Interview with Gérard Chaliand: what does war teach us or how to understand conflicts?

Emergency humanitarian aid is mainly provided in countries at war due to population displacements, refugees, the wounded and the destruction of infrastructure in countries where States and public services are unable to meet the vital needs of populations at risk on their own.

That is why we called on Gérard Chaliand, a conflict specialist with many years of experience in the field, to answer our questions. From Vietnam to Afghanistan, from the Sahel to the Middle East, addressing tensions in Ukraine between Russia, America and NATO, dealing with nuclear deterrence and humanitarian aid from a historical perspective, it helps us to understand the keys to current conflicts. Decryption that should be useful for more effective humanitarian action.

Alain Boinet: Gérard, in your latest book Pourquoi perd-on la guerre? Un nouvel art occidental, you notice that Western countries have won almost all the foreign wars, colonial wars, between 1830 and 1940 and that they have lost almost all of them since 1945. What are the main factors that explain this reversal between victory and defeat?

Gérard Chaliand: There are a lot of factors. The question can be asked as follows. Why do Europeans generally win in the period from the end of the 18th century to the approach of the Second World War? This is due first of all to the immense superiority brought by industrialization. At the time, it was a leap forward as fantastic as the one we know today with communications. And those opposite didn’t know it and couldn’t explain it.

There was therefore both a technical and institutional advance with the nation-state and in the face of despotism. In Vietnam, for example, we were Tonkinese, or Annamese, or even Cochinese, before being Vietnamese. The advantage was on the side of the Europeans. Not only was there technological superiority in terms of armaments, but the opponent was also divided. He had no outside support and no sanctuary. These are very important things.

A first generation will experience the shock of the sudden expansion of Europeans. The famous clash of civilizations referred to by Samuel Huntington finally occurred in the 19th century. And it was the others who suffered it. What could this first generation bring as an answer? In general, the moral withdrawal among Confucians and the religious withdrawal among Muslims. They hypothesized that the emperor had perhaps lost the mandate from heaven or that the leaders were not pious enough.

However, this was not enough for the second generation who speak the colonizer’s language, English or French. They provide their country with institutions that are totally unknown to them: the political party, a constitution, a parliament.

But this response is still insufficient to retaliate and defend against the European colonizer. It will be necessary to wait for the third generation, the one that emerged after the First World War and will enter the second. This generation then discovered modern nationalism between the First and Second World Wars, with varying variations according to society. A new idea, invented in France in 1792. Then everyone wanted to imitate him. The Germans followed his lead, the Italians created a national movement, the Austro-Hungarian empire was shaken by the national question in 1848, then at the turn of the century it finally reached the Ottoman Empire. In a way, it is a question of turning against the colonizer his own ideology, nationalism. This helps to unite those who are oppressed.

In addition, there will be an extremely accelerating factor. This is the Japanese intervention in Asia. The only state that escapes Europe’s control is Japan. In 1868, Japan escaped the “white peril”, the Meiji revolution[1]. This marks the beginning of a reversal, since there had been no exceptions until then. Then there will be Japan’s victory over the Russians in Manchuria in 1904 and then, at sea, at Tsushima in 1905. The Japanese at the beginning of the Second World War beat the Westerners everywhere: in the Philippines, Burma, Malaysia, and the British stronghold of Singapore fell in 1942. We realize that the yoke can be shaken.

During this period, groups such as Vietnamese, Indonesians and others, mainly Asians, organized themselves through guerrillas. Guerrilla warfare has existed since the dawn of time. It is based on surprise and harassment. It is an irregular warfare, i.e. an opposition from the weak to the strong, designed to weaken a regular army. Clausewitz sees this when he analyses what happened during the Napoleonic period in Spain or Russia.

Gérard Chaliand on the schooner “La Boudeuse” ©Eric Feferberg

Mao, in 1936-1938, innovated with the “revolutionary war”. Revolutionary war is not intended to weaken a regular army, like the guerrillas, but it is intended to seize power. How do you take power? We must mobilize the masses, motivate them, administer the populations as much as possible. It is necessary to slip into the place of the State and discard it, whether it is colonial or local. That is what the Taliban are doing today, for example. Currently, they are the ones who are doing justice. And next to them, the power of Kabul means nothing.

