.
The surge has certainly quieted things down in Iraq (although 39Americans were killed during January, reversing the downward trend of the previous month, and pretty firmly establishing that the surge has reduced violence to the levels of late 2003, which did not look like a success at the time.) I continue to believe that it has done so largely by co-opting many Sunni insurgents with the help of handsome subsidies. As early as 2003, demobilized Iraqi soldiers were complaining to Americans that the U.S. was not paying them, even though they had offered little or no resistance during the war, and four years later we evidently got the point. In any case, the Petraeus surge does not seem to have proven anything more than the Challe offensive: a larger, more widely distributed occupation force can control most of the population and reduce violence. The U.S. Army will now be able to claim (as the French Army did) that it can successfully carry out counterinsurgencies. But the next American President will face de Gaulle's dilemma--will he or she be willing to station 135,000 Americans in Iraq indefinitely simply to maintain a low level of violence? There is unfortunately not the slightest evidence that the surge has created a political alternative that will allow the United States to withdraw and leave a peaceful and friendly Iraq behind, any more than the Challe Plan did. The surge could conceivably lay the foundation for a relatively peaceful partition of Iraq into three regions, but only if both Sunni and Shi'ite leaders want one--and there is little evidence that they do.
It was interested that John McCain and Joe Lieberman entitled a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, not "The Surge is Working," but "The Surge Worked." That might suggest that McCain, who as I write has as good a chance as anyone to be the next President, is ready to declare a de-Gaulle style victory--but he has on the other hand indicated that he wouldn't mind keeping American troops in Iraq for one hundred years. Both Obama and Clinton, on the other hand, are now pledged to a relatively quick withdrawal--but they will have to find a way to do what de Gaulle did and sell it as a victory. (Interestingly enough, I have little doubt that a referendum of American voters would endorse a withdrawal by a large margin, but such referendums are not part of the U.S. Constitution.) President Bush, who has suddenly become the lamest duck I have ever seen in the White House, has managed to define the Iraq war as the beginning of a new era of liberation, not the last gasp of western colonialism in the Middle East. Perhaps a new President can make a withdrawal the occasion to announce the Arab world that while we will not tolerate terrorists hatching attacks on the United States within their countries, their political destiny must be firmly in their hands.