Book Note: The Battle of the Casbah, by Gen. Paul Aussaresses

The Battle of the Casbah: Terrorism and Counterterrorism in Algeria 1955-1957, by Gen. Paul Aussaresses, New York: Enigma Books, 2004.

The Battle of the Casbah is a candid and unrepentant description of the campaign of state terror waged by French forces against nationalist urban guerrillas in the Algerian War of 1954-1962. The author, who participated in the detention, torture, and murder of hundreds of Algerian rebels as an intelligence officer in the French Army, asserts that the only effective response to terrorism is a campaign of counter-terrorism aimed at the human infrastructure of the target group and its supporters.

Although The Battle of the Casbah contains a number of self-serving half-truths and virtually ignores the eventual failure of the French counterinsurgency campaign in Algeria, it contains important information about the organizations and individuals who helped pioneer modern “Counter-Terrorism” methodology in Algeria. This turns out to be a crucial element in understanding the often bloody nature of the Algerian War and Western counterinsurgency doctrine in general, for the French paratroopers who waged a clandestine war on the FLN in Algiers in 1957 turned out to be especially suited for the implementation of drastic measures in a campaign of urban guerrilla warfare. Many of the paratroopers in Algeria had been at war for more than a decade. Some of the German troopers of the French Foreign Legion were veterans of the carnage on the Eastern front in World War II, and virtually all of the leaders of the counterinsurgency effort had experience in the bloody French war in Indochina. These were individuals who had been socialized in the mores and practices of Total War, and they brought that approach to Counter-Terrorism in Algeria, with important ramifications for counterinsurgency thinking in the West for decades to come.

The Battle of the Casbah also examines the tactics of state terror within the context of a counterinsurgency operation conducted by a conventional military organization. Despite modern skepticism about the effectiveness of torture in this environment, Gen. Aussaresses coldly explains how a clandestine campaign of detention, torture, and summary execution led to the swift defeat of the terrorist network behind the 1957 FLN bombing campaign in the city of Algiers. It is distressing to note the effectiveness of state terror in this context. The French paratroopers were tasked with winning the Battle of Algiers, and they went about their mission with a ruthlessness and violent sense of purpose that made the destruction of the FLN infrastructure in Algiers seem like a simple law enforcement operation in retrospect.

Gen. Aussaresses never expresses any doubt that torture and terror were crucial ingredients in the French Army’s success in Algiers in 1957, and he seems indifferent to the role such tactics played in the eventual French defeat in Algeria. His objective was never the overall elimination of the FLN in Algeria. Such an objective was above his pay grade and not his concern. His mission was to identify and eliminate the 100-200 individuals in Algiers who were waging a bombing campaign against the French state and its supporters across the city. He accomplished that task by a brutal campaign of nightly detentions, torture sessions, and summary executions in remote locations in the Algerian desert.

The Battle of the Casbah points to one of the central problems of military counterinsurgency operations. Gen. Aussaresses and his supporters see the French Army as the victors of the Battle of Algiers because they wiped out the FLN terrorist network responsible for the urban bombing campaign of 1957. That was the mission, and the paratroopers accomplished it. It seems lost on them that their brutal tactics played a significant role in the eventual French defeat in Algeria. The focus of purpose that helped the French Army wage a continuing series of brutal colonial wars in the years after the end of World War II also led to a narrowness in thinking when it came to the broader implications of French counterinsurgency doctrine. This moral and political blind spot was to have tragic consequences in the decades to come and points to the salient drawback of conventional military involvement in counterinsurgency operations.

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