During the 1920s, Soviet advisors told the Chinese communists that the revolution had to be carried out in the city. We need to have an insurrection in Canton and Shanghai. However, they were crushed. The skeleton of the working class was crushed then.

In 1927, Mao discovered, through an investigation, the potential of the poor peasantry that is hungry for land and that can be mobilized. It was from 1934 – 1935, when the prosovietics collapsed, that Mao, on the occasion of this great escape called “the long march”, seized power. For him, it is necessary to work the masses by means of frames. That’s the key. The manager is the one who speaks the local language. Mao trains executives who will slip into the villages. With tenacity and patience, they will explain why they are fighting, who they are fighting for, for whom, what they want, etc. When they feel that they have enough leverage in a village, they organize elections and eject state agents and propose to the villagers to choose themselves who will represent them. There will always have to be a percentage of women in it. This was completely new at the time. Often three men, two women. They will also set up local mixed militias whose role is to inform, inquire and talk about the movement of the regular army. Thanks to this and to the fact that the Japanese invasion will greatly help the Communist Party, which is no longer only in the perspective of a civil war but which is leading a patriotic war.

This is something else that has never been understood in Latin America. The people of Latin America never fought the Americans, they fought “Yankee imperialism”. This did not correspond to anything for a Quechua or Aymara peasant. It must be realized that Bolivian intellectual discourse has no meaning in the Andean environment, in Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia, or Ecuador. What is needed is to blend into the mass using the arguments of patriotic struggle and having an understanding of the situation. It is about turning weakness into strength. This is revolutionary war. Mao succeeds with the Japanese invasion. At the end of the war, the Americans cannot believe that a Mao is seizing power. The English, who were supposed to be even better informed, are equally surprised. And the worst part is that Stalin, facing Mao, advised to make an alliance with Chiang Kai-shek. For Mao, it was out of the question. This is the absolute surprise. Suddenly, a million people become communists. It is a real upheaval.

The people who will best understand this reality are the Vietnamese because they are in direct contact with China. Ho Chi Minh was in China. Vietnamese communists look at, study, and adapt the model to Vietnamese conditions. And the French will be totally surprised to suffer a defeat as important as Dien Bien Phu when it was supposed to be the victory that would finally allow a supposedly less powerful opponent to be crushed in regular combat.

Three years later, in 1957, in the Revue Militaire d’Information, a special issue states: “This is what revolutionary war is all about and we had not understood…”. Mao kind of invented it. This is what I explain in a book that will be published soon: Mao, revolutionary strategist. This model will not necessarily be replicated everywhere in the future.

However, the Maoist revolutionary war has shown that replacing state authority with another works. It is therefore not territorial control that counts, contrary to what Al Baghdadi claims. What matters is population control. For example, Al Baghdadi has never controlled many people, with the exception of Mosul and Raqqa. The media conveyed, through geographical ignorance, that Daech controlled a vast territory like Great Britain, but they did not specify that it was desert. There’s no one there. What matters is the population. The Vietnamese never claimed to control Vietnamese territory. During the day the Americans controlled, at night it was the Viet Cong.

At first, we thought that these power reversals owed everything to Marxism-Leninism, but I think it’s because of ideology in general. We must mobilize through a mobillizing ideology, but any one of them can work. It can be nationalism, patriotism, and now we see it today, it is radical Islamism. I say that without judgment. If people are willing to die for an ideology, then it has a chance to work. In a way, the Taliban are engaged in Maoism without knowing it.


Alain Boinet: Since you have just made an original connection between Afghanistan and Vietnam, this raises a question that is simple to ask but probably difficult to answer. What comparisons and lessons can be drawn between the US-Cano-Vietnamese war and the Soviet war in Afghanistan?

