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Expert Contends War in Iraq is Similar to Algerian War of Independence
While many people compare the war in Iraq to Vietnam, the Algerian War of Independence a half century ago provides striking similarities to the difficulties the United States has encountered during its military engagement in the Middle East, journalist and scholar David Ottaway told a AAAS audience.
Ottaway, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, contended that the current war in Iraq and the Algerian War of Independence share a common thread: Both the US and France achieved significant early military victories, but strong guerrilla insurgencies arose because they were unable to win the war of ideology. In addition, both wars had highly publicized instances of torture.
"You can't keep down the bulk of the population when they want you out," said Ottaway, who was in Paris and Algiers, the Algerian capital, during the uprising as a foreign correspondent for United Press International.
During the Algerian War of Independence, Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) guerrillas successfully achieved independence against the colonizing French military, despite the success of French paratroopers in capturing top FLN militants in Algiers.
To capture the 6,000 FLN guerillas and protect the one million French citizens living in Algeria, France sent 500,000 soldiers and mustered 200,000 Muslim indigenous Algerians to fight as auxiliaries.
Ottaway spoke after a 9 November screening of the provocative 1966 film The Battle of Algiers, sponsored by the AAAS Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy.
Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, who died in October at the age of 86, the black-and-white film uses documentary-style cinematography to recreate the Algerian uprising against their French occupiers. Based on the writings of Saadi Yacef, a top military commander in the FLN, the film reconstructs the events between 1954 and 1960, especially the French attempt to destroy the FLN seeking refuge in the Casbah, a Muslim Algerian community.
The film depicts horrific violence committed by both sides, reminding its viewers of reports received from journalists in Iraq.
"One of America's greatest current security challenges is Islamic terrorism," said Norman Neureiter, director of CSTSP. "The film shows terror employed on both sides of a nationalistic struggle in a Muslim country and offers discussion points for future policy."
The Battle of Algiers received increased attention shortly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq after the Washington Post reported that the U.S. Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict at the Pentagon was screening the film for its employees.
The article stated that the Pentagon announcement billed the movie as:
"How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. . . . Children shoot soldiers at point blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film."
While the Algerian war was complex, Islamism was a motivation for some rebel groups. Another similarity between the Algerian War of Independence and the Iraq War is the use of torture by Western powers which had been declared supporters of human rights.
The film's horrifying opening scene of an Algerian informant, so broken and battered by his French captors that he cannot stand without assistance, captures the gruesome tactics used by the French military to detain the FLN senior commanders.
Ottaway hesitantly agreed that torture was a major factor in helping the French identify the leaders of the revolution.
"The French public felt strongly against this, though, just like the U.S. felt about Abu Ghraib and what American soldiers were doing in Iraq," Ottaway said. "But, the French were even more shocked... Because of Vietnam and the Mai Lai massacre, America learned U.S. troops sometimes did that."
Ottaway believes that events unfolding in the capital of occupied countries shape the public’s perception of who is winning and losing the war, regardless of what happens in the countryside.
"The French had the countryside pretty well under control and the Bush administration keeps trying to remind us that all is well in most of Iraq's provinces," Ottaway added later. "But what matters to the American public now and mattered to the French public was the state of peace and war in the capital because it is those images that are relayed back to the capitals of the occupying powers."
The Algerian war ended and the nation achieved independence in 1962.
Ottaway first became interested in foreign affairs after spending a year at the Sorbonne in Paris, later obtaining a masters and doctoral degree in comparative politics from Columbia University. He has reported for the New York Times, Washington Post, and Time; currently, he is working on a biography of Prince Bandar, former Saudi ambassador to the United States.
When pressed about forming a new policy in Iraq, Ottaway believes The Battle of Algiers clearly shows the United States should slowly withdraw from Iraq.
"The cat is out of the bag," Ottaway conceded. "Just as the Algerians wanted the French out, the Sunnis will never accept the Shia. We should help them decentralize until things calm down - perhaps in a loose confederation like Bosnia."
But, he warned, there will be consequences.
"We got out of Vietnam without much loss of standing in the world and there was no spillover," Ottaway said. "Not so with Iraq. If we get out, we will be better off financially, but the Middle East will be a mess. The Middle East is not Vietnam."
17 November 2006