Contre Rébellion, New French Field Manual


The Doctrine

The Armée de Terre has just published a counterinsurgency manual, Doctrine de Contre Rébellion. Well, almost: it wasn’t “just”, it was in January; it wasn’t “published”, otherwise it would be here; and it’s not counterinsurgency, but “contre rébellion.” So what’s new? A couple of things are remarkable about the 72-page document.

First, its analysis states the obvious: that the struggle against rebellions is political not just military in nature, that rebels adapt fast, that they need popular support, that they are skilled at shaping public opinion, that they evade major battles, that they need spaces to rest — therefore the army needs to focus on population security, the cultural environment, public affairs, good intelligence. Down to details like: don’t wear sunglasses when chatting with locals. No helmets, berets if possible. Not new, but perhaps remarkable for its proximity to the Anglo-Saxon approach.

But it gets more exciting than that. The idea of counter-rebellion is intriguing: for the French army, rébellion, or armed resistance, includes both guerrilla, defined as “armed bands,” and terrorism, understood as “extremist violence.” It apparently does not include popular resistance, that is “insurrection,” which is understood as a mass-upheaval, although the document is not entirely clear on that. Apparently the army doesn’t like the term “insurgés”, hence the exotic-sounding title of the doctrinal document. To speak of insurgents would, one hears, give too much legitimacy to the enemy (have a look at the graph below as well).

Yet there’s more than the population to take care of. The doctrine’s pet idea is the “tache d’huile,” that’s the ink blot method. The authors tie it closely to quadrillage, gridding tactics. In theory it works like this: divide the territory into three zones, stabilized zones, where locally recruited forces can maintain security; zones to-be-occupied, which are important for one reason or the other; and zones that cannot be held permanently, for one reason or the other. Then the safe zones are spread out like oil, or ink. But not only by securing the population and by administering it. That only happens in the secured zones.

At the margins of the oil slick, in the “contaminated” grids, so the doctrine, the rules of the game are different: there the enemy is put under ”deterrent pressure,” la pression dissuasive. The goal is to isolate, disaggregate, neutralize, and if possible to destroy the rebellion, by taking away from them first their popular support and then their freedom of maneuver. The officers in charge use a curious analogy to illustrate their methodology:

To use the image of the oil slick again: the pressure allows to spread out the ‘oil’ that has been amassed by the quadrillage. (p. 31)

In other words: the population-centric side of counter-rebellion is defensive — but there is also an offensive side, which is enemy-centric. Security is the desired goal for the population,  for the rebels the desired goal is insecurity and uncertainty. The army sees it as the asymmetric version of an-eye-for-an-eye:

In a way the guerrilla techniques are turned against the rebellion itself to bring about its disaggregation. (p. 32)

Then there is a curious bibliography. Very curious. The doctrine only quotes four authors, Roger Trinquier’s La Guerre Moderne as well as his Guerre Suversion Révolution; David Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare; T E Lawrence’s Guerrilla in the Desert, and Leroy Thompson’s The Counter Insurgency Manual. What happened here? Did the proud officers at the Centre de Doctrine d’Emploi des Forces, impressively housed in the École Militaire, forget their own history? They indeed turn the oil spot into a key concept without explicitly referencing it to the famed marshals Joseph-Simon Galliéni and Hubert Lyautey, the gentlemen who came up with it.

Maybe most remarkable is the historical aspect: the French army seems to be able to talk about Algeria again. The foreword mentions the lessons of “a sometimes painful past,” a clear hint at Algeria. We find terms like zones controlléesquadrillage, and ratissage (raking). These words might have an eerie ring for some who remember — there’s even a “historical illustration” from a small ratissage-operation in the Djebel Fedjouj from 9 December 1957.

Perhaps here is also the reason why the army is not planning to release the document to the public. A shame, really: it’s a creative and well-crafted field manual, probably quite useful, if slightly theoretical. Not releasing it means not getting good feedback. And not releasing it also means giving a good document too low a profile, perhaps even within the French military. One of the very few public references to the document comes from the Foreign Legion’s 2ème Régiment Étranger de Parachutistes, where the authors presented it in April.