Gérard Chaliand: I would say that they both made the same mistake. First of all, this type of war should not be fought with the contingent. Many Americans went to Vietnam without wanting to. The Russians sent the contingent in the same way. We must not send the contingent into a colonial-type war because, whether we like it or not, it remains a colonial-type war. It is a war in which contempt for others is expressed because they are “late”. This is the first mistake in both powers.

The second is as follows. I will mention another war. In Afghanistan, the Americans paid the northern alliance to operate in the north and “bought” the warlords to do the same in the south. The initial assumption was therefore that they did not want to have victims on their side. That is why Bin Laden or Mullah Omar were able to escape. It is sufficient that they have paid or had knowledge on the spot. Very quickly, the situation was supposed to be resolved. Within a few months, Hamid Karzai[2] had been brought from the United States. We had organized a big Loya Jirga[3]. George Bush had announced the creation of a Marshall Plan that will never be heard from again. The Afghan theatre was “settled” since there was no Taliban left, and those who had not died took refuge in Pakistan. In 2002, the Americans were concerned about one thing only: the intervention in Iraq. They prepared public opinion by referring to the threats of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, which were false. The idea was then to reshape the Middle East. This is the great task ahead. They want to occupy Iraq to make it a democracy, on the same model as Japan, years ago. Then, it will be necessary to turn to Syria and “twist Bashar al-Assad’s arm” so that he stops helping Hamas and Hezbollah, which will benefit the Israeli ally. “The road to Jerusalem passes through Baghdad.” That was the slogan of the time. And then they would turn to the main opponent: Iran, where the Americans wanted to initiate a regime change. So they attacked Iraq and will wage a zero death war on the American side.

The result is finally disturbing in Iraq. Why? Why?

I’m going to go back and explain it. In 1514, there was a war between the Sunni Ottoman Empire and the Shia Safavid Ottoman Empire. The Iranians are losing. The Ottomans seized the “land of two rivers”[4]. Shia Iraq remains under Sunni control until Saddam Hussein. In 2003, the Americans returned Iraq to Iran because in practice it is the Shiites who rule and the Sunnis who are oppressed. Did Mr. George Bush know that or Mr. Paul Wolfowitz[5], the principal trader? Did Mr. Paul Bremer, proconsul, know? No, no one knew the story. An absence of historical culture therefore has great consequences. These three characters have completely marginalized the Sunnis. At first it was only the Baathists, but then it spread. And it was the Sunnis who were removed from the administration that would later become the pillars of the Islamist state.

Gérard Chaliand in Iranian Kurdistan – 1980 – After a fight between Kurds and the guardian of the Khomeini revolution. The burial of the victims.

Thus, mistakes were made in both periods due to historical misunderstanding and constantly rotating troops – a soldier remains on average one year, unlike the colonial troops of the past who remained for ten years. In short, we are now with troops in transit. That is what McChrystal said in a 2008 report on Afghanistan. He says that 90% of the soldiers never left the base, they ate food directly imported from the United States, did not speak the language, listened to the American mucus. They were soldiers who hoped to earn enough money to pay off a mortgage. McChrystal’s conclusion is that the soldiers are not really in Afghanistan, they are “soldiers in transit”.

The Soviets, on the other hand, entered Afghanistan to replace the hardest part of the Afghan Communist Party. In the past, it would have been called Stalinist. They wanted to carry out agrarian reform, ban forced marriage, send girls to school. This was very badly perceived in Afghanistan. I remember visiting a village where I didn’t see a school. I was told that all the schools had been destroyed because teachers had been sent there. It was unimaginable to entrust young girls to men from the city. We were confronted with the deep conservatism of a society that did not want to change. The Soviets would have liked to transform the country by moving in the direction of coercive modernity. They couldn’t do it. The population refused agrarian reform, refused to obey the city’s hierarchical superiors, and refused to send girls to school. In addition, the population saw the Soviets as foreigners, who were not only non-Muslim, but who were also known to have destroyed mosques. The Americans then sent the Stingers against the Soviets, something that has not happened since the Americans occupied Afghanistan.

AB: 17 years after their failure in Afghanistan, how can we understand the failure of the Western coalition within the framework of NATO and the American leadership against the Taliban and in particular the failure of the counter-insurgency strategy implemented by General McChrystal in order to win hearts and minds to overthrow the situation?

