War, it is said, is God's way of teaching Americans geography. As Iraq sinks into the mire, President Bush's attention is turning to Algeria.
He is, we are told, reading Alistair Horne's "A Savage War of Peace," the definitive account of the French twentieth-century experience of fighting Muslim insurgents. It recounts in detail how the French tortured Algerian combatants and non-combatants alike and how despite winning the Battle or Algiers they eventually lost the war.
There are enough alarming comparison between the two conflicts: compromised officials, porous borders, a hated occupying force to keep President Bush glued to the weighty book.
Horne compares the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib and the indefinite detention of detainees in Guantanamo to French behaviour in Algeria. It ultimately cost France the war, because the wave of public revulsion was such when it was publicised that opinion swung violently against the conflict.
Another cautionary tale about Algeria, is the bloody chaos, the French left behind when they eventually extricated themselves in 1962. There followed decades of civil war and tens of thousands of civilian deaths and human rights abuses on a massive scale by Islamic insurgents and the government forces.
As in Algeria, a major power is faced with an Arab insurgency that has targeted the occupying forces as well as the police, public servants, innocent civilians. The Americans are facing the same issues that the occupying French faced in the Algeria of the 1950s. France had 500,000 troops in Algeria at one point, far more than the numbers of US troops in Iraq.
As Horne told National Public Radio in the US: "I was asked to send it to him, and I thought, rather impudently... it's 700 pages, I thought I would simplify things for him by underlining one or two points... and this was largely around the time of Abu Ghraib. And I pointed out to him that the whole question of abuse and torture is no no no... The French won the Battle of Algiers, you may have seen that famous film, through the use of torture, but they lost the war through it."Reuse content