There’s a lot more in the doctrine, on the role of special forces, local forces, the gendarmerie, and an annex on force structure, detainee treatment, and other things. The French army, finally, wouldn’t be an army if didn’t have its own jargon: the terminological coin of the realm in Paris, we hear, is CREB. With a guttural “r”, of course.

Les formes de contestation

Les formes de contestation


19 thoughts on “Contre Rébellion, New French Field Manual

  1. Tom Wein says:

    The theory undoubtedly has a certain elegance to it, but I worry that with scarce resources, it gets interpreted as holding the major cities, with sweeping patrols to harass the enemy in rural areas.

  2. Pericles says:

    Interesting, not least because (for me), there’s not really very much new in it-the obvious reference points-Lyautey, Galula, quadrillage-are present and accounted for, even if intriguingly, as you say, they’re not all listed in the bibliography. For my money, by the way, the US troop surge in Baghdad owed much more to Galula and the French influence than British COIN. From your summary, there doesn’t seem to be much discussion of the strategic context, suggesting that the French Army, like other Western armies, has made the mistake of constraining it’s thinking to the operational level. What’s interesting to me is how DATED all these Western COIN manuals now sound in the context of the ostensible purpose of modern expeditionary warfare-the liberal crusade to ‘rescue’ failed or failing states and turn them into bright and shiny modern democracies. There’s nothing very liberal or encouraging about dividing someone’s city up into block-wide grid squares and imposing curfews and body searches at every checkpoint. One wonders whether we’re also re-investigating the ‘brainwashing centres’ set up by the 5-e bureaux in Algeria to ‘re-make’ the native mind. To quote General Chassin at the time: ‘The time has come for the free world, unless it wishes to die a violent death, to apply certain of its adversary’s methods.’

  3. Having reviewed this document more than a year ago, I was actually astonished by its relevance… on an historical point of view. Indeed, it draws extensively on the language and the concepts developed during the War in Algeria, even if it is closer to the anglo-saxon experience in Iraq… But, I’m not so sure this manual to be critical today because most tactical procedures have been spread in the French units deployed overseas in the last 20 years. I would have applauded a manual drawing on our real experiences but this one is too “FM 3-24″-minded, even if it tries to create new jargon and new concepts (in this regard, the “counter-rebellion” is interesting).
    I agree with Pericles: I’m not sure that such biopolitical measures contained in Population control to be very liberal

  4. David Ucko says:

    The ‘illiberal’ measures of COIN have to been seen in context: quadrillage, roadblocks, walls, etc. wouldn’t be imposed unless the population is ravaged by bombs, violence, deathsquads, intimidation, etc., in which case they may in fact appreciate the level of security that could be attained through these measures (despite the infringmennts to human rights and civil liberties that they may represent). On their own, isoalted from that context, of course it all sounds very counterproductive. The key question is therefore: to what purpose.

    Ps. Staillat, i haven’t forgotten about the writing commitment and look forward to seeing you in RI in September.

  5. Pericles says:

    There’s absolutely no disputing the necessity at times, in scenarios of high inter-ethnic or sectarian violence, of police-state like measures (Northern Ireland). We just have to also acknowledge that it’s not very helpful in regard to the ostensible longer-term mission of expeditionary warfare, namely sovereign state-building. There was a good article on this point, ‘The Price of the Surge’ in Foreign Affairs in 2008, so I don’t think there’s anything new or controversial in this insight. We have, in every major western country, a COIN doctrine whose basic parameters were shaped by the age of imperialism, now being re-applied in an ostensibly post-imperial context. That’s the strategic-level problem that no amount of ‘new’ operational-level doctrine can really address. I’ve just written an article on the issue, so won’t belabour the point here.

  6. staillat says:

    I agree with you both. The problem is a strategic one and even an ethical and moral one: how to circle the square (or to square the circle) between the “illiberal” but necessary measures taken to control the population and destroy the enemy political and military infrastructure on the one hand, and the strategic goal of “stabilization” (btw, I’d rather you read and speak about the “Stabilization phase” concept in the French Army) on the other hand. Maybe the key lies in the information campaign (n’est-ce pas Thomas?) or in a reflexive design of our political/strategic goals?

