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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.

The “Berber Spring” of 1980, which culminated in a bloody government crackdown, was the point of no return for the Kabyle. In 1994 and ’95, 10 million Kabyles kept their children out of school to protest the Arab-only curriculum. Since 1981, autonomy or even independence for the Kabyle has been a popular, if not successful, cause.

There are at least three obvious points of tension between North African Berbers/Amazigh and Arabs. The first is over the historical fact of the Arab conquest. Every Berber I have met has told me that Amazigh were the original inhabitants of North Africa and that all of that land was once theirs. As one Libyan Amazigh told me, “I’m tired of hearing about the Palestinians and how the Jews took their land. What about how the Arabs took our land?”

There is also the fact that the official language of all the North African countries is Arabic—yet in Morocco 60 percent of the population are Tamazight or Berber-speaking, in Algeria 30 percent, and in Libya perhaps 10 percent. In most of North Africa, the Arabophone majority has suppressed or (in the case of Qaddafi’s Libya) outright prohibited the use of Tamazight, a language that is estimated to be anywhere from 2,200 to 3,000 years old; its tiffinagh script has more than 30 letters, differing somewhat from region to region, and some of them look like ancient Greek.

The third clear point of conflict is religious. Many Amazigh are at pains to distinguish between their moderate Islam and the intolerance sometimes found among their Arab neighbors. This Galula recognized in Pacification:

Of all the people of North Africa, they are the least influenced by Islam. They do observe the main religious rites such as the annual month-long fast, but not in a rigid way. The local Moslem priest has little moral or temporal authority.

Almost all Berbers will readily acknowledge that their ancestors were either Christian or Jewish before they became Muslim. Galula hints at this in a footnote, “St. Augustin was a Kabyle. Kabylia was Christianized before the Arab invasion.”

The French should have pressed hard on all three points of tension. They should have told the Berbers that they would be trampled in a new, professedly Arab and Muslim state, as in fact happened. They should have encouraged identity politics to alarm the Arab Algerians. They should have told the Berbers that the Arabs were fundamentalists and told the Arabs that the Berbers were secularists, both of which are exaggerations with a strong kernel of truth. (Even today the Kabyles accuse the Algerian military dictatorship of covertly supporting jihadi groups within the country while simultaneously telling the West that dictatorship is necessary to keep a lid on al-Qaida.)

Furthermore, Galula had an advantage over most of the other French field commanders in having been born and bred in North Africa. How could he have ignored the ethnic composition of the country in which he was fighting a fierce and protracted counterinsurgency campaign? In part, I would chalk it up to the tendency of French governments to downplay regional differences, to standardize language, and to cultivate a national, secular identity. France had fought a centuries-long battle to eradicate the use of regional dialects—a battle won only around the time of World War I.

Galula himself was not primed to value minority cultures or encourage cultural balkanization. He was an assimilated Jew whose family had embraced the possibilities of metropolitan France and its dominant secular culture. And he grew up in a time of growing anti-Semitism, when Judaism was best kept quiet. What is particularly ironic, and sad, is that Galula was also more or less a Berber himself by ancestry, a fact that he also did his best to efface.


David Galula was born in Sfax, Tunisia, to a Jewish family that claimed to be original to North Africa. One of Galula’s paternal first cousins, Magda Galula, told me that the family was from a town called Galula near the Libyan border, whose residents converted to Judaism 2,000 years ago. In other words, the Galulas were Berbers, or possibly a mix of Roman and Berber blood. They could have been nothing else if they were indigenous to North Africa.

But the Galula family had begun their emergence from centuries of traditional life in David’s grandfather’s time. Galula’s grandfather had been the doyen of the Jewish community of Sfax, and while his family spoke Judeo-Arabic rather than French at home, he sent his sons to French lycées, rather than the traditional Jewish schools common at the time. Galula’s father went out of his way to register David as a French citizen in 1924, when he was 5.

During Galula’s adolescence, anti-Semitism gained force in North Africa as in Europe. It was a time to keep one’s Judaism discreet. There were anti-Jewish riots in Sfax in 1932 and a pogrom that killed 23 Jews in Constantine, Algeria, in 1934. Galula went to the small, insular French military academy at Saint-Cyr, half of whose cadets were themselves the sons of officers, not exactly a philo-Semitic group just a generation after Dreyfus. Shortly after he graduated in 1939 all Jews were expelled from the French officer corps by the Vichy government. Later, Galula ignored his mother’s plan to arrange a marriage with a rich, attractive Jewish girl and married a Christian American he fell in love with while they were both working in China.

Re-reading Pacification in Algeria with Berber identity in mind, Galula’s willful blindness leaps out:

The Kabyles are aborigines belonging to the same Berber stock as the Schleuhs in Morocco.

They have their own language, quite different from Arabic, but it is only a spoken one, for they never developed a writing system.

How could Galula not know that the Berbers had a written language? His home town of Sfax is the nearest big city to Djerba, which is Berber, and to the Libyan coast inhabited by Berbers. (There was of course no “Libya” when Galula was a child.) Galula spent his teenage years in Morocco, a majority Berber country that has been the first to encourage a revival of the written language. Galula repeatedly refers to the Kabyles as illiterate: It is possible that the Kabyles he met had lost their ancient script, but it is also possible that they were literate in Tamazight—the written language Galula seemed to think didn’t exist.

Galula’s attitude toward the Kabyle whose loyalty he was trying to win was ambivalent: contempt leavened with grudging admiration for some features of the culture:

In spite of some intermarriage with Arabs, they have generally retained their distinct physical and intellectual features. Kabyles have a primitive yet definite talent for organizing, which puts them far above the Arabs in this respect. They have also an amazing sense of dialectic, which often put to shame some of my young officers when they thought they could press a fuzzy propaganda line on the villagers.

Perhaps, like the minority group Galula was a part of—the Jews—the Kabyles had had plenty of practice in arguing for their dignity and their rights. But perhaps because Galula was not given to emphasizing his Jewishness, he did not get the Kabyles’ passionate sense of their own identity.

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.

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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