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AFRICOM-Lite: The Obama Administration’s Security Governance Initiative for Africa

August 28, 2014

THE U.S. military is involved in 49 AFrican countries, 27 of which are highlighted here

THE U.S. military is involved in 49 AFrican countries, 27 of which are highlighted here

(Note: This piece also was published at Foreign Policy In Focus)

AFRICOM-Lite: The Obama Administration’s Security Governance Initiative for Africa.

While the media attention in the United States is riveted on the Israeli war against Gaza, on the ISIS offensive in Iraq and Syria, accomplished for the most part with guerrilla-trained by U.S. allies (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel), and the ongoing attempts to consolidate the neo-liberal hold on the Ukraine in the name of “democracy”, some other global developments have gone largely unnoticed.

Among them is the August 6, 2014 announcement of a new Obama Administration “initiative” for Africa. Actually there are two: the so-called “Security Governance Initiative for Africa” (SGI) on the one hand and “the African Peacekeeping Rapid Response Partnership, called A-PREP for short, on the other. Old wine in new bottles?…or old wine in old bottles slightly polished up?

SGI involves providing aid – with string attached as usual – to Ghana, Kenya, Mali Niger, Nigeria and Tunisia. On one level SGI is a response to the threat to African development posed by Islamic radical groups Al Qaeda of the Maghreb (AQIM), Al Shabbab, and Boko Haram, but its ulterior motive – actually quite openly stated is to make the targeted African countries more secure for foreign investment, thus as the old cliché goes, killing two birds with one stone. The stated goal of the program is to insure the security environment of these countries as a way of encouraging future U.S. investment, and as Tunisian commentator Yassine Bellamine notes in a recent article at the Tunisian website “as a way to play a more active role in what is shaping up to be a new investor El dorado in the near future , Africa.” (my translation).

A-PREP has a somewhat different, but related goal: to “address short-falls in Africa-based peace keeping forces.” Noting that a number of recent crises (Central African Republic, Libya, Tunisia, Somalia, Kenya, even Algeria to name a few) have exposed the weaknesses of emergency-ready African forces, A-PREP will focus uniquely on military training and assistance to six African countries: Senegal, Ghana, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda to try to improve “rapid peace keeping.”

Both poorly funded and in competition with other U.S. sponsored initiatives, A-PREP is an essentially an attempt to make African militaries better responsive to security emergencies. The funding of SGI in the first year entails a mere $33 million to be divided between the six countries involved. Not much really. A-PREP will disperse some $110 million to the countries it covers, perhaps a bit more that SGI funding, but in the end, not all that much. Perhaps the funding will increase in the coming years?

SGI is in some ways a more classic counter-insurgency program whose goal is to strengthen economic development by strengthening security. At least “in principle” it tries to coordinate private sector foreign investors with the African militaries and U.S. military advisers so as to make security measures a kind of team effort of all, thus sharing the financial and human risks. These programs appear to be a way to somewhat soften U.S. security moves into Africa after a period in which African nations have become somewhat wary of what might be called “the AFRICOM approach.” It comes after a several year effort to find an African home to host AFRICOM has failed. To sweeten the pot, allay fears and to involve the corporations themselves in the business of securing their own profits, these initiatives have been undertaken.

Given the paltry amounts with which each of the two initiatives is funded, it is difficult to take either of them seriously. Earlier this year, in May, the Obama Administration proposed a $5 billion “Counter-terrorism Partnerships Fund” to Congress that would fund anti-terrorism projects in 35 countries. Cut by Congress to a $2.9 billion program, still it remains a sizable international commitment. SGI and A-PREP. In contrast proposed funding for SGI stands at $65 million, that for A-PREP at $110 million a year over a three-to-five year period. Add to the mostly symbolic sums the fact that the programs are largely redundant with a number of other and better funded AFRICOM related programs and one has to wonder if these initiatives are little more than an inter-agency rivalry in which the State Department is trying to elbow its way into African policy more and more dominated by the Defense Department and presidentially-directed operations like the secretive “Special Forces Operations’ Command” (SFOC).

Both initiative were announced at the tail end of a Brookings’ Institute conference held two days prior, on August 4, 2014 entitled, “The Game Has Changed: The New Landscape for Innovation and Business in Africa” that featured a gathering of international business people, government officials, academics concerned with Africa. The main concern of this corporate-state- academic shindig was to insure possible investors – U.S. companies, it is claimed, have already invested some $33 billion in Africa – that the security situation on the continent will be assured. As a part of this “happy think” the conference assured its participants, a bit too often it appears, that the economic and social situation on the continent is improving some and that life in general is getting better, a position that requires considerable public relations skills to substantiate.

No one stated it better than Mirangi Kimenyi, Brookings’ own Africa specialist in opening the conference:

“The game indeed has changed. We have a new Africa and the focus is no longer clamoring for aid. Today we are talking about investment, entrepreneurial-ship, innovation and so-on.”

The basis for this untoward optimism was sketched out  by Yassine Bellamine (cited above)  that gives projected growth rates (based mostly on African Development Bank stats) for a number of African countries. Projected growth rates for Ghana in 2015 today stand at 8%, Kenya in 2014 at 5.7%, Mali at 6.7%. The African Development Bank also predicts a turn around in the Tunisian economy from its -1.8% shrinkage in the coming years. Historically, such traditional statistical measurements of economic growth relate very little – virtually nothing – about expected rates of employment, income distribution, or state funds going to social programs. Nor do they indicate what branches of the stated economy are expected to growth. So even here, the rosy picture probably does not reflect the situation on the ground, or if it does, rather poorly.

Bellaine goes on to indicate that initiatives like SGI have ulterior motives, noting that they have more to do with providing a safe environment for multinational corporate investment, than providing security for the nations involved. It is true that SGI gives priority to U.S. economic interests and strategic goals in Africa and at the same time, will press the governments involved to make the necessary legal and economic reforms to make foreign investment “more efficient” , with all that this implies. She wonders whether while such aid, which helps alleviate the country’s short term crisis, would in the long-term, have a deleterious impact on Tunisian economic growth perspectives.

