I have been a long time student of Algeria’s war of independence, which took place from 1954 to 1962. Repeated viewings of Gillo Pontecorvo’s brilliant 1966 film The Battle of Algiers, as well as Florent Siri’s 2007 film Intimate Enemies, have made a lasting impression on me. The conflict is not well known in the West, for a variety of reasons, and my goal here is to provide a general outline of the war, as well as the tactics of the protagonists.
Background on the war
Algeria had been essentially a French protectorate since the 1830s, and by the early 20th century it had become entirely integrated into the French colonial system. It was actually considered part of France. The system, however, was based on pitiless exploitation of the native population and the perpetuation of what would today be called an apartheid social structure. France justified this state of affairs by portraying itself to the world as the bringer of civilization and egalitarianism to a backward indigenous population.
By the early 1900s, Muslims made up over 90% of the population but were saddled with paying 70% of the direct taxes. The French government installed settlers (called colons) on Algerian lands, who dispossessed the native population and treated them little better than serfs.
The early twentieth century had seen the organization of some groups that agitated for Algerian independence. None of them achieved much success. Groups like the Star of North Africa and the Party of the Algerian People were formed by European-educated Algerians in the 1920s and 1930s, and infused with the ideology of modern nationalism.
These parties were banned by French authorities by the 1930s and never had much influence outside of intellectual circles. The PPA did, however, succeed in creating a network of cells around the country that would be of use to it later.
The end of the Second World War brought with it the end of old notions of European colonialism. The old ways of doing things were on the way out, and the more astute European powers like Britain and The Netherlands realized that colonialism was a casualty of the war. France, however, insisted on retaining its holdings in North Africa and Indochina by force.
In the early 1950s, a patriot named Ahmad Ben Bella created the Revolutionary Committee of Unity and Action (CRUA) in Cairo. With the support of Egypt’s anti-imperialist leader Gamal abd al-Nasser, Ben Bella and his associates created the National Liberation Front (FLN), with its military arm in Algeria being the National Liberation Army (ALN).
The insurgency began in 1954 with armed attacks on French government and military targets all over Algeria. The FLN leadership in Cairo at the same time called on all Algerians to support the fight for full independence from France. The French responded with a campaign of counter-violence in an attempt to crush the insurgency before it could gain momentum. It was inconceivable to them that Algeria could secede from France; it had been actually integrated into the structure of the French republic.
French settlers (colons) formed vigilante groups to fight the insurgents. The FLN strategy was: (1) win the support of the local population by disseminating information and propaganda; (2) separate the French government from the Algerian people by methods both peaceful and violent; (3) gain control of the countryside; (4) destroy the network of French collaborators and informers; and (5) establish an alternative social system and government that would be ready to take power once the French left.
By day, the FLN would attack soft targets in an attempt to provoke overreactions from the government. By night, the insurgents would melt into the local population. These were classic guerrilla tactics, and they worked.
The conflict was brought to the cities in 1957 with calls for a nationwide strike. France also began to train a cadre of native loyalists called harkis to assist in fighting the FLN. By 1957 the French had over 400,000 soldiers in Algeria, but it appears that of these about 170,000 were Muslim Algerian volunteers with little stomach for fighting their countrymen.
In 1957 and 1958, French general Raoul Salan divided the country into sectors with permanently stationed troops. Under a system known as quadrillage, each military sector was responsible for controlling its own territory. This marked the beginning of large-scale “search and destroy” missions against the FLN.
But the overreactions of the French military forces, and the widespread use of torture and other questionable tactics, alienated many otherwise apathetic Algerians from France. On the international front, the French government was unable to gain the moral high ground. None of the major world powers were much interested in helping France retain what was rightly seen as a colonial anachronism.
There were those in France who could see the writing on the wall, and who knew that France’s days in Algeria were numbered. Charles De Gaulle, in an act of great political bravery, had the courage to argue for withdrawal from Algeria. In 1958 he called for a new constitution for France’s Fifth Republic, in which Algeria would have self-determination, and asked for a referendum from Algerian voters.
De Gaulle was elected president in 1959, and called for a negotiated end to the conflict. He envisioned a loose association between the two countries, one in which France would apparently play the role of “older brother.” The FLN refused to stop the conflict on any terms short of complete and total independence.
But the end was fast approaching. The French public were tired of the conflict and wanted it brought to a conclusion. In 1961 peace talks were opened. The Evian Accords, completed in 1962, brought an end to the war. Hostilities were to end, and the hundreds of thousands of French colonists were given a period of time of equal rights with Algerian natives. After this period, however, they would either have to become Algerian citizens or be classed as foreign nationals.
In the end, fewer than 30,000 Europeans chose to remain. Around 400,000 were repatriated to France, never to return.
The Algerian War of Independence was a brutal and bitter struggle, one which continues to haunt both countries today. Even today, the war is known in the Arab world as the “revolution of a million martyrs” in honor of the high Algerian casualty rate.
From the perspective of military tactics and strategy, it offers an outstanding example of how a small, dedicated minority can successfully confront an established system of power. Without doubt, FLN tactics were studied in Hanoi, and adapted to local conditions in Vietnam during its own conflict with the United States.
Read More: Two Fathers