GC: I think that on the western side, we were very quickly obsessed with one thing: not losing a man. The Russians were much more “generous” with their blood than we were. Our public opinion was extremely reluctant. What they wanted was a quick and cheap victory. In what has been done, we must add a very important thing that goes beyond Afghanistan and is the problem today, namely the demographic rise of what was called the “Third World” and the subsequent decline of the West. In 1900, between North America and Russia, there were 33% of the world’s population, a large third. Today, we represent 12 and 15%. When you only represent about ten percent, you can’t afford to lose many lives during the war.

In Western countries, we have an average of 1.5 children per family. Letting your only child go to war causes tensions. In Afghanistan, there were about 15 million of them before the war. And despite the enormous losses during the conflict, they were more than 30 million thirty years later. They had managed to double. This is a demographic reality, but it is not very visible. Indeed, on television or in movies we see mostly “whites”. There is a false impression of a massive presence that does not represent the actual reality.

AB: France is very involved in the Sahel with the Barkhane military force and also within the framework of the G5-Sahel and the Sahel Alliance. In a context of fragile states, extreme poverty, explosive population growth, major problems of terrorism whose action is spreading, does the Sahel not become the epicentre of a new size with multiple challenges?

GC: I don’t know if it’s the epicenter, but one thing is certain: the Sahel is becoming a theatre. Let us go back to the first cause, which is nevertheless the Franco-English expedition, led by the United States, but decided by Mr Sarkozy and Mr Cameron, to intervene in Libya on humanitarian grounds and, in practice, for the elimination of Mr Mohammed Khadafi. He was the man who for the last thirty years controlled the Tuaregs and the situation of migration and arms in the region. His disappearance caused collateral damage as in Mali with the various jihadist or Tuareg movements. France was forced to intervene to avoid the collapse of Bamako. Since what are we trying to do? Contain. There is no question of winning. It is about containing. It is rather poorly contained insofar as the physical French presence is extremely limited.

For those who know a little about African history, the Islamic phenomenon – not Islamist – is older than the colonial period. As early as 1802, the Sokoto empire, even before the slightest European presence, had at its head an Islamist, the Almamy[6], who proclaimed himself to be of the lineage of what we now call Islamism. One of the important vectors in West African Islamism is the Fulani. They too are very important today. Their characteristic is to be Muslims for centuries and at the same time to travel from Senegal to Cameroun. They embrace the entire area known as “French West Africa” of yesteryear. Hence the clashes with the Dogons in particular. Moreover, the propaganda of the Islamists today is to say “we are fed up with France”. For some, these ideas speak for themselves.

We are also in an area of very small development with considerable demographic growth. The number of people under 15 is impressive. What are these young people going to do? Go to school. However, the school cannot follow and there is no work either. The only solution left is war and Islam. It is predation, rape (for some the solution was Islam.)

Gérard Chaliand – Iraqi Kurdistan – 2005 ©Sophie Mousset

AB: In your other book, Le nouvel art de la guerre, published in 2008, you emphasized demographics in international relations and power relations. Africa, which had 230 million inhabitants in 1950, will have 2.5 billion by 2050. While some countries on the continent are struggling with economic growth, others are experiencing recurrent conflicts. Isn’t Africa’s demographic explosion a huge and lasting challenge for the entire continent and its neighbours? What are the risks and what can be done to overcome them?

GC: The areas where there is still extremely vigorous population growth are no longer Latin America, nor is it really the Middle East. Some areas still retain some population growth that creates problems. I am talking about Egypt in particular because only 3% of Egyptian land is cultivable.

At a more global level, there are areas where population development has returned to a relatively normal pace. This is the case for China and India. This is not at all the case in other countries such as Bangladesh. The more people are affected by poverty, the more children there are. It is a classic correlation in demography. So there are some areas like that in Asia and especially in Africa.

Some states in Africa have a good situation. Rwanda, for example, is a country that is not characterized primarily by corruption but by work and modernization. President Kagame is an enlightened despot who makes economic growth. Ghana also has strong economic and labour growth. Ethiopia, perhaps?