Bellaine’s critique, for all that is rather mild, suggestive. Essentially she is raising an issue that not just Tunisia, but all of the countries accepting aid by these programs, face. To what degree will the countries involved be drawn into U.S. strategic plans for both sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb. What is the end game? What is “the catch” for as is well-known, aid always comes “conditional.” Do the countries involved understand the conditions? Have there been extensive national discussions? The answer to these more profound questions is quite obvious.

Other critiques have been voiced. They vary from the milk-toast variety that essentially accept the logic of the program but raise a few technical issues, to more profound critiques as to consequences of such programs.

∙ In an article in published at the Brooking’s Institute website “the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit: Security Initiatives Are Critical to Cementing Africa’s Gains”, Dane Erickson (University of Colorado – Denver) and Alice Friend (former Principal Director for African Affairs at the Pentagon 2012-2014) while supporting these security initiatives, take a more somber view of them, noting that “…the U.S. and its African security partners must move beyond hollow discussions of the ‘militarization’ of U.S. -Africa policy, a criticism most associated with the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). In that light, while not giving much detail, Erickson and Friend note the lack of enthusiasm (and one might add general failure) of previous efforts to militarize Africa, specifically the much touted – at least in government circles – Trans- Sahel Counter-Terrorism Program.
∙ Far more pointed, questioning SGI and A-Prep, and programs this nature, is Alex De Waal and Abdul Mohammed’s August 15, 2014 op-ed in the New York Times, “Handmaiden to Africa’s Generals.” Serious concerns about the nature of the program, and the history of programs like it are put forth here. De Wall and Mohammed put SGI and A-PREP within the broader context of Obama Administration global policy of “scaling back the deployment of US troops to combat terrorism” to be increasingly replaced with a new strategy which “translates largely into training and equipping African armies.”

Other than the adjective “new” this is an accurate description of what these programs are about. SGI, A-PREP and like programs essentially parallel U.S. efforts to extricate itself militarily from Afghanistan and Iraq by placing more of the military/security burden on regional allies, and less on the U.S. military, spread increasingly thin worldwide. While the results of turning over security operations in Afghanistan remain to be seen – but already have raised grave doubts as to the viability of the Afghan military to accomplish the task – the effort to achieve such a new security balance in Iraq is – as the whole world duly notes – an utter failure, harkening back to the “Vietnamization” policies of Nixon and Kissinger forty years past.

In the case of Africa, strengthening the “efficiency” (think of what that has meant historically) of African militaries is a part of a strategy of minimizing U.S. “boots on the ground” – to use the clique to avoid the term “military intervention” by trying to give Africans more of a role in supporting foreign corporate penetration of the continent as if it were in their own interest. It is based on what is now a well-worn fact that Third World militaries love getting high-tech military toys that kill. It is also based on another well-worn tradition: if a world power cannot win “the hearts and minds” of the people of Third World countries that might have some economic or strategic importance, at least through military aid, the countries generals – a thorough corrupt and undemocratic lot – can be bought off.

De Waal and Mohammad rightly point out that as a result of programs SGI, A-PREP type programs that the United States is “in effect providing foreign tutelage to the militarization of Africa’s politics, which undermines peace and democracy throughout the continent. American diplomacy. American diplomacy is becoming a handmaiden to Africa’s generals.” And they might have added to multi-national energy and mining interests that are tripping over each other’s feet to exploit an already over-exploited continent.

This analysis is, as the British say, “spot on.” It builds on at least two other political and human rights failures of the post World War II period: U.S. policy in support of Latin American military dictators in the 1970s and 1980s – the Pinochets, the Argentinian, Brazilian, Paraguayan juntas, the El Salvadoran death squads of which Ronald Reagan was so fond. The other example is what is referred to as “Francafrique”, the French effort to keep the fruits of its colonial heritage in Africa alive by supporting military dictatorships in such places as Chad, Mauritania, Congo Brazzaville, Cameroon, Burkina Faso to say nothing of Algeria.

De Wall and Mohammed don’t stop here. They underline the dangers to development and democracy of supporting the armed forces in Africa, concerns that have not resonated in a Washington DC fixated on competing with China, India, European allies like France, Italy and others in that mad race to control Africa’s oil, gas and mineral wealth. Using South Sudan and Nigeria as examples, they remind NY Times readers, and Washington policy makers the degree to which U.S. military aid to Africa have disappeared down “black holes,” essentially referencing the extraordinary levels of corruption, outright government theft that has accompanied such programs where aid money is shuttled into the private accounts of ruling generals, siphoning off millions “while much of the population (of the countries involved) lives in deep poverty.” Frankly there is a whole list of other African countries that could have been cited, the recipients of military aid from the United States, France and other countries.

Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle – 2 – on Algerian Political Figure Ahmed Ben Bella.

August 18, 2014
Algiers, 2014. photo credit, Michael Busch

Algiers, 2014. photo credit, Michael Busch


The University of Denver’s Library – oh yes, it is not called a library anymore, but the “Anderson Academic Commons” – I assume named after the largest contributor to the facility’s remodeling, a vulgar, if now common place way to name a facility – does have a few of Robert Merle’s works, some in French, a few in English. Among the English translations is Merle’s “Ben Bella”. In some ways more of a hagiography than a biography – not surprising when the protagonist is given the opportunity to comment on his own life – but still in many ways timely and of historical interest.

Ahmed Ben Bella was one of the more prominent leaders, organizers of the Algerian revolt for independence against France. One of the original founders and leaders of Algeria’s national liberation front (“front de la liberation nationale” in French, hence known as the FLN), he emerged shortly after Algeria’s independence in July, 1962 as his country’s first president. This was only achieved as the result of a harsh, mean-spirited factional struggle among the FLN’s leadership, that would soon bring down Ben Bella as well, as the revolution “ate its children.”

Robert Merle’s Ben Bella – transcribed (and edited) interviews with Ben Bella during that short period when he served as Algeria’s president – was first published in 1965 by Éditions Gallimard, a prominent French publishing house, suggesting that it would receive a broad readership in France. An English translation appeared soon thereafter, in 1967 by Walker & Company, a subdivision of Publications Development Corporations in Great Britain. The fifteen taped interviews Merle conducted with Ben Bella that make up the book’s content were done in the spring of 1964. As he explains in his preface, the book is not a Merle commentary on Ben Bella’s life, so much as giving Ben Bella his own voice essentially to speak to the people of France far more than to an Algerian reading public. Merle might have edited out some materials – he admits to having done so – but it is clear that the author wants to humanize the Algerian president, by letting him share some of his personal history.

Although the book was undoubtedly motivated by certain political considerations, for a French author to even attempt to draw what is essentially a friendly personal portrait of one of the key leaders in Algeria’s eight year armed struggle against France in the mid-1960s took a certain amount of political courage. It would be akin today to an Israeli author publishing a biography of Khaled Meshal, Hamas’ titular leader or of an American writer writing sympathetically of Ho Chi Minh in the aftermath of the Vietnam War or Ayatollah Khomeini following the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Possible but unlikely. Although France and Algeria had formally made their peace with France granting Algeria its independence, still, it stirred a great wave of anti-Arab, anti-Islamic bigotry and outright hatred in France itself, especially among the country’s more militarist and conservative Catholic circles. That strain of bigotry never died in France; if anything these past decades it has strengthened considerably today taking the form of the country’s anti-immigration movement led by the Le Pens.

Having been born in Tebessa and spent his earliest years in Constantine, Lagouart and Algiers, Algeria was a place with which Robert Merle had a certain connection , although it was admittedly through the lens of French colonialism, in which his father served as an officer. That France survived what was easily the greatest threat to its democracy in the post-World War II period was far from a sure thing and the bitterness and horrific anti-Algerian, anti-Arab and anti-Islamic racism was nowhere near dissipated in 1964 when Robert Merle interviewed Ben Bella, nor a few months afterwards, when with a group of some 25 fellow college students from St. Lawrence University, I came to France for a year of study and travel (although I would argue that most of were oblivious to all this at the time).

In 1964, France was still licking its wounds from the Algerian War, wounds which had far from healed. Indeed, much like the period of United States involvement in Vietnam a decade later, the Algerian War split France right down the middle. On the one hand a powerful peace and anti-war movement developed calling for an end to French barbarism and torture in Algeria. A great (to my mind) French bard, the anarchist, Boris Vian, made the song “Le Deserteur” famous; it called for French soldiers to desert the army rather than serve in Algeria – and many did. Behind that song was a broad-based peace movement. Later, Peter, Paul and Mary would pick up the song, translate it into English (softening some of Vian’s, let us say, more hard-hitting verses) and it would enjoy some popularity in the United States during the Vietnam War years.

On the other hand, a powerful ultra-right wing movement spearheaded took hold as well and very nearly overthrew the French government of the time. Spearheaded by French settlers in Algeria (similar to the movement of right-wing Israeli settlers in the Palestinian occupied territories) and elements of French military serving there, it was referred to as the Organization de l’armée sècrete, or the O.A.S. It’s main goal was to prevent France from leaving Algeria. In Algeria, particularly during the last years of French rule in an effort to eliminate both French and Algerian moderates, it engaged in a campaign of terror targeting those “colons” who were sympathetic to the Algerian independence cause.

The O.A.S. also killed many Algerians hoping to trigger revenge strikes by Algerians in an effort to further polarize the communities. Their efforts did produce a certain result: it made it virtually impossible for the French to remain in Algeria after independence. The O.A.S. did not limit their activities to Algeria, but extended them to metropolitan France where they carried out a series of terrorist bombings that killed hundreds. On October 17, 1961, Maurice Papon, the very same one who would crush the skulls of Paris students seven years later, ordered the French police to attack a large demonstration of some 30,000 Algerians living in France calling for an end to France’s war against Algeria and supporting Algerian independence. The police attacked the demonstration, at least 200 demonstrators were killed, many of their bodies simply dumped into the Seine. Thousands were then herded in the basement of a Paris sports stadium where they were kept for weeks, beaten, tortured until they were finally released. It is referred to as “The Paris Massacre of 1961.” (1)

Long after this police orgy of violence against Paris Algerians a banner hung on a bridge over the Seine which read “Ici on noie les Algerians” (here in Paris, we drown Algerians).” It took half a century for the French authorities to admit these crimes. There were also several failed attempts to assassinate French President Charles De Gaulle and to overthrow his government through military coups. In response to these death threats, De Gaulle is claimed to have commented simply “ah, it would be a glorious way to die.”


In the Preface, Merle relates that while teaching in Algiers in 1963 he had met Ben Bella at a boys’ orphanage. Ben Bella obviously wished to continue the relationship and a few months afterwards invited Merle, whom he knew as both a writer and a figure on France’s non-Communist left, to lunch. Merle used the occasion to ask if Ben Bella might be willing to grant him a series of interviews for a biographical book which would introduce French readers to both the man and his ideas (which I would guess is precisely why Merle got the lunch invitation in the first place.) A few months later, Ben Bella accepted.

No doubt the arrangement served both well. For Merle, who had just returned from Cuba and written a book about the attack on the Moncada barracks, it was an opportunity for “a scoop”, another big story. After Castro, Ben Bella! It suggested that Merle was influential and respected enough to have access to one of the most left-minded of a new crop of Third World post-colonial leaders – the guerrilla-turned-statesman committed to building socialism in Algeria. At the time, in spite of the fact that the Algerian war of independence was exceedingly cruel and messy, it was clear that France and Algeria would remain in close contact with one another for the foreseeable future, and their fates – as well as their economies – were joined at the hip. Yet post-1962 France, including its circles of power, knew little to nothing about post 1962 Algeria. Where was this newly independent country heading? How could it affect French-Algerian relations? Merle could, through this book, provide a useful sketch. It would be Robert Merle who would introduce Ben Bella’s early life as well as his time in the maquis and some of his ideas of building a socialist economy in Algeria to French readers, and shortly thereafter, to an English speaking audience as well. That the book was so quickly translated and printed in English as well, suggests that both British and American political decision makers were also interested.

There were serious ideological questions at hand. What precisely did Ben Bella mean by Algerian socialism? Just how “socialist” was post-independence Algeria going to become? How would the relations between market and state be organized? How would Algerian socialism resemble “existing socialism” – ie, the form it took in the Eastern European communist countries and the USSR? How would it differ?  Would the “voice of the people” be heard? Algeria was not, it turns out, the only newly independent country in Africa that tried, at least at the outset, to create a “socialist society.” (2) No doubt the term was very popular throughout the Third World in the 1950s and 1960s, both because the role the USSR had played in defeating the Nazis in World War II, and increasingly, as well, as a result of the Chinese Revolution of 1949 which swept Mao Tse Tung and the Chinese Communists to power.

In the case of Algeria there was virtually no theoretical work done concerning the country’s fate “after the revolution.” The main goal had been to win independence through armed struggle; but little thought had been given to what to do once the reins of power had shifted from French to Algerian hands. This is not at all unusual for the Third World revolutions of this period. Beyond overthrowing their colonial oppressors, more often than not, their leaders lacked a vision, even in the broadest sense, a blueprint for the new society. And those who had – or seemed to have had a vision – Nasser, Nkrumah, Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral – didn’t live very long to see it come to fruition. This absence of a plan was to have profound – and unfortunately mostly – negative consequences, including in Algeria (but that is another story).

As for Ben Bella, he had little to lose and much to gain from his interviews with Merle. Of course, such ventures are always a bit of a gamble. It was certainly possible that Merle would have written a more critical history than was produced. But no doubt, Ben Bella knew exactly what he was doing by accepting Merle’s invitation. The fact of the matter was that at the time Ben Bella and Merle sat down together, Ahmed Ben Bella was already in political trouble, his domestic base of support in the process of shrinking – it would shrink further still – and he was badly in need to counter his flagging domestic position with international support, which he hoped would come from primarily from France. He was looking for international credibility wherever he could get it – from other Third World leaders from the Movement of Non-Aligned Movement, from the Soviet Union (which hesitated), and even from France and the United States. He had put out feelers in all these directions in hopes of strengthen his position internationally as it eroded domestically. In the end, these attempts failed miserably.

On June 19, 1965, Ahmed Ben Bella was arrested and removed from power in a coup d’etat organized by his former Minister of Defense, Houari Boumedienne. He would never again play a major role in Algerian politics. The release of Merle’s book did little to shed light on the internecine struggles which had flared up essentially since the outset of Ben Bella’s rise to power. The `disconnect’ between the portrait Merle paints of Ben Bella, and the reality of what was transpiring in Algiers could not have been greater. Some fundamental insights were missing from the narrative, easier to note a half century later, I admit, but still…


By letting Ben Bella “speak in his own words” Merle avoided the internecine power struggles in which Ben Bella was intimately involved – and as a result of which he too would be victimized. He must have known about them, informed as Merle was on Algerian realities. These power struggles which are glossed over, really not explored at all, would, unfortunately shape the Algerian political scene from that time until today. Merle was living in Algiers at the time and must have been aware to one degree or another of what was happening there. It is rare that oral histories are anything but self-serving and “Ben Bella” is case in point. If there is any self-criticism involved, I missed it. Perhaps such a positive impression was created because Ben Bella represented, if you like, what might be referred to as “the left option” of the Algerian Revolution, that included the nationalization of private property and the beginning of a program of Yugoslav-style self-management.

Merle’s sympathies at the time were clearly with the more left models of development in the newly independent countries of the Third World development.

Unfortunately, Ben Bella’s approach to his politics was typically factional and, frankly, undemocratic, added to the fact that the social base for his plans to build Algerian socialism was quite narrow. Merle ignores Ben Bella’s intense factionalism and in so doing, fails to give a more comprehensive, honest, sober portrait of the man.

Once in power, Ben Bella is essentially an Algerian Stalinist, his support for a left, Marxist orientation, little more than a cover for a power grab, one that would from the outset, undermine if not destroy, the democratic hopes of his countrymen. He was unwilling to make the strategic alliances necessary to share power. He wanted it all and was not above engaging in an extraordinary level of ruthlessness to achieve his goal, despite the supposed “nobility” of his intentions. The means justified the end and the means were very rough stuff. Robert Merle could not have been unaware of all this. Of course, Ben Bella was not alone in this – his domestic opposition, Boumedienne, was in every way his match, in what would become a power struggle over who would control the country’s rich oil and gas resources. Of course, one can say that Boumedienne and his faction “won” and that Ben Bella “lost” the contest, but the fact of the matter is that the real losers were the Algerian people and Algerian democracy, which has yet, 52 years and a horrible civil war in the 1990s later, yet to recover.

Looking back from the vantage point of a half century of the country’s turbulent history, it is not so difficult to understand the difficulties in “building Algerian socialism.” The Algerian industrial working class, the key social force on which such a program could be built, hardly existed in Algeria in 1962. The “peasantry” – more accurately put the displaced rural proletariat or agricultural working class was not yet an organized force politically. Add to that the Algerian entrepreneurial and intelligentsia class, weakened but still alive was generally hostile to programs of radical nationalization. Besides, the entire country was in a state of trauma as a result of the independence war. As in Afghanistan fifteen years later (1979), in Algeria, mechanical attempts to impose a foreign economic model regardless how “progressive” it might seem in social and political terms, had to take into consideration the powerful role of religion in the country’s life.

Failing to have an adequate organized social base to support his rise to political power and implement his socialist ideals, Ben Bella did the next best thing: he allied himself with the only organized social force in Algeria at independent that was organized and armed: the Algerian military led by Colonel Houari Boumedienne. At independence, it could be fairly argued that this army, which spent a good part of the independence war outside of the fighting in Algeria in military bases in Tunisia and Morocco, was the only organized and armed social force in the country that had not been battered all to hell by the intense conflict going on within the country.

Immediately a polarization – a full blown power struggle – developed between those who had lead the rebellion on the interior – and whose ranks were shattered by the war’s end and whose leadership was largely exterminated by the French on the one hand, and Boumedienne’s army “on the exterior” which had sat on the sidelines. The “interior” elements formed a provisional revolutionary government, the Gouvernement Provisoire de la République Algèrienne (Provisional Algerian Revolutionary Government) whose French acronym was the GPRA. Boumedienne’s exterior military became known as the Armée de Libération Nationale or ALN. Ultimately – ultimately being by 1965, Boumedienne and the ALN would win the power struggle.

The forces “of the interior” would lose this power struggle, with most of the leadership either being assassinated arrested or forced into exile. Yet they retained – and retain to this day – the status of nothing short of revolutionary saints among the Algerian people; they were les historiques (metaphorically – “the founding fathers”) of the Algerian Revolution. The key player of the “forces of the interior”, who shifted alliances from the GPRA to the ALN, was Ahmed Ben Bella. He had survived the war years having had, it turns out, “the good fortune” of having been kidnaped by the French in an air hijacking; as a result, he spent most oof the war years safely in a French prison.

The struggle for power between the GPRA – which included the main leadership of the national liberation movement inside Algeria – and the ALN led by Boumedienne with the support of the military trained and armed outside the country would unfold over the next few years and culminate in Boumedienne’s successful coup against Ben Bella. It proceeded in two phases. In the first phase Ben Bella and Boumedienne worked together to neutralize the GPRA leadership by hook or crook (mostly the latter). His alliance with Boumedienne gave the ALN an aura of legitimacy as one of the historiques was now on his side. Once the GPRA leadership had been politically neutralized, the political power struggle erupted between the two former allies, Ben Bella and Boumedienne. Ahmed Ben Bella was chosen to be Algeria’s first president.

Phase Two of this power struggle sees the former allies, Ben Bella and Boumedienne, turning on one another. To strengthen his position early in his presidency, Ben Bella has “resurrected” Boumedienne who had been “fired” by the faction of the “historiques” in Libya. Ben Bella gave Boumedienne the powerful position of minster of defense. As the power struggle intensifies, virtually all of the “historiques” lose their influential position; some form organized opposition parties, trying to stop the drift towards authoritarian rule. In the midst of this, in August, 1963, a mere year after formal independence had been declared, the prestigious and moderate Ferhat Abbas, quits his post as president, complaining that he has no power and is little more than a figurehead played by both sides.

Then, having eliminated their potential rivals Ben Bella and Boumedienne now turn on each other in the ultimate grab for complete control of the country. They engage in a power struggle organized through the personal intelligence-security apparatuses that both created. The batten of the intelligence agencies follows. Shortly after having been named defense minister, Boumedienne, who was as adept at all this infighting as anyone – and it turns out more adept – wasted no time; soon thereafter he proceeded to fire his own administrative director, Abdelhafid Bousseff, the founder of the Algerian secret political police. With Bousseff thus neutralized, Boumedienne created his own secret police, Securité Militaire, or as it would come to be known as, simple, the SM. He put Kasdi Merbah, a KGB trained military officer in charge.

Not to be outflanked, now Ben Bella created his own personal intelligence-security force, “les brigades spéciales” Both security forces then proceed to engage in mass arrests, mostly of their real or perceived political opponents. Done with no due process, many – the actual number is unknown – people were simply picked up off the street, arrested, tortured, imprisoned, killed, undermining what little remained of Algerian democracy. Although this struggle would not end until the June, 1965 coup, it went on for three years. There really wasn’t much doubt as to the eventual outcome. Boumedienne retained control of the military and its own security force, the SM; Ben Bella’s political base was much narrower. Ben Bella tried to broaden his base by re-integrating some of the purged “historiques” back into positions of influence, legalizing Hocine Aït Ahmed’s opposition “Socialist Forces Front” or FFS.

The struggle between Ben Bella and Boumedienne intensified. In early 1964 Boumedienne went to Moscow; Ben Bella took advantage of his absence to remove him as commander and chief of the military. In his place Ben Bella named Ghiel Zbiri. Mistakenly thinking that he had now gained full control of the situation, Ben Bella called for a congress of the FLN (the national movement) for which he conveniently personally chose all the delegates. There he launched an ideological attack against what he referred to as “The Ourgla Clan” (or faction), the military-security network that Boumedienne had put in place during the independence war.

Knowing that it was one thing to purge the man, Boumedienne, and entirely something else to eliminate the organizational structures that Boumedienne had carefully put in place, Ben Bella then went ahead to purge many of those tied to Boumedienne, among those removed in a sweeping purge on May 25, 1965 were were Ahmed Medeghri, Minister of Interior, Ahmed Kaïd, Tourism Minister and Abdelazis Bouteflika, then foreign minister. Bouteflika whose checkered career would bounce up and down like a yo-yo, is currently (2014) Algeria’s president, a position he has held since 1999. If it appeared that Ben Bella had the upper hand, then, once again, surface impressions can be misleading. On June 19, 1965, in a carefully planned and orchestrated coup, Boumedienne struck back with full force. Using his still many supporters in the military, Boumedienne launched a successful coup against Ben Bella, just prior to the opening of an Afro-Asian summit in Algiers that would never take place.


In a fascinating biography of his father, Robert Merle, in several pages, son Pierre Merle elaborates on  the social environment in which Ben Bella was written. Pierre Merle’s comments/insights are of interest. The book’s intended title was Le Président Ben Bella. To that effect, a contract was signed with  with Gallimard on June 18, 1965. The next day, Ben Bella was overthrown by Boumedienne’s coup and the title was simply changed to Ben Bella. The new realities gave the book a different meaning. Now its publication would give French readers a glimpse into Algeria’s first ex-president, whose whereabouts would remain unknown for years.

Because of the official silence concerning Ben Bella’s fate, there was much speculation in France that as a part of the coup, Boumedienne had executed him, not unrealistic musings at the time. But this proved not to be the case. He remained in prison until 1981 when he was pardoned by Boumedienne’s successor, Chadli Bendjedid. He spent the next decade living in the more politically safe environment of France, returning to Algeria in 1999 at which point he no longer engaged in politics. He died in 2007.

To his credit, Robert Merle’s interest in Ben Bella and concern for the fate of the Algerian Revolution did not end with publication of Ben Bella. If Merle failed to appreciate the degree to which Ben Bella himself came to power in what amounts to a 1962 coup d’état and proceed to engage in his own factional struggles to maintain power, still Ben Bella’s 1965 arrest and subsequent disappearance troubled Merle deeply. The French government’s public indifference to Ben Bella’s fate, invoking the non-interference in a sovereign state’s domestic affairs appalled him, as well it should have. When is it that France, then and now, would not intervene in the affairs of others, most specifically its former colonies, when it saw its interests threatened? While Boumedienne did move to nationalize the French owned oil industry in Algeria, very possibly Paris still considered Boumedienne “the lesser of two evils”, the greater being Ben Bella, who had, however clumsily, moved to nationalize private enterprise in the newly independent country.

In any case, Merle swung into action after the coup.

He had been impressed – and here rightly so – with the contribution that Ben Bella had made to France’s fight against the Nazis (he had fought in the French army during the war and had been awarded medals for his bravery). Almost immediately after Ben Bella’s downfall, Merle sent a telegram to Boumedienne protesting the arrest. “Deeply concerned about Ben Bella’s fate; I ask you to give the international press proof that he is alive. Distinguished saluations. Robert Merle.” (4) This telegram was republished both in L’Humanité and Le Monde, giving the case some initial publicity in France.

Shortly thereafter the Committee To Defend Ahmed Ben Bella (le Comité pour la defense d’Ahmed Ben Bella) took shape in which Merle played a leading role. It submitted a complaint on Ben Bella’s behalf before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights signed by, among others, Jacques Berques, Simone de Beauvoir, André Breton, François Mauriac, Yves Montand, Françoise Sagan, Jean-Paul Sartre as well as important British, Italian, Dutch, West German and Australian public figures.

The campaign did not stop there and it very well might have saved Ben Bella’s life, nothing short. Boumedienne, sensitive to international opinion, despite a public posture suggesting otherwise, feared a more generalized political and economic isolation. While Ben Bella’s situation remained a mystery for some time, his life was spared, a rather unusual result to the victims of Algerian post-independence power struggles.


  1. As usual it is impossible to determine a precise number of victims. Today the French government admits to having killed 200; Algerian sources claim the dead victims to have been in the thousands.
  2. The exceptions to this rule were Vietnam and China, both led by Communist Parties. I am aware of no other until the 1979 Islamic Revolution of Iran.
  3. For much of his life, especially after World World 2, until the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which he opposed, Merle was a non-Communist French leftist. Although it has been asserted that he had close ties to the French Communist Party, this is somewhat overstated and inaccurate. Critic of U.S. foreign policy – who wasn’t/isn’t these days? – he had little use for the alternative of “actually existing socialism.” True, for a short period of time, he was a member of the French Communist Party, but found that the organization, based on democratic centralism, was less democratic and more centralized then he had hoped. The connection was brief and the parting of the ways decisive. That said, there is the dictum that “there is no such thing as `an ex-Communist'” and the connection haunted him afterwards, despite its brevity. There are some suggestions that his brief flirtation with the French CP cost him a nomination to the prestigious Academie Goncourt.
  4. Pierre Merle. Robert Merle: Une vie de passions. Ėditons de Fallois. Paris: 2008. p. 216.



Rouen Chronicles: Amsterdam – 1965

Rouen Chronicles: Arques La Bataille, Dieppe

Rouen Chronicles: The Strange and Short Saga of Dominique Vergos

Rouen Chronicles: Robert Merle – 1

The Rouen Chronicles: Robert Merle – 1

August 14, 2014

Robert Merle

Robert Merle

(Note: About ten years ago, – actually I forget, was it 5 years ago, 10 years ago? I am not sure – I had a brief conversation with an old friend and companero named John Buttney, The name might not resonate among many, but for those who were in Colorado, specifically Boulder, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it should ring a bell. He was one of the leaders of the student anti-war movement on the University of Colorado campus, a place from which he related, he was “banned for life.” We were talking about the intellectual influences that led us leftward politically, and were surprised to find that we had both been influenced by French thinkers. Buttney, a philosophy grad student, spoke of the impact of Merlo Ponti; for me it was, oddly enough, a French professor who taught me, of all things, about Robert Frost’s poetry who I failed to name. He is Robert Merle. I realize that most of you don’t know much – or anything – about Robert Merle. Your loss, frankly… Suggest you check out a copy of “Day of the Dolphin” from Netflix or Weekend à Zuydcoote [about the Dunkirk evacuation - kind of a French Catch 22] with Jean Paul Belmondo. I’ll be writing more about him [Merle] over the course of the coming year)


Having spent almost all of my adult life in academia, I have met a series of very fine teachers, professors and as I sit here thinking of them, a flood of names and faces comes to mind. But there were few, precious few, of what I would call truly great ones, a high school history teacher, Mr. Rhodes, my freshman English teacher, Mr. Hasham at St. Lawrence University, two professors of Anthropology at the University of Colorado in Boulder, David Green and Gordon Hewes, and a colleague at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies all belong to that category. They had vastly different teaching styles, subject matter, politics but they all had encyclopedic knowledge of their fields, the ability to place the subject matter within a broader context. More importantly, they had learned the fine art of stimulating a passion for learning in their students.

