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Counterinsurgency in the Sahel, the French way?

1/3 - Military Review n°55
History & strategy
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Trainee of the 132e A graduate of Sciences Po Bordeaux in 2005 and of the Special Military School of Saint-Cyr in 2006, the CES LA COMBE served in a tank regiment before commanding the 1er Squadron of 1er African fighter regiment. He was assigned from 2015 to 2018 to the headquarters of the French Rapid Reaction Force.

Faced with modest results in their recent asymmetrical engagements, Western states, including France, have proposed numerous reflections on counter-rebellion techniques. The wealth of French African experience is undoubtedly a mine of reflections on how to deal with "small wars". In a way, we can speak of a French style that is deeply rooted in our operational culture. Without radically opposing French or foreign techniques, and even less to advance any kind of superiority, the aim of this article is to propose some avenues for reflection in the context of current operations based on the rich experience that exists in the Army.

Military traditions have their roots in the history of our armies, referring to conflicts that are sometimes forgotten by the general public, but from which soldiers still draw their references. For example, the 1st regiment of African hunters served for more than a century in Algeria, Crimea, Italy, Mexico, Syria, Tonkin and Madagascar, not to mention the European wars. This bears witness to the antiquity of a French expeditionary culture and, as a result, to special skills acquired in many theatres at the cost of great difficulty. As such, the traditions reflect a deep-rooted culture of the institution with a solid intellectual coherence, in addition to its codes and rites ensuring cohesion. These common references are developed as much through the teaching of military history as through informal discussions between military personnel of different geographies.These common references are developed both through the teaching of military history and through informal discussions between military personnel of different generations, especially in units that have benefited from a rich and uninterrupted history such as the navy or the foreign legion.

France's intervention in the Sahel as part of Operation Serval and then Barkhane, raises questions about the modes of action to be employed in operations against a weak adversary who avoids direct confrontation that would annihilate him, places his action in the long term and generally benefits from the support of the population. However, in such long and complicated operations, one must emerge victorious.

Whether we're talking about asymmetrical warfare, counter-rebellion, counter-insurgency, guerrilla warfare, these forms of "small wars"...1 are the subject of an abundant literature. Thanks to the acquisition and preservation of an ancient expeditionary culture, the French military approaches these problems from its own angle. From 1798, with the expedition to Egypt, until the end of the colonial era, French armies took part in numerous operations, continually experimenting with new modes of action in order to conquer, pacify, administer and then conserve territories. After the end of its empire, particularly in Africa, France was able to maintain and develop the know-how acquired previously.

Engaged in Operation Barkhane, France found itself in territories it had already crossed in the 19th century, facing similar challenges. Populations are suffering from a lack of security. The culture of the rezzou2 persists through attacks on camps, villages or traders. Jihadism serves as a catalyst for challenging the traditional social order. More or less consciously, the military acts on the strength of its ancient operational culture. It is precisely with all due caution that we should openly promote a "French style", not because it would be better than that of our allies, but because for more than two centuries, this is the score we have been playing and on which we can base our action.

Small wars", despite their diversity, have much in common. French history has led the armies to deal with a wide variety of situations, which has given it a great deal of experience. Today, however, it is necessary to be able to give back to the Army the means to defeat rebellions.

The counter-rebellion: continuities

France's African history has been a particularly rich in lessons. Indeed, from the conquest of an empire to decolonization, conflicts have clearly been asymmetrical, marked by the fight against rebellions and the need to set up or maintain solid administrative structures. It is not the purpose of this article to describe precisely all that characterizes counter-insurgency missions. It is essential to stress three major aspects of these conflicts: the integration of the enemy into the population, the importance of politics and the relationship to time.

Traditionally, it has been generally accepted that warfare is only about the balance of power between troops in uniform. The other conflicts were at best a police matter, at worst a civil war, an anarchic situation resulting from the bankruptcy of a state. The Algerian conquest, which began in 1830, pitted regular troops against rebel or civilian combatants, immersed in the population and using methods previously considered inadmissible. This enemy avoided direct combat and sought, by various means, to exhaust the adversary by forcing him to extend his forces, beating him on his rear and discrediting him in the eyes of the local population. This situation is identical to the current forms of asymmetric warfare, where the enemy will also seek to be sheltered within the population from which he can obtain financial, logistical and human resources. The borderline between combatants and non-combatants is porous, particularly because any civilian may at one time or another contribute, directly or indirectly, to military action.

