The attack unfolded before dawn. Dozens of military and civilian targets were hit by insurgents in this vast expanse of land in the North African desert. The French authorities were caught off guard. Seven people were killed.
Given last week’s events in northern Mali, you'd be forgiven for thinking this was an intel report from a French officer in Gao or an item from François Hollande’s rather lengthy and expanding “to do” list.
But this was Algiers, 1954, and those killed in the early morning hours of All Saints’ Day were the first of around one million or so more to perish in the war of independence that followed. While 20th-century Algeria and modern day Mali are wholly different beasts – one a cauldron of colonialism, the other in the midst of an unstable Islamist conflict – the French seem to be witnessing another guerrilla war unfolding under their watch in the Sahara, 60 years on.
Like in Algeria, the Jihadists in Gao struck at night, with the latter returning only weeks after air strikes sent them fleeing to the mountains. They crossed the Niger River in darkness, catching Malian and French troops in a gun battle. This, after attacks by suicide bombers at a northern checkpoint.
Few now doubt that an insurgency is at hand. The remote mountains of the north are almost tailor-made for such a conflict. The question now is whether France has the stomach to stick it out and finish what they started or to pull out as planned.
This has become the all-too-common devil’s choice of our war-prone world; to try and “fix” things or get out before it’s too late. The commanders in the field and consultants in the Élysée Palace are no-doubt weighing the pros and cons of each move.
If an African replacement force is forgone and Paris does double down, this is where things get interesting as the French have more experience with guerrillas than any other European army. The father of modern counterinsurgency theory was French. And let's just say that in practice it’s been a far cry from “hearts and minds”.
For reasons why, I humbly submit the following reading list:
Max Boot’s new Invisible Armies for a primer on guerrillas throughout the ages. For a fictional account of the pre-Vietnam War mess in French Indochina, Graham Greene nailed it in The Quiet American. And look no further than Alistair Horne and his A Savage War of Peace for a detailed, highly uncomfortable and classic narrative of the eight-year insurgent war of torture and terror in Algeria.
President Bush read that one during the occupation of Iraq. Take from that what you will.
Daniel Giacopelli is Associate Producer at Monocle 24.