French Algeria and British Northern Ireland:
Legitimacy and the Rule of Law in Low-Intensity Conflict
The Post-Cold War world, with its small wars
of ethnic nationalism; tribal and religious conflict; and localized
and global terrorism is not so different from Europe during the
era of decolonization in the late 1950s and 1960s. The ethnic and
religious roots of many of the world's current conflicts derive
from the period when Europe shed its empires and much of the developing
world gained independence. One critical lesson of the European wars
of decolonization is the need to maintain legitimacy while conducting
low-intensity conflict (LIC) operations. Without legitimacy, a democratic
nation cannot hope to prosecute operations to a successful conclusion.
Counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations
in Algiers from 1957 to 1958 and in Northern Ireland from 1970 to
1999 reveal significant truths about legitimacy and the rule of
law. Insurgent warfare based on ethnic nationalism is inherently
political. If, during the course of such a war, a government and
military abandon the principles that put them above the level of
the terrorists they are fighting, they lose the legitimacy of their
cause and face political and military defeat.
In 1958, after several years of war in the
then- French province of Algeria, which resulted in thousands of
military and civilian casualties, the French Fourth Republic collapsed
and was replaced by a new republican government hostile to the war.
In 1962, the French Army left in defeat and Algeria became independent.
Ironically, by all accounts, the French Army had decisively defeated
the Algerian Front de la Libération Nationale (FLN) rebels
and retained control of the country militarily at the time Algeria
The government of the Fourth Republic lost
credibility and most of its popular support because of a perceived
loss of control of the military waging the war and its toleration,
if not encouragement, of the army's widespread use of torture, assassination,
and violent intimidation. The French Army's ruthless counterterrorism
campaign in Algiers from 1957 to 1958 was a classic Pyrrhic victory.
The French Army crushed the FLN in the city, but the methods it
used caused an international outcry that led to the Fourth Republic's
downfall and, with it, the loss of any real hope for an "Algérie
By contrast, since 1969, in an attempt to force
the separation of Northern Ireland from Great Britain, Irish Nationalists
have waged a war of terrorism against the British presence. Hundreds
of combatants and innocents have been killed, yet Northern Ireland
remains solidly British. In fact, the cease fire, Good Friday peace
accords, and subsequent political developments suggest the Irish
Republican Army (IRA) has virtually given up hope of achieving its
aims through violence.
The British Army's counterterrorist and peacekeeping
campaigns against the many paramilitary groups in Ulster have seen
their share of mistakes, crises, and political failures but, on
the whole, compare favorably with the French effort in Algeria.
The British Government has insisted on maintaining civilian and
police control over military operations, using the minimum possible
level of violence in attacking terrorists, and has held fast to
the rule of law in conducting military operations.3
Despite some wellpublicized exceptions, the British military has
remained under the firm control of civilian authorities, and transgressions
of law have been publicly investigated and prosecuted. This adherence
to the rule of law has allowed the British Government to retain
its legitimacy in the paramount view of domestic public opinion.4
Although these two wars differ in their causes,
historical context, and geography, they are similar enough to help
draw some important conclusions about LIC operations and government
policies. In both wars, terrorists and insurgents fought on behalf
of an ethnically distinct population residing in an area geographically
separated from but still rhetorically and politically an integral
part of the home country. Both provinces had or have a significant
resident population vociferously loyal to the home country that
generated its own paramilitary and terrorist organizations, adding
another violent, unstable element to the conflict. And, in both
wars, political considerations overshadowed military ones and became
the most important factors in determining the success or failure
of government attempts to end the wars.
Following unwritten but perfectly clear rules
. . . on the orders of the socialist government . . . , intelligence
officers used two methods of questioning[:] electric shock and
The causes and dynamics of the French war in
Algeria are complex and, in many ways, prototypical of late-20th
century wars of "national liberation." The war contained
all the now-familiar patterns of idealistic nationalism, cynical
power politics, international posturing, and brutal, senseless violence,
the victims of which were more often than not guilty of nothing
more than being unlucky. The war in Algeria was different from many,
however, in that the insurgents were defeated militarily and yet
still achieved their aims, not through force of arms, but largely
through the French Government's loss of public support and consequent
loss of will to continue the fight.6
The methods the French Army used in its antiterrorism campaign in
Algiers from 1957 to 1958 became widely accepted military and government
policy, a policy that led directly to failure and defeat.