A second major characteristic of the "little war" is its eminently political dimension. The colonizers also wanted to be administrators of territories with a civilizing ambition. Despite excesses and mistakes, the political dimension was very well understood by the French armies during the decolonization period.3. General Beaufre judged that colonial wars were particularly rich in general lessons: "Colonial war is a total war in which all the problems of political decision making, which is, in fact, the goal of war, are posed in real terms. It is there that one quickly realizes that military victory may decide nothing if the adversary does not admit defeat. Unequal military opposition is very quickly replaced by a popular war which is very difficult to resolve without very sure procedures" .4. Faced with the impossibility of annihilating its enemy, the challenge for a force will be to promote a political discourse that is credible, coherent and acceptable to the population. To do this, it is necessary to combine a detailed knowledge of the areas of intervention with the rejection of prejudices based on ideology, in particular that which is unconsciously part of our Western values.5.

Finally, "small wars" have the common characteristic of being long. The theorists of revolutionary warfare have perfectly described these processes6. In fact, the French military does not really have experience of short wars. It can be pointed out that the conquest of North Africa which had begun in 1830 did not really end until a century later after the Rif War (1921-1926). More recently, French interventions have generally lasted about twenty years each. It is obvious that Operation Barkhane will be long. Concepts of "zero death" wars, which revolve around surgical strikes to win the decision, are ineffective in the face of determined enemies who place their action in a long time frame and seek to preserve their human potential, even if the war lasts for more than a generation. The characteristics of these asymmetrical conflicts with elusive adversaries, complex political stakes and a duration that exceeds the committed military.

Faced with these challenges, work on counter-insurgency methods generally insists on three common principles: legitimization of action, adaptation to the local context and marginalization of the enemy, both inside and outside the country.7. Knowledge of these principles is no guarantee of success, and this has led to a number of criticisms of them. Their critics insist on various aspects related either to their generally coercive philosophy, or to the fact that they are not always easy to apply.8or on the techniques employed. The excessive search for technological domination also raises a question of rationality between the cost of certain weapons and the effects obtained. Finally, military behaviour itself is sometimes absolutely counterproductive because of the actions (ranging from simple errors of appreciation to exactions), or even simply the image that is reflected. In particular, it is paradoxical to make the population the main issue when, sheltered in highly protected bases, contacts are limited to armoured patrols or rare encounters with soldiers masking their faces and keeping gloves on to shake hands.9.

1 Charles E. Callwell: "Small Wars", 1998, Economica.

2 Bastin Vandendyck: " Le rezzou dans la région de Tombouctou entre 1890 et 1920 ", Pôle étude et prospective, Centre de doctrine et d'enseignement du commandement, January 2018.

3 Pierre Cyril Pahlavi: "La guerre révolutionnaire de l'armée française en Algérie, 1954-1961, Entre esprit de conquête et conquête des esprits", L'Harmattan, 2004.

4 General Beaufre: "La guerre révolutionnaire. Les nouvelles formes de la guerre. Fayard, 1972.

5 Douglas Porch: " The dangerous myths and dubious promise of COIN ", Atlantisch Perspectief, Vol. 37, 2010.

6 Mao Zedong: "From the Protracted War", 1938.

7 Hervé de Courrèges, Emmanuel Germain, Nicolas Le Nen: " Principes de contre-insurrection ", 2010, Economica or Charles E. Callwell, op. cit.

8 Edward Nicolae Luttwak, Thomas Richard: "Les impasses de la contre-insurrection", Politique étrangère 2006/4 (Hiver), pp. 849-861. Christophe Wasinski: "The Will to Suppress", Cultures & Conflicts, 79-80 | Autumn/Winter, 2010, Christian Olsson : "De la pacification coloniale aux opérations extérieures Retour sur la généalogie " des coeurs et desprits " dans la pensée militaire contemporaine " Questions de recherche/Research in question - n° 39 - Avril 2012.

9 Arnaud de La Grange, Jean-Marc Balencie: " Les guerres bâtardes, Comment l'Occident perd les batailles du XXIe siècle ", Perrin, Tempus, 2008.

Title : Counterinsurgency in the Sahel, the French way?
Author (s) : le chef d’escadrons Paul LA COMBE