Politics & Policy

Algeria Warned Us

On our present problems in Iraq.

In 1978, the British historian Sir Alistair Horne published a book on the Algerian war called A Savage War of Peace. At a single event, later that year, both Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and John Kenneth Galbraith pronounced it the best book, in their estimation, published during the year. And quite recently, an observer noted that Israel’s General Sharon keeps a copy of it for bedside reading. Indeed, the observer heard the general say that if he had been Charles de Gaulle, he’d have ripped the FLN — the Algerian nationalist force — apart.

That book is hideously relevant to our present problems in Iraq. Bear in mind that Algeria was a French province, far and away removed from any relationship, sanguinary or cultural or traditional, between the United States and Iraqi Muslims. Moreover, there were one million French who had lived in Algeria for three generations (they were called the pieds noirs). Their commitment to continuing to live in French territory was total, and a lot of them paid for their zeal with slit throats and confiscated farms.

What happened was that in 1962, President de Gaulle, having been summoned by France to superintend the mess in Algeria, surveyed that mess and — unconditionally surrendered. He gave to the striking nativists everything they wanted, and they wanted a great deal, including all the rich oil properties that had been developed.

But this didn’t turn out to be a neat & clean solution, like giving all of Vietnam to Hanoi. In Indochina, the Communist government took over and ran things; in Algeria, there was split after schismatic split generating internecine Algerian warfare with a couple of spangles of a terrorist stamp, as when one group planned to hijack an Air France passenger plane on Christmas Eve and crash it into the Eiffel Tower.

By the year 1961, an estimated 1.5 million Algerians had been killed, including Catholic nuns ambushed on their way to Mass. What the French had come upon, in Algeria, was the Algerian wing of the phenomenon we have come upon in Iraq. It is a factional-nationalist movement using terrorism as a means of expressing contempt and hatred for modern forms. The single blessed development of recent months is the collapse of the Qaddafi movement next door in Libya. Qaddafi coolly appraised the scene and took measures to avoid head-on collisions with the West, once led by the United States.

That’s good news on the western littoral of Africa, but not decisive enough to overshadow the mounting fury of the Iraqis, whose strength appears to increase every day. The remarkable ambush staged over the weekend, resulting in the ritualized assassination of 49 Iraqis newly brought into the security forces, tells the story in very sharp tones. Just as in Algeria, where any native who worked for the police or for the French security forces was singled out for special treatment, the design by the insurrectionists in Iraq is obvious: associate yourself in any way with the new national government and you will be slaughtered as soon as we can get around to it.

Which was very soon for the freshly inducted recruits.

Just what would General Sharon have done, if he had been in power in France in 1960, to arrest the FLN movement? Indeed, to ask a more interesting question, what would General Sharon do in Iraq today if he exercised plenipotentiary power? Turn Iraq over to the insurrectionists, in exchange for forty or fifty new Jewish settlements?

The unspoken thought is: What de Gaulle would have needed to do in Algeria in order to quell the uprising, he could not do, as a French Catholic bound by certain limits in exercisable warfare.

What Bush could do in Iraq he simply — wouldn’t do, indeed would not be forgiven if he were to try to do it. This is not an easy one, on the order of dropping an atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Where would an atom bomb fall, in Iraq, in a way that would turn the insurrectionists away from their daily delights in slashing throats and car-bombing schoolchildren?

Well, nothing can be done in the next week. And whether the next step will be taken by President Bush or President Kerry, one thing is predictable. It is that the insurrectionists can’t be defeated by any means we would consent to use.


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