I was both challenged and humbled intellectually by having studied with them.

But to my mind there is one who rises even above these, Robert Merle. No one comes close. Hardly known here in the United States today, his work is highly appreciated and well-known in France. Ours was not a particularly long connection. If I remember correctly, he gave a series of lectures that went only over a few months  after which he disappeared from Rouen. But by the time of our parting of the ways, he had left an indelible mark on me, and I would venture to guess on others with whom I shared an unforgettable year.  Read more…

Hamas Cease Fire Terms Could Lead to “Normalcy”

August 8, 2014

Rob Prince:

to add a note – my sense is that a good deal of the fighting over the past month was – as is the case now – over the terms of the ceasefire. Israel and the Obama Administration wants a ceasefire that goes back to the pre-fighting status quo with Gaza sealed off to the world. The fighters in Gaza, Hamas and otherwise, refuse to accept this, in part because of the horrific casualties, in part that the ending of Israel’s war on Gaza lead to a new security situation where the Gazan-Palestinians have more breathing room and open passage of people and material in and out of the zone. The previous ceasefires offered, which Israel accepted and the Palestinians rejected, refused to change the status quo. Some of the intensification of the bombardment was to punish Hamas for not accepting “their fate”. I would also point out that if the Obama Administration pressured Israel the two Gaza entry points would be opened, but to date, despite a few encouraging words (by Obama yesterday) suggesting a U.S. shift in that direction, no such pressure has been in applied.

Originally posted on Wallwritings:

by James M. Wall

photo by Reuters Ha'aretz

During their temporary cease fire, Israel and Hamas are negotiating in Cairo, Egypt, for an agreement to end Israel’s third military assault since 2007, on Gaza.

Thursday night, Ha’aretz reported that the talks were “stalled”.

Friday morning, when the 72 hour agreement ended, the New York Times reported both sides resumed cross-border firing.

These shots could be “warning shots” to signal a resumption of the conflict, or they may be part of the negotiations strategy on both sides.

The conflict is asymmetrical, suggesting that more exchanges of fire would be especially harmful to the Palestinians in Gaza.

The one-sided nature of the now 30-day conflict, is seen in the human toll of Israel’s third “mowing the grass” project in Gaza. Thus far, Israel has killed 1900 Palestinians, the great majority of whom were civilians, including 400 children.

To agree to an extended cease fire with no more firing from…

View original 1,095 more words

The Rouen Chronicles: The Strange and Short Saga of Dominique Vergos

August 3, 2014
Dominique Vergos - 1980s - somewhere in Afghanistan

Dominique Vergos – 1980s – somewhere in Afghanistan


Agreed it is a bit of an unusual – almost certainly posed – picture of a man on camel in what appears to be some Middle Eastern or Central Asian desert.  For those who knew him well there is little doubt of either the man or the place. It is the Frenchman Dominique Vergos a top a camel somewhere in Afghanistan in the mid-1980s, where for a number of years he worked with the Afghan mujaheddin in their decade effort to expel Soviet troops from their country. It was related (by his family) that the Soviets placed a $100,000 bounty on Vergos’ head, never collected because he evaded them the years he slipped in and out of Afghanistan. I don’t know if the information is accurate. I am trying to remember from whom I received the picture; I believe it was from his widowed wife, thanking me for an inquiry about Dominique just after I learned of his fate.

He frequently went alone, deep into Afghanistan, where he made contact with rebel groups fighting the Soviet military occupation. In an age of cell phone intercepts and advanced satellite photography, still nothing really could compare to “on the ground” intelligence – direct contact with the many peoples and movements in Afghanistan. Very few westerners had access to it; few ventured into the Afghan heartland where the risks of not returning – or worse – really not finding anything or anyone – were great. Among the few that did – essentially a rather small handful of journalists, adventurers, spies and the like, was Dominique Vergos. That it required both a kind of stamina and courage rare in most people is undeniable. No question that Vergos possessed both. It might also help, as the British would put it, to be “a bit daft” as well. The intelligence thus provided cannot be underestimated.

When the war ended, the last Soviet troops left the country, their tails between their legs, leaving a mountain of arms and communication equipment for the Afghan rebels to use against one another. Shortly before, unable to tear himself a way from the center of action, Vergos set up a household in Peshawar, in nw Pakistan, near the Afghan border, in a region largely out of control of the Islamabad government. There on Christmas Day, 1988 as the Soviet Occupation was coming to a close, returning from “The America Club”, one of his house body guards “accidentally” emptied an automatic rifle into Vergos’ body, killing him instantly, or so the story goes. (Another version of his death is that he was killed late one night when he went outside to feed the dog.) A few days prior, he had been warned by the French Embassy a few weeks prior to his death that his life might be in danger.(1) Months later, his brother, Didier Vergos, traveled from his home in Rouen, France to Peshawar where in a rather unpleasant experience, he identified the body and then had it transported back to France.