South Africa is not doing as well as once hoped. However, the country is still on the right track, which would not have been the case without Nelson Mandela. Mandela’s arrival had something historical about it if you think about it. When he arrived, after all this racism and internal violence, he said that everything had to be erased. This has helped to preserve national unity and the country’s economic potential. How can such an act be explained? There is an explanation. As it happens, Frederik de Klerk[7], the last white president of South Africa, was a Protestant and so was Nelson Mandela.

Apart from these three or four African countries, it is population growth that is driving all economic efforts in Africa. There is a great inability of States to provide education and work to populations. This usually leads to disorder, war and internal religious tensions. It should not be forgotten that part of Africa is not Muslim. There is a part that has been Christianized by a very special type of Christian who are very fighting. These are the American evangelists. So in this area, which extends from Somalia to Senegal and includes Nigeria, we have an extremely difficult situation to deal with and I do not see how we can get out of it. France does not have the necessary troops while, of all the countries, we have the most military agreements to help maintain order in West and North Africa. If there is a rush to get out of Africa, which country will host 300 million Africans? Even Brazil couldn’t handle it….

AB: World geopolitics is in the process of repositioning players: the United States, China, Russia, Turkey, with consequences in the Middle East. Also hides the hypothesis of an end to NATO. This reconfiguration of the world is not without consequences on current political developments, even in Europe. The world is now more unpredictable and dangerous, is it the return of nationalism or of the individual for himself in the international relations that are taking place? In this context, some even mention the possibility of a war between the United States and China, what are the future confrontations?

CG: We lived for several decades in what is called the Cold War with two states each having a sufficient nuclear arsenal to set the planet on fire and blood. In general, deterrence has worked. I speak of “deterrence” in the sense of the ability to strike. This implies that everyone had an armed force large enough to be able to respond in the event of an attack and in a much more terrible way. Each had silos, submarines and aircraft in constant motion, capable of responding to an attack. The result of an attack would therefore be much worse than the gain of the stake for both sides. On that point, I would say that it hasn’t changed much. All states are currently working to try to have the absolute weapon and there are at least three very dangerous states: the United States, Russia and China. We are still in a state of tension. No one has an interest in triggering something because the costs will be huge.

So what has happened since the end of the Cold War? I would say that this marks the end of containment and the beginning of refoulement. The United States’ programme, unspoken and unclaimed, but effective, is to push the former USSR back to the borders of the former Russia. The last act was Ukraine, played in two moves.

The first blow was in 2004 following the announcement of the election results and was a failure. The orange revolution seemed to be happening. Then came a Polish and the Lithuanian Prime Minister. The press then failed to understand why the Lithuanian Prime Minister approved. However, it so happens that part of the united, Catholic Ukraine, dependent on Rome, was in the 17th century Lithuanian and Polish. Putin therefore emerged as a winner from this situation and managed to last ten more years.

Ten years later, the Ukrainians no longer wanted to be under Russian control. What did Poutine do then? He did what any head of state would have done, having lost Ukraine, that is, 40 to 45 million Russian-speaking Slavs, he took over the Crimea that Khrushchev – Ukrainian – had offered to Ukraine in 1954, at a time when the Soviet Union was supposed to last. Putin is an enlightened despot, nationalist and remarkable tactician, even those who do not like him are forced to recognize him. He therefore did what he could to keep the territory of Russia open, hence the intervention in Crimea, hence the intervention in 2008 against the Georgians who thought that the Americans would intervene. Overall, he modernized the army and on the occasion of Syria, which was the last Arab state that had excellent relations with Russia, he did not want to give in. Indeed, Russia had already lost Iraq, South Yemen, and formerly Egypt. That is why he clung to Syria and managed to do much better than the Americans, much better than the West. Finally, the crossing with the militias formed by the Iraqis and the Russian air presence triumphed militarily. I don’t know how the country is going to rebuild itself, that’s another question… We’re staying in an area of sustainable tension.

