Trinquier’s Dichotomy: Adding Ideology to Counterinsurgency

By guest contributor Robert Koch

After two world wars, the financial and ideological underpinnings of European colonial domination in the world were bankrupt. Yet European governments responded to aspirations for national self-determination with undefined promises of eventual decolonization. Guerrilla insurgencies backed by clandestine organizations were one result. By 1954, new nation-states in China, North Korea, and North Vietnam had adopted socialist development models, perturbing the Cold War’s balance of power. Western leaders turned to counterinsurgency (COIN) to confront national liberation movements. In doing so, they reimagined the motives that drove colonization into a defense of their domination over faraway nations.

COIN is a type of military campaign designed to maintain social control, or “the unconditional support of the people,” while destroying clandestine organizations that use the local populations as camouflage, thus sustaining political power (Trinquier, Modern Warfare, 8). It is characterized by a different mission set than conventional warfare. Operations typically occur amidst civilian populations. Simply carpet bombing cities (or even rural areas as seen in the Vietnam War), at least over an extended period of time results in heavy collateral damage that strips governments of popular support and, eventually, political power. The more covert, surgical nature of COIN means that careful justifying rhetoric can still be called upon to mitigate the ensuing political damage.

Vietnam was central to the saga of decolonization. The Viet Minh, communist cadres leading peasant guerrillas, won popular support to defeat France in the First (1945-1954) and the United States in the Second Indochina Wars (1955-1975) to consolidate their nation-state. French leaders, already sour from defeat in World War II, took their loss in Indochina poorly. Some among them saw it as the onset of a global struggle against communism (Paret, French Revolutionary Warfare, 25-29; Horne, Savage War for Peace, 168; Evans, Algeria: France’s Undeclared War, Part 2, 38-39). Despite Vietnam’s centrality, it was in “France,” that is, colonial French Algeria, that ideological significance was given to the tactical procedures of COIN. French Colonel Roger Trinquier, added this component while fighting for the French “forces of order” in the Algerian War (1954-1962) (Trinquier, Modern Warfare, 19). Trinquier’s ideological contribution linked the West’s “civilizing mission” with enduring imperialism.

In his 1961 thesis on COIN, Modern Warfare, Trinquier offered moral justification for harsh military applications of strict social control, a job typically reserved for police, and therefore for the subsequent violence. The associated use of propaganda characterized by a dichotomizing rhetoric to mitigate political fallout proved a useful addition to the counterinsurgent’s repertoire. This book, essentially providing a modern imperialist justification for military violence, was translated into English, Spanish, and Portuguese, and remains popular among Western militaries.

Trinquier’s experiences before Algeria influenced his theorizing. In 1934, a lieutenant in Chi-Ma, Vietnam, he learned the significance of local support while pursuing opium smugglers in the region known as “One Hundred Thousand Mountains” (Bernard Fall in Trinquier, Modern Warfare, x). After the Viet Minh began their liberation struggle, Trinquier led the “Berets Rouges” Colonial Parachutists Battalion in counterguerrilla operations. He later commanded the Composite Airborne Commando Group (GCMA), executing guerrilla operations in zones under Viet Minh control. This French-led indigenous force grew to include 20,000 maquis( rural guerrillas) and had a profound impact in the war (Trinquier, Indochina Underground, 167). Though France would lose their colony, Trinquier had learned effective techniques in countering clandestine enemies.

Upon evacuating Indochina in 1954, France immediately deployed its paratroopers to fight a nationalist liberation insurgency mobilizing in Algeria. Determined to avoid another loss, Trinquier (among others) sought to apply the lessons of Indochina against the Algerian guerillas’ Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). He argued that conventional war, which emphasized controlling strategic terrain, had been supplanted. Trinquier believed adjusting to “modern warfare” required four key reconceptualizations: a new battlefield, new enemy, how to fight them, and the repercussions of failure. Trinquier contended that warfare had become “an interlocking system of action – political, economic, psychological, military,” and the people themselves were now the battleground (Trinquier, Modern Warfare, 6-8).

Trinquier prioritized wining popular support, and to achieve this blurred insurgent motivations by lumping guerrillas under the umbrella term “terrorist.” Linking the FLN to a global conspiracy guided by Moscow was helpful in the Cold War, and a frequent claim in the French military, but this gimmick was actually of secondary importance to Trinquier. When he did mention communism, rather than as the guerrilla’s guiding light, it was in a sense of communist parties, many of whom publicly advocated democratic means to political power, as having been compromised. The FLN were mainly a nationalist organized that shunned communists, especially in the leadership positions, something Trinquier would have known as a military intelligence chief (Horne, Savage War for Peace, 138, 405). In Modern Warfare, although he accepted the claim that the FLN was communist, in fact he only used the word “communist” four times (Trinquier, Modern Warfare, 13, 24, 59, 98). The true threat were “terrorists,” a term used thirty times (Trinquier, Modern Warfare, 8, 14, 16-25, 27, 29, 34, 36, 43-5, 47-49, 52, 56, 62, 70, 72, 80, 100, 103-104, 109). The FLN did terrorize Muslims to compel support (Evans, Algeria: France’s Undeclared War, Part 2, 30). Yet, obscuring the FLN’s cause by labeling them terrorist complicated consideration of their more relatable aspirations for self-determination. Even “atheist communists” acted in hopes of improving the human condition. The terrorist, no civilized person could support the terrorist.

Trinquier’s careful wording reflects his strategic approach and gives COIN rhetoric greater adaptability. His problem was not any particular ideology, but “terrorists.” Conversely, he called counterinsurgents the “forces of order” twenty times (Trinquier, Modern Warfare, 19, 21, 32-33, 35, 38, 44, 48, 50, 52, 58, 66, 71, 73, 87, 100). A dichotomy was created: people could choose terror or order. Having crafted an effective dichotomy, Trinquier addressed the stakes of “modern warfare.”

The counterinsurgent’s mission was no less than the defense of civilization. Failure to adapt as required, however distasteful it may feel, would mean “sacrificing defenseless populations to unscrupulous enemies” (Trinquier, Modern Warfare, 5). Trinquier evoked the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 to demonstrate the consequences of such a failure. French knights were dealt crushing defeat after taking a moral stand and refusing to sink to the level of the English and their unchivalrous longbows. He concluded, if “our army refused to employ all the weaponsof modern warfare… national independence, the civilization we hold dear, our very freedom would probably perish” (Trinquier, Modern Warfare, 115). His “weapons” included torture, death squads, and the secret disposals of bodies – “dirty war” tactics that hardly represent “civilization” (Aussaresses, Battle of the Casbah, 21-22; YouTube, “Escuadrones de la muerte. La escuela francesa,” time 8:38-9:38). Trinquier was honest and consistent about this, defending dirty war tactics years afterward on public television (YouTube, “Colonel Roger Trinquier et Yacef Saadi sur la bataille d’Alger. 12 06 1970”). Momentary lapses of civility were acceptable if it meant defending civilization, whether it be adopting the enemy’s longbow or terrorist methods, to even the battlefield dynamics in “modern warfare.”

Trinquier’s true aim was preserving colonial domination, which had always been based on the possession of superior martial power. In order to blur distinctions between nationalists and communists, he linked any insurgency to a Soviet plot. Trinquier warned of the loss of individual freedom and political independence. The West, he warned, was being slowly absorbed by socialist—terrorist—insurgencies. Western Civilization would be doomed if it did not act against the monolithic threat.  His dichotomy justifies using any means to achieve the true end – sustaining local power. It is also exportable.

Trinquier’s reconfiguration of imperialist logic gave the phenomenon of imperialism new life. Its intellectual genealogy stretches back to the French mission civilisatrice. In the Age of Empire (1850-1914), European colonialism violently subjugated millions while claiming European tutelage could tame and civilize “savages” and “semi-savages.” During postwar decolonization, fresh off defeat in Indochina and facing the FLN, Trinquier modified this justification. The “civilizing” mission of “helping” became a defense of (lands taken by) the “civilized,” while insurgencies epitomized indigenous “savagery.”

The vagueness Trinquier ascribed to the “terrorist” enemy and his rearticulation of imperialist logic had unforeseeable longevity. What are “terrorists” in the postcolonial world but “savages” with modern weapons? His dichotomizing polemic continues to be useful to justify COIN, the enforcer of Western imperialism. This is evident in Iraq and Afghanistan, two countries that rejected Western demands and were subsequently invaded, as well as COIN operations in the Philippines and across Africa, places more peripheral to the public’s attention. Western counterinsurgents almost invariably hunt “terrorists” in a de facto defense of the “civilized.” We must carefully consider how rhetoric is used to justify violence, and perhaps how this logic shapes the kinds of violence employed. Trinquier’s ideas and name remain in the US Army’s COIN manual, linking US efforts to the imperialist ambitions behind the mission civilisatrice (US Army, “Annotated Bibliography,” Field Manual 3-24 Counterinsurgency, 2).

Robert Koch is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of South Florida.

Islamic History: Beyond Sunni-Shia

by guest contributor Basma N. Radwan

Consider two vastly different versions of the same course “Introduction to Islamic Civilization.” In the first, an emphasis of political factors in Islamic group formation supersedes all other considerations. Shias, even before their inception as a distinct, self-identified group, are described as a uniquely political Islamic sect. In such analyses, theological, economic, and ethnic considerations are peripheral, if they at all constitute factors. To make the group intelligible to students predominantly acquainted with the history of the west, an instructor might offer a historical parallel to the French Legitimist tradition. The comparison’s extended implications render Orléanists out of the nonrelative Sahābah, Bonapartists out of Khawarīj, and neo-orientalists out of a fresh generation of young scholars.

In the second, interdisciplinary approaches can offer a different take. Beginning with the Covenant of Medina and a discussion on the nature of identity, course instructors can prompt students to ask themselves the following: when reading the history of Islam and its many groups, has modern scholarship excessively privileged objective over subjective identity? Do we identify early Islamic groups through our own contemporary dichotomies? Anyone who opens a newspaper will realize that it is hard to dispute that this is not the case. No doubt, contemporary political events parade the dichotomy as the fundamental operative in the history of the Middle East. The central idea (a well-intentioned one, I think) is an earnest attempt to discern some of the otherwise camouflaged nuances of contemporary politics. So be it—journalists, diplomats, and human rights groups use the dichotomy because it offers intelligible explanations for otherwise complex socio-political phenomena. But how useful is the chasm pedagogically? Even instructors who disagree with the claim that Sunni versus Shia is an overly simplistic heuristic must, nonetheless, consider what political and strategic purposes such a binary has come to serve.

Still, I would like to suggest that the Sunni versus Shia chasm, though useful in some scholarly endeavors, is of little value as a primary framework for the study of Islamic history. Those who plan to make use of it might consider the three following pedagogical drawbacks. First, privileging the Sunni-Shia dichotomy as the main framework for the study of Islamic history allots students little opportunity to discuss either tradition’s subgroups. Second, because the Sunni-Shia dichotomy is depicted as the product of a politico-theological dispute, economic, tribal, and geographical factors in group formation are easily overlooked. Third, the dichotomy inevitably runs the risk of “modern ideologies masquerading as historical truths.” Depicting a geopolitical rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia as the climax of a fourteen-hundred-year religious struggle is not far off from labeling Operation Iraqi Freedom as an extension of medieval crusades. Such grandiose historical ornamentations are highly caloric, yet offer little nutritional value—no matter how forcefully U.S. presidents, Iranian Ayatollahs, or Saudi Monarchs may have tried to persuade otherwise. So, what is to be done?

The importance of self-identification in the history of Islamic group formation suggests, according to one theory, that historians should reconsider and reexamine sources that provide clues to the group’s subjective identity. A group’s subjective identity is “how [they] conceive themselves to be, whereas [their] objective identity is how [they] might be viewed independently of how [they] view [themselves]” (p. 5). In this sense, it would be historically brute to claim that Ali was Shia. While he is labeled so retrospectively, his subjective identity could not be accounted for in those terms, as “the Sunni-Shia schism only materialized a century [after the prophet’s death]” (p. i). Even the use of proto-Shia or proto-Sunni as indicators of subjective identity proves problematic. These kinds of qualifications are, to borrow one historian’s description of Muslim heresiographies, “simply back-projections intended to validate subsequent political and theological developments” (p. 249).

There is also the question of what happens when a non-dominant group’s identification is rejected by a dominant one. Although a Sufi group may consider itself Sunni or Shia, in its legal affiliation for example, prominent orthodox Sunni or Shia groups may reject its claim. In a historical narrative in which the Sunni-Shia chasm dominates, Sufi groups are characterized by their objective identity, as dictated by the dominant group, as non-Shia/Sunni. By extension, there is the added risk of underappreciating the role of non-dominant groups’ subjective identity in the making of Sunni/Shia orthodoxy. In other words, we are blind to the process wherein Sunni and Shia define themselves not against one another, but rather through other “Others.”

But what about when a group’s subjective identity is non-Shia/Sunni? This dichotomy, as a heuristic, risks erasing the historical presence of groups whose subjective identity lies entirely outside of it: the early Khawarij, Murji’a, Ibāddiya and, more recently, the Aḥmadiyya and NOI . In these instances, it is the absence of Sunni-Shia elements in their subjective identity that places them in historical margins, resulting in a narrative dictated by dominant groups.