By early 1956, the FLN had the Algerian provincial
government on the defensive. The French military had just been extracted
from the debacle at Suez, hard on the heels of defeat in Indochina,
and was not yet reestablished in Algeria. Many units that had fought
in Indochina were still being reconstituted after their destruction
at Dien Bien Phu and the internment of their leaders in Viet Minh
In summer 1956, the FLN began a stepped-up
campaign of urban terror in Algiers with bombings, assassinations,
and strikes, all calculated to bring the government to its knees.7
By August, the terror campaign had brought chaos to Algiers. To
be a government official or employee was to invite death. The Arab
quarter of the Casbah, a warren of ancient buildings, alleyways,
and tunnels, was under FLN control and off-limits to police, white
Europeans, and Algerians loyal to France. Terrorism and vigilante
attacks by loyalist settlers (pieds-noir) brought the violence to
a crescendo that paralyzed the city.8
In January 1957, Algeria's socialist governorgeneral,
Robert Lacoste, under strong pressure from the government in Paris,
decided to fight fire with fire. He ordered the French Army's 10th
Airborne Division, a crack unit led by a hard core of Indochina
veterans recently returned from Suez, into Algiers with orders to
end the terrorist attacks at all costs.9
The 10th Division's commander, General Jacques Massu, had full authority
to maintain order in Algiers with no civilian influence or interference
in the military's operations. The Army had a free hand to do whatever
was necessary to restore order. This carte-blanche authority would
not be rescinded for 5 years. The transfer of absolute authority
in Algiers to Massu proved to be "the death warrant of the
Although 10th Division soldiers called the
assignment a "cop's job," they worked with zeal, determined
to erase the ignominious memories of Suez and Dien Bien Phu.11
Ruthlessly efficient, they made scores of illegal arrests and quickly
and violently ended a general strike by breaking open stores and
forcing people to work at gunpoint. Through the uninhibited use
of torture, "disappearances," public beatings, and other
forms of intimidation, the army quickly broke the FLN terrorist
By March 1957, the terrorist problem in Algiers
was effectively ended.12 But at what
price? Although torture and murder occurred throughout the war,
following the operations in Algiers, such actions became systematic
and even institutionalized. From then on, with the tacit approval
of the government, the French Army consistently relied on these
methods in all its dealings with the FLN.13
Clearly, such methods were effective. Coupled with a successful
campaign in the countryside (with free-fire zones, forced resettlement,
and other tactics familiar to students of the American war in Vietnam),
the tactics used by the French Army rendered the FLN incapable of
mounting any large-scale resistance by the end of the decade.14
The widespread, ruthless recourse to barbarity
by forces that stood for "civilization" destroyed what
legitimacy the French had among ethnic Algerians, and this had major
political repercussions in France. By late 1957, clear evidence
of torture and other government-sponsored or condoned forms of brutality
and illegal behavior by the Army fed a popular outcry that grew
until Charles De Gaulle was elected to the presidency in 1958, ending
the Fourth Republic.15 As De Gaulle
was later to claim, he had every intention from the beginning of
his presidency to end the war in Algeria by granting it independence.16
The groundswell of antigovernment feeling in
France that destroyed the Fourth Republic can in large part be directly
attributed to the unrestrained, government-condoned, illegal acts
of the French Army in conducting its highly successful campaign
against the FLN.
You are to operate as directed by the Gibraltar
Police Commissioner . . . . Act at all times in accordance with
the lawful instructions of the senior police officer . . . . Do
not use more force than is necessary . . . . Only open fire if
he/she is . . . committing an action likely to endanger lives.
-British Ministry of Defence17
The British experience in Northern Ireland
is even more complex than that of the French in Algeria. The roots
of political repression, terrorism, military force, and violence
in Northern Ireland are centuries old and firmly embedded in the
culture.18 The British Army has been
fully involved in the government's attempts to restore order in
Ulster since 1969 when the "troubles" began, primarily
in a peacekeeping and counterterrorist role.
However, a major difference exists between
the British Army's status in Ulster and that of the French Army
in Algeria after 1957. Since its initial involvement in Northern
Ireland, the British Army has been tasked to reinforce the Royal
Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and has remained under at least nominal
police and civilian control throughout. After attempts at an internment
policy during the early 1970s, the government realized the danger
of involving the British military in running prisons and conducting
interrogations. Allegations of torture still dog the army today.
As a consequence, the army turns over anyone it arrests to the civilian
police and does not conduct independent interrogations or operate
Perhaps because violence in Ireland has long
been a part of British life, there may exist a certain tolerance
for it among the public. Even so, the British Government consistently
conducts investigations and even judicial proceedings each time
a soldier is involved in violence, whether fatal or not.20
Even in cases of clear self-defense, or when a known terrorist or
group of terrorists is caught in the act of committing violence,
due process of law has been generally followed. Inquests, investigations,
and trials have been conducted publicly and on the record.