Dominique Vergos’ remains lie buried in a small cemetery sitting on a hill near Brest, the French port town in the Brittany region where I saw it in the summer of 1992 on a visit to the Vergos family where the family still owns property. After some hesitation, it was related (by those close to him) that in his Afghan ventures that Vergos was actually employed by the United States Central Intelligence Agency, a connection that was made during the Lebanese Civil War of the late 1970s where he worked as a photographer for a French news agency. Was it the C.I.A. or is that simply a generic term for some U.S. based intelligence agency? There are a fair number of them. Girardet (see below) suggests he did so for the money; my hunch is that, like some others in war zones, he became addicted to high level of drama and could never accustom himself to “a normal life” outside of a war zone. There was always something “high risk, high gain” about Dominique even before he began his adventures as a spy for Washington.  I would have thought he would work for French intelligence, but Vergos had a nose for power and seemed to greatly admire everything about the United States, so the C.I.A. connection was not implausible. His assassination – for that is most likely what it was – has never been explained. My speculation, granted it is no more than that, is that Vergos knew too much and as a result needed to be eliminated so that his impressive store of knowledge of Afghan rebel groups could not be used against them in the future. Read more…

Avnery On Gaza: Meeting In A Tunnel

August 1, 2014
UN School In Gaza Bombed by Israel; 17 Dead, hundreds wounded; Even the Obama Administration, which gave the green light for this Israeli offensive, and has re-armed Israel with mortar shells and bullets, has been forced to condemn.

UN School In Gaza Bombed by Israel; 17 Dead, hundreds wounded; Even the Obama Administration, which gave the green light for this Israeli offensive, and has re-armed Israel with mortar shells and bullets, has been forced to condemn.

(Note:  I rarely repost stuff on this blog others have written; occasionally I cannot resist doing it though for the pearls that my friends Conn Hallinan or Ibrahim Kazerooni write. Add to this the fact that there are very Jewish few voices of peace left in Israel;  Gideon Levy, Amira Hass and my long-time favorite, Uri Avnery are among them. Here is a piece by Avnery …the last few he has written have been “on the mark”, this one especially. It came to me today in an email from him. It starts out by essentially ridiculing the purpose of Israel’s war on Gaza – that it had no strategic goal whatsoever at the outset and that as the fighting intensified, goals were fabricated, then dropped, then reshaped once again. At the heart of his argument is that there is no military solution to this conflict. The Israeli military is very strong, but the Gaza Palestinians have learned how to fight back. Militarily it might not be “a draw”, but the Palestinian ability to exact punishing casualties on Israel has shifted the balance of power. This is “better-than-good” piece)

Uri Avnery
August 2, 2014

Meeting in a Tunnel
THERE WAS this village in England which took great pride in its archery. In every yard there stood a large target board showing the skills of its owner. On one of these boards every single arrow had hit a bull’s-eye.

A curious visitor asked the owner: how is this possible? The reply: “Simple. First I shoot the arrows, and then I draw the circles around them.”

In this war, our government does the same. We achieve all our goals – but our goals change all the time. In the end, our victory will be complete.

WHEN THE war started, we just wanted to “destroy the terror infrastructure”. Then, when the rockets reached practically all of Israel (without causing much damage, largely owing to the miraculous anti-missile defense), the war aim was to destroy the rockets. When the army crossed the border into Gaza for this purpose, a huge network of tunnels was discovered. They became the main war aim. The tunnels must be destroyed.

Tunnels have been used in warfare since antiquity. Armies unable to conquer fortified towns tried to dig tunnels under their walls. Prisoners escaped through tunnels. When the British imprisoned the leaders of the Hebrew underground, several of them escaped through a tunnel.

Hamas used tunnels to get under the border walls and fences to attack the Israeli army and settlements on the other side. The existence of these tunnels was known, but their large numbers and effectiveness came as a surprise. Like the Vietnamese fighters in their time, Hamas uses the tunnels for attacks, command posts, operational centers and arsenals. Many of them are interconnected.

For the population on the Israeli side, the tunnels are a source of dread. The idea that at any time the head of a Hamas fighter may pop up in the middle of a kibbutz dining hall is not amusing.

So now the war aim is to discover and destroy as many tunnels as possible. No one dreamed of this aim before it all started. Read more…

Interview with Henry Siegman, former Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee on Israel’s War On Gaza

July 30, 2014

Rabbi Henry Siegman…Why don’t we have any rabbis in Colorado like this?…not a one of them!

This interview appeared on Democracy Now! on July 30, 2014. Here is the link to the full interview. What follows is the transcript of the first part. Here is a link to Part Two

Given his background, what American Jewish leader Rabbi Henry Siegman has to say about Israel’s founding in 1948 through the current assault on Gaza may surprise you. From 1978 to 1994, Siegman served as executive director of the American Jewish Congress, long described as one of the nation’s “big three” Jewish organizations along with the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League. Born in Germany three years before the Nazis came to power in 1933, Siegman’s family eventually moved to the United States. His father was a leader of the European Zionist movement that pushed for the creation of a Jewish state. In New York, Siegman studied the religion and was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi by Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, later becoming head of the Synagogue Council of America. After his time at the American Jewish Congress, Siegman became a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He now serves as president of the U.S./Middle East Project. In the first of our two-part interview, Siegman discusses the assault on Gaza, the myths surrounding Israel’s founding in 1948, and his own background as a German-Jewish refugee who fled Nazi occupation to later become a leading American Jewish voice and now vocal critic of Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories.

“When one thinks that this is what is necessary for Israel to survive, that the Zionist dream is based on the repeated slaughter of innocents on a scale that we’re watching these days on television, that is really a profound, profound crisis — and should be a profound crisis in the thinking of all of us who were committed to the establishment of the state and to its success,” Siegman says. Responding to Israel’s U.S.-backed claim that its assault on Gaza is necessary because no country would tolerate the rocket fire from militants in Gaza, Siegman says: “What undermines this principle is that no country and no people would live the way that Gazans have been made to live. … The question of the morality of Israel’s action depends, in the first instance, on the question, couldn’t Israel be doing something [to prevent] this disaster that is playing out now, in terms of the destruction of human life? Couldn’t they have done something that did not require that cost? And the answer is, sure, they could have ended the occupation.”

Read more…


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