Torture as Intelligence Failure in the Algerian War

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  • Topic: Algerian War, Algeria, French Army
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Torture and Intelligence Failure in the Algerian War
Anna Zerilli Skipper
IR581 Professor Wippl

Torture and Intelligence Failure in the Algerian War

On November 1, 1954, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) organized a series of armed revolts throughout Algeria, demanding independence from France, on behalf of the native population. From 1954-1962, the struggle amounted to “a race between an expanding insurgency and a growing counterinsurgency” one that eventually “was won by the FLN”. How, as Lt. Col. David Galula (an officer stationed in the rural Kabylia area) wondered, could a modern, well armed military force of 400,000 men fail to suppress a poorly organized insurgency “never be higher than 25,000 [men]”. If “Our forces were vastly superior to the rebels. Then why couldn’t we finish with them quickly?” he questioned. The answer: “because they managed to mobilize the population through terror and persuasion.” The nature of a counter-revolutionary war, or Guerre Révolutionnaire as it came to be known, necessitates that “every man, military or civilian, on both sides, who happens to be in the theater[is involved]. No one is allowed to remain neutral”. The people, thus, is the greatest asset to either side, making it impossible to succeed through purely military means. This turns the war into a battle over the support of the population. Lt. Col. Galula and others understood the importance of maintaining the alliance of the populous, and of “divorcing the rebels from the population”. However, according to Lt. Col. Lou DiMarco, “the Algerian Muslim population was less inclined to accept French rule in 1960 than they were in 1954” something he believed to be “directly or indirectly related to command policies which condoned harsh tactical interrogation techniques including torture”. Influence over a population, necessitates a vast reliance on human intelligence, (HUMINT). Although the French Army understood the importance of HUMINT, they failed in its application. The widespread use of torture and summary executions by French forces was not only unnecessary and inefficient, but cost the Army the support of the international community as well as the the Algerian population, culminating in the victory of the FLN. Algeria, in 1954, unlike the recently liberated Morocco and Tunisia, was considered a part of Metropolitan France, rather than a colony. European settlement had been prevalent for several generations, and native Algerians had the (albeit restricted) right to full French citizenship. However, there was a large disparity in income and standard of living between the “Moslems” and “Pied-Noirs” (the colloquial term for European settlers). The economic and social woes of the native Algerians, mixed with the rise of Arab nationalism throughout North Africa and the Middle East since the end of World War I, lead to the call for independence. However, the comparatively large European population, particularly around the capital of Algiers, made emancipation from France less palatable for the French than had been the case in its “true” colonies. Within the Algerian population, “the nationalist wind was blowing strong... [and] independence was a powerful slogan appealing to the passions of many among the millions of Moslems”. While the military strength of the insurgency was lacking, their leaders, such as Ben Bella, Ben M’Hidi, Yacef Saadi, and Ali-la-Pointe, were capable of working beyond their means. What the FLN lacked in numbers and guns, it made up for in its manipulation of the Algerian people as well as the French Army itself. They played into their assets, which included : “(1) a cause by which they can attract supporters, and (2) freedom from any responsibility, and hence the possibility of using any means toward their ends, including terrorism to coerce neutrals and to cow enemies”. The French Army was not structured to respond to the “small groups of rebels who avoided encounters...
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