The Pentagon’s Algeria

The visit of Donald Rumsfeld to Algiers a week ago shows that the Pentagon has turned the commonly-understood “Algerian model” on its head. Responding to the Iraqi insurgency against foreign occupation since 2003, various commentators including past official national security advisors Richard Clarke and Zbigniew Brzezinski appropriately pointed to Algeria’s national liberation war (1954-62) to clarify the dynamics at hand in Iraq.  As brilliantly portrayed in the film, “The Battle of Algiers,” massive indiscriminate arrests, “disappearances,” and torture against an occupied population geometrically increase local rage, serving as excellent recruiting appeals for direct anti-colonial resistance.

By now, awareness of this dynamic in Iraq is commonplace in explaining continuing and increasing violent response to foreign occupation and to successive regimes dominated by American power. Despite temporary supposed “turning point” repressive successes by the occupier (as the French achieved for a period in Algiers), the longer-range momentum of growing alienation and activism among the colonized as well as antiwar resistance in the colonial country leads lmost inevitably to defeat of the occupation project. By this model, eventual expulsion of U.S. and British troops from Iraq seems assured.

Yet deep internal divisions and some access to political power by major Iraqi blocs have prevented to date a united Iraqi resistance coalition. Thus, for now, the Algerian national liberation analogy has broken down, though the willingness of an elected Shi’ite-dominated  Iraqi regime to allow continuing American military bases and control of Iraqi oil is far from proven.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon has pushed an alternative Algerian model to the fore. Despite common accord that the “Battle of Algiers” film emphasized the doom of colonial counter-insurgency, the Pentagon showed the movie internally in 2003 apparently to train officers in the dreadful logic and tactics of French paratrooper repression.  And now, the present failure in Iraq of the film’s national liberation model no doubt attracts Pentagon policymakers to a new expanded Algerian model as well.

Algeria’s military-dominated regime in January 1992 cancelled the second round of National Assembly elections when it became obvious that the militant Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) would win a majority of the seats. Beyond the military’s reaction against this humiliating rebuke of the existing regime (as with the recent Hamas victory over Al-Fatah among Palestinians), apologists for the coup argued that cancellation would prevent installation of a permanent Muslim theocracy. In turn, the FIS and more radical Islamists in the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) then launched a widespread  guerrilla war and assassination campaign against the regime and “Westernized” Algerians, an insurgency essentially repressed after ten years with a loss of up to 200,000 lives.

Last week, as the last in a series of top-level U.S. officials visiting Algeria,  Donald Rumsfeld praised Algeria’s evolution from its previous Third World liberation rhetoric and applauded the regime’s anti-terrorist success as a model for the U.S. in its worldwide “war on terrorism.”  Yet few Americans know the details of this new Algerian model so blessed by Bush’s envoy.

In fact, repression by the Algerian military regime was in many respects as vicious as that by their colonial French tutors. Widespread torture and prison deaths, massacres and “disappearances” of civilians, creation of unidentified death squads, infiltration and manipulation of Islamic insurgents toward further violence, and absence of government accountability for its own repressive actions matched radical Islamists’ violence on the other side. 

Algerians caught in the middle needed no sympathy for Islamists to justify their intense criticism of the government, however hostile the official climate for free expression. Indeed, secular Algerian critics had long denounced the alienating political, economic and social policies and corruption of the regime which directly encouraged large numbers to join the militant Islamist movement.

Emerging from the national nightmare of the 1990s with a newly-contrived “democratic” face, the regime has granted several tightly-controlled presidential elections and referenda despite continuing bans on or harassment of independent organizations and demonstrations and while maintaining a rigid code on women’s rights much more restrictive than four decades earlier.

It is this façade of “democracy,” built on a long-standing authoritarian regime  with an immediate past record of horrendous repression, which Rumsfeld now finds so appealing.  No wonder Rumsfeld praised president Bouteflika’s lessons about Algeria’s experience as the two countries now pursue the same anti-terrorist path. 

While no doubt greatly interested in Algeria’s large oil and natural gas reserves as well, the Bush regime is magnetically drawn to an Arab government with a “democratic” veneer and a unique experience of successfully crushing a huge militant Islamist insurgency. Simplistic allusions to that victory promote the credibility and legitimacy of Bush’s campaign for “Middle East democracy” as a forceful alternative to radical Islam. But this innocent image of the Algerian experience fits well with the Bush regime’s simplistic assertion of American “democracy” at home as well.

Rumsfeld’s  banality that “it’s instructive for us to realize that the struggle we’re in is not unrelated to the struggle that the people of Algeria went through”  is actually a horrifying admission of already-existing American policy at a deeper level. To discourage radical religious violence from below, the linkage of horrendous repression by one regime domestically and the other internationally is a shameful and immensely destructive alternative to focusing on political egalitarianism and socio-economic justice instead.

David Porter researched the large workers’ self-management experiment in Algeria forty years ago at the same time as the military coup against president Ahmed Ben Bella and the filming there of the “Battle of Algiers.” He is a political science professor emeritus of SUNY/ Empire State College and the editor of Vision on Fire: Emma Goldman on the Spanish Revolution.(1983; new AK Press edition forthcoming).


Leave a comment