  7. Andrew says:

    I agree with you Thomas, it is fascinating that the army is able to talk about Algeria again; though I don’t find it surprising that the army would be able to really talk about Algeria before large elements of French society. And now is a somewhat safe time to bring Algeria up, since many of the military and police papers from the Algerian War (think torture et al) are still sealed. Wait until 2020 or 2022, when these papers start coming out, and it will be an interesting time for French historians.

    As for your question about France seemingly ignoring it’s vast compendium of COIN-ish theorists, I think this might be something like with FM 3-24, where the work draws on many others, but in the foreword only cites 3 works.

  8. On Lyautey and Galliéni: yes, Stéphane and Andrew, you are right. Actually I learned about this absolutely fascinating part of French history in an interview at the CDEF in 2006 or 2007, when I spoke with Colonel Luc de Revel, if my memory is right. So they are well aware of that history, it’s just not referenced in the CREB doctrine (and to be totally fair, they refer to Lyautey once, but not in the context of the ink blot). In fact this history is so captivating that I wrote two long historical articles, one about Bugeaud’s “Razzia” and one about Galliéni and Lyautey’s influence on Galula. Both, as you know, Stéphane, will come out soon. And thanks for your comments.

  9. SNLII says:


    I’m curious. Like you, I was forwarded a copy of the nascent FM 3-24 and was asked to give my critique. The person who requested it didn’t listen to me, nor did the committee that created the infernal thing, but what was the French military’s reception of your advice?

    Are you able to share with us your views of the manual? If not, I understand.

    As for working out the paradox of pop-centric diktat and a highly enemy-centric “seize the offensive” pursuit of fracturing subterranean insurgent networks, I’ve been rereading recently some classic works on Phoenix and CORDs in Vietnam.

    An “occassional paper” recently circulated here by RAND (Galula’s old haunt!) on Phoenix can be found here:

    I don’t believe that the author sold me on his thesis, but you might disagree.

    Obviously, in the US too many people take Galula’s perspective of “80 percent political” as a stern prescription. But there are aspects of terrain-centric and enemy-centric operations that often easily trump concerns about the “population.”

    And, indeed, if the ultimate goal is cleaving the people from the guerillas in their midst (pun, that), fracturing the networks that connect the insurgents to each other AND the people remains an important (here it comes) and very often quite “kinetic” or, at least, coercive pursuit.

    So it was with Phoenix, and so it was in Iraq, and so it shall be in Afghanistan.

  10. SNLII,
    I don’t consider a “population-centric approach” to be a non-kinetic one. The very question in my sense is the hierarchical relations between two considerations. First is the necessity to destroy the insurgent network and second is the imperative to gain the local population. But, is the latter an indirect path to achieve the former? Or is it per se a strategic objective? Put it differently, is population control (both physically and psychologically) a strategic level goal or only a tactical means to achieve the termination of the insurgency? Is the insurgency terminated when its very support in the populace has vanished, or when the insurgent networks and cells are destroyed?
    Regarding the Iraq war, it the Chiarelli vs. Petraeus (or say, colonel Steele in a more harsh way) debate, or the reconstruction vs. security dilemma….

    PS: for my own review of the CREB manual, suffice to say I consider this document to be irrelevant in the French Army today as a doctrinal material. Maybe it is an internal communication document aimed at attracting more attention toward the “doctrinal bridge”, namely Galula and the War in Algeria…But it is only my interpretation.

  11. SNLII says:

    Thank you for your highly informed observations, Stephane.

    I’ve become concerned about the cardinal conundrum in OEF: If the “center of gravity” is the Pasthun population across the Durand Line in Pakistan, how exactly does an underfunded, undermanned population-centric “clear, hold and build” policy in Afghanistan solve the problem?

    If we agree that the UN is right, and most of the Taliban’s funding flows from their cadres skimming off a “tax” of our local development dollars, does this not actually help the insurgency grow?