A dramatic illustration of this process comes
from an incident in Loughall, Northern Ireland. On 8 May 1987, acting
on information provided by the RUC, British soldiers of the Special
Air Service (SAS) ambushed and killed eight members of the provisional
Irish Republican Army while they were attempting to detonate a bomb
near the Loughall post office.
The SAS ambush came in broad daylight in the
midst of a suburban area and caused two accidental civilian casualties.
The outcry in the press was significant, and the resultant investigation
into the incident was extensive. Detailed information, including
the specific numbers of rounds fired by each soldier, their precise
points of impact, and an exhaustive search into the decisions leading
up to this action, were compiled and revealed at a public inquest.
After due process, the soldiers involved were cleared of any wrongdoing.
This action was treated with the same scrutiny one might expect
each time a police officer resorts to deadly force in the execution
of his duties.21
Clearly, even a cursory examination of the
British record in Northern Ireland since 1969 reveals instances
of illegality, brutality, and coverup, but the salient point in
comparison with the French example in Algeria is that, in Ulster,
the British Government and military have scrupulously adhered to
the forms and functions of civilian control and maintained the rule
of law and military restraint.
Military restraint, the constant effort to
hold to the rule of law in the prosecution of a protracted, complex
military campaign, has been the major factor in the British Government's
ability to retain legitimacy in British popular opinion, which has
allowed successive administrations to continue prosecuting the war.
Government forces, civilian and military, demonstrated to the public
the differences separating them from terrorists. Unlike the French
Army in Algiers, they did not sink to the terrorists' level of inhumanity
The critical importance of civilian control
of the military, rigid adherence to the rule of law, and accountability
of soldiers for their actions are just a few of the lessons we can
draw from a comparison of these two wars. Perhaps the most important
of these lessons is that in a low-intensity conflict, a key-if not
the key-operational center of gravity and balance is domestic public
opinion and the retention of legitimacy. Because of the nature of
war itself, particularly in a LIC environment, soldiers and governments
must remain true to legal principles and not descend into brutality.
In Algiers in 1957, the French Army descended to that level, playing
into the terrorists' hands and costing the government its popular
mandate and, eventually, the war. The responsibility for those actions
rests squarely with the Fourth Republic's civilian leaders.
In contrast, by consistently attempting to
hold to a legal and fully accountable prosecution of warfare, the
British Government and military in Northern Ireland have retained
the public's mandate to prosecute the war and might yet see it to
a successful conclusion. While such a strict adherence to the principles
of law and legitimacy might considerably lengthen a campaign, the
lessons of the long British experience in Northern Ireland suggest
that a longer campaign might be the only way to ensure success.
1. Edgar O'Ballance, The Algerian
Insurrection 1954-62 (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1967), 143.
2. John Talbot, The
War Without a Name: France in Algeria, 1954-62 (New York: Alfred
A. Knopf, 1980), 247-48.
3. J. Bowyer Bell, The
Irish Troubles, A Generation of Violence 1967-1992 (New York: St.
Martin's Press, 1993), 230.
5. Jean-Claude Goudeau,
Director-General, "Minute," on French military operations
in Algiers in 1957, quoted in Tony Geraghty, March or Die: A New
History of the French Foreign Legion (New York: Facts on File Publications,
6. Paul Johnson, Modern
Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties (New York: Harper
& Row, 1983), 495-505.
7. Geraghty, March or
8. Alistair Horne, A
Savage War of Peace, Algeria 1954-1962 (New York: The Viking Press,
9. Geraghty, March or
Die, chap. 14.
10. Horne, 188.
11. Talbot, 85.
12. Horne, 207.
13. Ibid., 197-98.
14. O'Ballance, 143.
15. Horne, 206-207.
16. Johnson, 503-504.
17. Excerpt from "Rules
of Engagement for the Military Commander of Operation Flavius,"
British Ministry of Defence, 1988. Operational Flavious was a British
Special Air Service counterterrorism operation in which three Irish
Republican Army terrorists were shot to death. See Tony Geraghty,
Who Dares Wins: The Story of the SAS 1950- 1992 (London: Warner
Books, 1993), 284.
18. Alfred McClung
Lee, Terrorism in Northern Ireland (Bayside, NY: General Hall, Inc.,
1983), chap. 2.
19. Bell, 230.
21. Geraghty, Who
Dares Wins, 274-78.
Also available online at: