Razzia

by Thomas Rid on 11 September 2009

Rid, T. (2009) “Razzia. A Turning Point in Modern Strategy” Terrorism and Political Violence 21/4, p. 617-635

The razzia, a tactic of swift and brutal raids used by the French military against recalcitrant tribes in Algeria in the 1840s, was a necessary step in modern military thought. At first glance the destructive and violent razzias stand in stark contrast to the constructive and non-violent bureaux arabes — an institutional ancestor of Provincial Reconstruction Teams. But both were developed in the same conflict and by the same men. These two innovations, this article argues, were also flipsides of the same coin: what today is called war “among the people.” The razzia consequently appears as a necessary historic precursor for contemporary counterinsurgency doctrine.

Algiers in the 1840s was tantalizing. Seen from the deck of an approaching Alexandrian steamer, the “Pirate’s Daughter” — as contemporary travelers nicknamed the city — appeared like a triangular shape of chalk on a slope of green hills, the dark Atlas mountains rising menacingly in the distance behind. In 1837, just after the French had taken Algeria’s last Ottoman city in Constantine, it was the muezzin’s monotonous cry from a towering minaret that roused the traveler from his morning sleep. Such observed Thomas Campbell, a poet and one of the first Britons to describe Algeria after the French conquest. Ten years later, the sound that made sleep fragile in the mornings was the “irritating rattle of the regimental drums,” noted a later traveler from England. A “lively masquerade” awaited European visitors: narrow streets winding steeply up the hills, more like staircases than roads, spilling into public squares with porcelain pavement, framed by pillars and arches and palm trees. There they found French women wearing white aprons and handkerchiefs, Minorcan laborers returning from lush gardens, dark-skinned Kabyles offering fresh fruits, Berbers with embroidered coats, Jewish dandies with blue turbans, dark-eyed girls with bright sashes, old men playing chess. As bewildering as the peculiar smells and sounds were military men in their harlequin uniforms: zouaves with red pantaloons and white jackets; indigènes with black instead of yellow gaiters; spahis with red jackets and blue pantaloons; the chasseurs d’Afrique mounted on formidable Arab horses.

It was alien territory that awaited Major General Carl von Decker, a military thinker who had taught under Clausewitz at the Kriegsschule in Berlin. “Hopefully you left all your European ideas over there in Toulon,” a French officer greeted the Prussian general as he debarked from his vessel in Algiers. Decker came to Africa to observe the ongoing French campaign against Abd el-Kader’s insurrection. But the study of European warfare and its history was of limited use on the Mediterranean’s southern shores. Decker soon discovered that the essential elements of war as he knew it were missing in Algeria: There were no enemy positions that could be attacked, no fortifications, no operationally relevant locations, no strategic deployments, no lines of communication, no army, no decisive battles — in a word: there was “no center of gravity,” he noted in a direct, puzzled hint at Clausewitz. “The finest gimmicks of our newest theoreticians of war lose their magic power [in Africa].” One new element of war that baffled European observers was that territory could not be held. If a soldier “can’t even remain on the square-inch of land which he fought for with his own blood, then indeed the most sublime ‘Theory of Great War’ will be obsolete and one has … to come up with a new one,” Decker concluded.

How did that new theory of war emerge? …

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