    If the key catalyst for the insurgency is occupation (and the soul-fracturing consequences of western development aid and expectations) tied to a corrupt, feckless “government” in Kabul, how does our ongoing support for Karzai and more occupation help this?

    Looking back at anti-Viet Cong network operations under the auspices of Phoenix and CORDS’ Provincial Reconaissance Units, couldn’t the case be made that our ruthless programs that worked with locals to fix the enemy and then finish him off had the greater success? Not reconstruction? Not border interdiction? Not battalion-sized pitched battles? Not even the VC’s immolation during Tet?

    Chalk one up for Gwynn and Callwell and Kitson and Phoenix, I guess, and not so much Galula.

    SIDENOTE: In the US, we define HUMINT gathering as a process of “find, fix, finish, exploit and analyze” — or, F3EA for short.

    In Iraq and Afghanistan, we relied both on our own (often high-tech) F3EA assets to eliminate a great many targets. I played a very small role in some of this anti-AQI effort in Anbar before 2007. After the “Awakening,” we could add organic help to our HUMINT exploitation, much as we did with the PRUs in Vietnam four decades ago.

    Ultimately, what did more to turn Anbar? The Combat Outposts and Joint Security operations with the Iraqi Security Forces? Or the brutal extermination of AQI cadres through F3EA and organic efforts?

    I vote the latter.

  12. I’ve just finished to read La leçon d’anatomie by Vladimir Volkoff, a French writer who extensively wrote about its experience in Algeria. In this novel, the narrator is a commandant de secteur in an anonym city in Algeria. His task is to facilitate the way to the independence (the action takes place in early 1962) and he has to navigate between activists, rebels, and his fellow french officers, some of them having tortured, some others having made “pacification” through the SAS, and most of them opposed to an independence that would led to the slaughtering of all those Muslims that choose to support the French (an influential minority, but much larger than the rebels). The rebels networks in the City and in the countryside have been eliminated by the “rouleau compresseur”, namely the Plan CHALLE that took place in 1959 and 1960 and, much alike the 2007/2008 Odierno Campaign in Iraq, managed to seize control of previously rebel zones. So, the hero’s main mission becomes to manage the transition to an independent power but without the most extremists of the FLN… It’s interesting, because even if it is a novel, V. Volkoff is well-known to have access to many secret records regarding this war. This is very plausible to imagine he only depicts the reality masquerading as fiction. So, what can one conclude?
    First, the pacificication (SAS) never achieved its goals because it was underresourced and undermanned. This line of operation could have succeeded but most of its premises were flawed by the 2nd Bureau whose task was to collect intelligence by harsh measures.
    Second, the “utility of the force” was huge in managing the transition by eliminating the most extremists. Intelligence, gained by trust more than by coercion, was a key factor, but not linked to the “pacification” and the SAS.
    Third, the political turn of many French officers is interesting. Not only were they considering that every military action is political in its true essence (a Clausewitzian thought), but on the contrary, they were beginning to deem every political action to be military in its true essence. This activism was the origin of a true moral crisis in the Army. ….
    Voilà for Algeria. For Anbar, my own findings and analysis suggest that a combination of the two was necessary. One has to avoid the western way of thinking (thanks to Descartes) that considers only binary alternatives… :)

  13. Philippe says:

    A little bit of a late answer but I think it’s important to mention :

    Galula was absolutely unknown to the French army until Petraeus was pointing it out to the french.
    Trinquier was for a very long time persona non grata in the official French manuals an tactics and with the renewed look on Algeria he comes up again. It’s rather a first timer that these two were mentioned. This is also the reason why the Gallieni and Lyautey haven’t been mentioned as they are quite common in french military history and tactics.
    Which leads me to the next point and which is the most important.
    Contre rébellion is actually the tactical part, and only for the French Army, of the contre-insurrection methods (which are considered being on a more strategical and political level) which are valid for the whole French army. Therefor one could think of the CREB manual to be too limited on one certain aspect. It is important to consider it in a tactical context an keep in mind the big picture described in the “COIN” manual.

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