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Native Son

A Tunisia-born Jew and French officer who fought the Berbers in Algeria pioneered the counterinsurgency warfare still used in Iraq and Afghanistan

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French military operation against the Felleghas in Kabylia, Algeria, 1955. (Michel Desjardins/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

David Galula, a Tunisia-born Jew and French military officer who has been dead more than 40 years, was the greatest single influence on American counterinsurgency practice in Iraq and Afghanistan after Gen. David Petraeus. The idea that winning the population’s loyalty, not winning territory, is the key to quelling an insurgency has roots dating back 200 years to the Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz, but Galula was the conduit through which the U.S. Army learned it. The notion of active patrolling of hostile cities, of dispersing U.S. forces in small groups rather than stationing them on large bases, the insistence on getting to know the local culture—all these are Galula’s ideas.

His precepts, developed from his two years as a company commander in Algeria between 1956 and 1958, became American doctrine through two books. The authors of the U.S. Army counterinsurgency field manual FM 3-24, of whom the most famous is Petraeus, cite one: “Of the many books that were influential in the writing of Field Manual 3-24, perhaps none was as important as David Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare.” But Galula’s other book, Pacification in Algeria, written for the RAND Corporation in 1962 and classified until 2005, is the more useful book for the soldier and the more interesting for the military historian.

Pacification gives a nearly week-by-week account of how Galula implemented his theories in a tiny, mountainous area of Algeria’s Kabyle region. The Kabyle is 100 percent Berber, to use the old word—or Amazigh, to use the word Berbers call themselves—and it was a hotbed of the insurgency. Galula admits that the two officers who followed him in command were both quickly killed by the insurgents. Yet he suggests that his ideas were taken up by French generals and resulted in tactical successes in the Algerian war. Of course, France lost that war, but in Pacification Galula emphasizes, correctly, that the Algerian revolutionaries had largely been defeated when Charles de Gaulle decided for political reasons to give Algeria its independence. Given Galula’s importance in recent years, it was only a matter of time before someone would try to revisit the historical record and assess his actual achievements.

Galula in Algeria, by Grégor Mathias, takes a deep dive in the French military archives to examine, almost day by day and village by village, what Galula accomplished and how his area fared after he left. (It is such a deep dive that only military historians will want to join in.) Unfortunately, the book is marred by what may have been unclear syntax in the French original, which I haven’t seen, and a sloppy translation. The reader’s confidence is undermined by small errors throughout (“it was to Galula to conduct counterpropaganda,” reads one). In the crucial “Conclusions” chapter, there are sentences that make no sense: “The main criticisms of Galula’s tactics, having never been compared against the archival record and are more focused on the simplicity of its methods with respect to other, more elaborate French counterinsurgency doctrine thinkers.”

Sadly, Mathias is also cavalier with extrapolations from material I know well. He frequently cites a magazine article I published on Galula and my biographical study of Galula for the Army War College, but he loosely interprets and re-transmits the details. To take one case, where I wrote that Galula “apparently met” Samuel Griffith, a translator of Mao: Mathias has “Galula knew Griffith well.” This does not inspire confidence in his use of other sources.

As to the larger points—Was Galula effective? Did he report his results accurately?—Mathias finds that Galula was just as likely to gloss over his failures and trumpet successes as most of the rest of us. He also convincingly suggests that despite some military successes and an impressive decrease in violence, Galula never eradicated the political substructure of the insurgency in his area.

I would suggest that Galula’s inconclusive results stem from an obvious error that the French officer made that neither I nor Mathias noticed. I understand it now because I recently spent a lot of time among Berbers in Libya, where tensions with the Arab majority are similar to those in Algeria. Put simply, the Kabyles don’t like the Arabs very much—and the best way to get them to go over to the French side might have been to capitalize on the ethnic, religious, and linguistic tension between the two groups.

Galula, along with every French commander in Algeria I’ve read about, missed the elephant in the room: If the French had been able to drive a wedge between the roughly 30 percent of Algerians who are Berbers and the Arab majority, they might have stopped the insurgency in its tracks. The potential of this idea is confirmed by the fact that the newly independent Algeria quickly set about oppressing its Kabyle citizens. One of the first acts of the new Algerian government was eliminating Berber studies at Algiers University in 1962. It was forbidden to name children traditional Tamazight names, and the Berber radio station was limited to four hours of broadcasting daily. In a country 30 percent Berber, the study of the Berber language was banned at the national university.

While the Kabyle produced a disproportional number of revolutionary leaders—and casualties—many were marginalized or slain by the Arabs in the 1960s. Meanwhile, the Algerian government built mosques throughout the Kabyle in towns that had never had them, including some that were and are Christian. This campaign was so unpopular that some Kabyle separatist leaders, like the exiled Ferhat Mehenni, openly support recognizing Israel.

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David Nordell says:

Ann Marlowe may well be right in attributing US counter-insurgency policy to David Galula. But Galula’s principles of operation had already been developed by Mike Calvert and put into practice by the British Special Air Service and the Malay Scouts, fighting the Chinese Communist rebels in Malaya at the beginning of the 1950s. Of course, this in no way diminishes his importance.

tillkan says:

Divide and conquer – is this supposed to be a new insight? Imperialists pillage the world, divide and conquer as long as they can, and then blame the natives for falling for the division.

It may be true that Galula “was the greatest single influence on American counterinsurgency practice in Iraq and Afghanistan.’

But are you also seem to suggest (more than that, really) that American counterinsurgency practice _started_ with Iraq and Afghanistan. You go so far to state that “Galula was the conduit through which the U.S. Army learned” that it is population, not territory that will win wars, at least some kinds.

But it’s my understanding that John F. Kennedy was a guerrilla warfare enthusiast (sorry to have to put it that way), inspired of course by Mao (where insurgents must learn to “swim in the sea of the peasantry”), by Quantrill’s Raiders and a host of other irregular forces.

Why do you place such emphasis on Galula, much less Petraeus, on prior American military tradition and understanding (if unable to effectuate) the idea that winning often means winning the “hearts and minds” of the populace? Or am I missing something? I would like to hear why you ignore the Kennedy-era vector.

Stan Nadel says:

All of this ignores the fact that the French had no interest in promoting Berber nationalism, they were colonialists determined to hold on to their colony and suppress all of its native populations and cultures. US counter-insurgency efforts ever since the time of the conquest of the Philippines have suffered from the same defect. You can’t win the hearts and minds of people you are determined to suppress when your opponents represent their aspirations.

David B. says:

Looks like the Arab’s were not into Berber nationalism either STAN NADEL, since they treat the Berber’s like dogs to this day.
The Berber are the truly indigenous people, and not the Muslim Arabs, but these “minor” details just get in the way of the “progressive” anti-all discourse.

Binyamin in Orangeburbg says:

Ms. Marlowe gives away the secret with this: “It is arguable that the Algerian revolution worked out badly for all of Algeria.” No doubt she would argue that China would have been better off without the Chinese revolution and Vietnam better off under American control.

Doubtless, had she been around, she would have worked for King George’s “counter-insurgency” campaign on the North American continent that commenced in 1776.

“The French blindness to Kabyle identity was tragic. It is arguable that the Algerian revolution worked out badly for all of Algeria, but still more so for the Kabyle. Meanwhile, Galula spun a brilliant theory that resonates with military strategists to this day—yet he ignored obvious facts about his particular area of operations that he was uniquely equipped to exploit, had he been open to seeing them plain. The lesson of Galula and the French in the Kabyle may be: Whatever a leader or a nation tries hardest to suppress in itself is likely to rise up and defeat it. It is too soon to diagnose the parallel issues for the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they are surely there.”

Thank you for the article, a rare find for me on North Africa and the Algerian situation that I have followed for years and not understood very well. My only plea is for further elaboration of this last paragraph in which the lesson learnt is not that clear to me in the statement itself although after several readings of the article I think I can link it in, sorry! Also the conclusion about the outlook of the war is an interesting one but tantalisingly interesting and would you commend any books on that subject?

melech says:

The U.S. Army only learned about this in the first decade of the 21st century; says who? Supposedly, this was the pacification policy followed by the US in Viet Nam back in the 1960′s. That the tactic worked in rural Algeria but ultimately failed because DeGaulle decided to give Algeria independence is a reminder that military action is not a policy, but an implimentation of policy. As can be seen by the behavior of the Bush Administration, the United States still thinks that “sending in the Marines” is a policy. After ten years in Iraq, we see that all it is is folly and a waste of gallant men and women.

Suzanne Ruta says:

The greatest Kabyle writer was Mouloud Feraoun,
murdered by French terrorists in Algiers fifty years ago this spring.
His war diary (published by U Nebraska Press)
is the definitive text about the Algerian war, the violence on
both sides, French and rebel, with villagers, Arab and Kabyle,
often caught in the middle. He had great misgivings about the
regime that would rule after independence but he longed for independence and explains himself in heartbreaking terms. The book is a classic of African and Algerian literature,
yet neither Marlowe, nor General Petraeus,
a Galula fan, seems to have heard of him. Nor, I suspect,
had Galula, his contemporary and enemy.


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Native Son

A Tunisia-born Jew and French officer who fought the Berbers in Algeria pioneered the counterinsurgency warfare still used in Iraq and Afghanistan