Cover of New Statesman (20-26 June 2014)

While renewed emphasis on subjective identity in Islamic group formation can soften an otherwise rigid dichotomy, it cannot, on its own, provide the reasons for differences in objective and subjective identity. Because the Sunni/Shia dichotomy is presented primarily as a politico-theological chasm, the impact of geographical, tribal, and economic factors in group formation is sidelined. The Kharijites (Khawarij), sometimes referred to as the first distinct sect in Islamic history, are one such example. Emerging in the aftermath of the Battle of Siffin (657), the name refers to the members of Ali’s troops who rejected his decision to negotiate with Mu’awiyah’s supporters. Derived from the Arabic word ‘Khawarij,’ seceders, Kharijite came to signify anyone who “left” Ali’s camp. Most historical narratives attribute the Kharijite secession to a theological dispute—namely their view that Ali’s acquiescence to negotiate with Mu’awiyah’s supporters was a violation of divine will.

Recent scholarship has signaled a shift from the theological interpretation, suggesting that the Kharjites’ secession is attributable to their Tamim tribal composition. The influence of Tamim tribal affiliation in the origins and development of the Kharijite led one historian to describe it as “a movement of democratic ideals that advocated a militant democracy [against an aristocratic Ummayad counterpart]” (p. 34). The group is as an example of how theological differences, while important, may at times be compromised, and at others corroborated, by tribal affiliations. The Sunni-Shia heuristic is inclined to overemphasize theological considerations or attribute them as a cause to non-theological divisions. Even within the category of Khairijite itself, a confluence of geographical, tribal, and economic factors eventually led to the creation of further subdivisions. According to one historian, Muslim heresiographers had accounted for four original Kharijite groups, “Azariqa, Najadat, Ibadiyya, and Suffriya” (p. 77). This double divergence is significant as an instance wherein tribal considerations supersede the theological and political factors are offset by their economic counterparts. The study of such groups, whose origins and development cannot be expounded by a simplified dichotomy or modern political terminology on their own, promises a more holistic account of the history of Islamic civilization.

Origins of the Shi'a_cover_Najam Haider.jpg

Najam Haider Origins of the Shi’a: Identity, Ritual and Sacred Space in Eighth-Century Kufa (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 2011)

The paucity of historical sources may be one explanation for why the Sunni-Shia chasm dominates literatures on the history of Islam—it proves convenient to otherwise source-less historians. Recently, the more innovative have found ways to remedy the source scarcity. In Origins of the Shia, Najam Haider shows how sources which may appear ahistorical at first glance can in fact elucidate elements of subjective identity—providing new insights on the history of Islamic groups. By drawing from innovations in “textual archaeology… [Haider is able] to identify traditions and views concerning specific ritual practices among jamā’ī-Sunnī, Zaydī, and Imāmī scholars in the early eight century Kufa (modern day Najaf)” (p. 1395). Haider’s method is nothing less than revolutionary in its pedagogical implications. For one, his rich and complex narrative, produced by emphasizing the role of ritual as one way to discern the consolidation of a group’s subjective identity, stands in stark contrast to histories crafted exclusively with reference to objective identities. Second, the work shows that when the Sunni-Shia binary framework is employed with reference to anachronistic formulations of politics, historians miss fundamental aspects of group formation. Accordingly, instructors of Islamic Civilization should be weary of investigating the fragmentation of the early Islamic community in sole reference to the political or theological.

In effect, the third pedagogical drawback—the risk of “modern ideologies masquerading as historical truths”—is already minimized when the former two are remedied. Distinguishing objective from subjective identity produces a fuller understanding of how and why dominant and non-dominant groups form and decidedly dispels a faux-history of dominant group rivalry. Using Sunni v. Shia as the ultimate explanatory signifier in the history of Islam produces a perpetual enmity that is, as one observer put it, “misguided at best and disingenuous at worst.” As a historical explanatory, it is reductionist. Used as a social scientific predictor, it is dangerous.

Sunni and Shia theological differences do have an important place in Islamic history. Of course, this is partially because this history is still being written: contested along the borders of modern nation-states, fought in violent armed struggle and frequently redefined by geo-political developments. But this phase of Islamic history is no longer, strictly speaking, “Islamic.” Transpiring in circumstances unintelligible in terms of regional or religious isolation, these events are part and parcel of globalization, neoliberalism, and post-colonial nationalism— anything but the climax of a fourteen-hundred-year theological dispute. There is little warrant to look at eighth century Kufa for these events’ origins—no more, anyways, than there is for young scholars to expect a rich history of Islamic civilization through the prism of an exaggerated historical enmity.

Basma N. Radwan is a doctoral student in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University. Her interests include the history of political thought and the impact of colonialism in the making of modernity. She is currently writing about notions of racial difference in the work of Alexis de Tocqueville.