At the same time, China is outperforming Japan in economic terms in 2010, while specialists were announcing this turnaround for 2020. They are now number two 10 years ahead of schedule. At first, they kept a low profile, now much less so. However, they remain cautious because they know that they are not yet the strongest. For them it is therefore important this relative and completely circumstantial alliance with the Russians. In 1969, however, they had opposed Ussuri[8]. In the 19th century, two and a half million kilometres had also been taken from China by the Russians.

As for Trump, I would say that this is a somewhat unexpected phenomenon. He was not brought to power by populists, he chose to rely on populists. He did it with a quiet cynicism. He lies as he breathes and reminds us brutally that the essence of international relations is not cooperation or multiculturalism but power relations. He is a little rough on everyone, but is he right to be alone against everyone? He is against China, Russia, Europeans… And we Europeans have not been able to say no to him because for years we have been benefiting from the American umbrella.

I think that there are States that feel lost by change, hence these populist shifts… Without nuclear power, there would surely already have been wars with millions of deaths. In European countries, living standards have certainly declined since the 1960s. However, we remain in a privileged and protected space. On a global scale we will probably remain in the top ten. Personally, I do not believe in war in the international arena, I believe in tension. In this respect, it is clear that the media are selling anxiety.

AB: Humanitarian aid is deployed in all countries at war. In the space of a dozen years, its volume has increased from 12 to 28 billion dollars. It involves approximately 400,000 people and 41,000 expatriates, representing people from all over the world. The same is true for development. What do you think of this evolution?

GC: I think there are still very good days left for humanitarian aid because the number of places where tensions are increasing is increasing, whether they are states destabilized by drug cartels such as Mexico, areas of extreme poverty or areas of complete lawlessness. This is generally increasing, i.e. the disorder is not decreasing but is developing. In addition, development areas remain concentrated in some 20 countries. The future is not uncertain but rather relatively dramatic. So these 400,000 people will have an interest in being more numerous and having more resources. They are very useful but insufficient, we should do much better. The same is true for the climate, which poses such a strong threat. And as long as there is such a demographic increase with so few resources to deal with it, we will continue to witness this degradation.

Biography of Gérard Chaliand, geopolitologist, specialist in armed conflicts and poet.

After studying at the Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales (INALCO, Paris), Gérard Chaliand obtained a doctorate in Political Sociology with a thesis on Revolutions in the Third World, myths and perspectives (Paris V – Sorbonne). Engaged in the far left in the 1970s, Gérard Chaliand participated in the struggle for the decolonization of Guinea-Bissau alongside Amilcar Cabral.

A specialist in geostrategic issues, Gérard Chaliand has spent more than thirty years in some 75 countries in Africa, Asia and America, from which he has drawn a series of surveys and tests. A man in the field above all, he has been in contact with several national liberation movements: Guinea-Bissau 1966; North Vietnam 1967; Colombia 1968; Jordan/Israel 1969-1970; Eritrea 1977; Iranian Kurdistan 1980; Afghanistan 1980, 1982 and every year from 2005 to 2011; El Salvador 1982; Peru 1985; Philippines 1987; Sri Lanka 1987, 1999, 2007; High Karabagh 1993; Georgia 1992, 2008; Kashmir 1999; Iraq including Iraqi Kurdistan 1999 and every year from 2000 to 2016; Burma 1990. He is one of the major specialists in irregular wars, with the originality of having always been on the side of insurrection rather than counter-insurrection in his research. He discusses his field investigations in Voyage dans 40 ans de guérillas (1966-2006).

From 1980 to 1989, Gérard Chaliand was a lecturer at the École nationale d’administration (ENA), then a teacher at the École supérieure de guerre (1993-1999) and director of the Centre européen d’étude des conflits (1997-2000). He is also an advisor to the Centre d’analyse et de prévision of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1984-1993). He is a regular guest professor at many foreign universities (Harvard, Montreal, Berkeley,…). Gérard Chaliand is the author of more than 30 books, including about fifteen translated ones. In 1983, they worked with Jean-Pierre Rageau with his Atlas géopolitique a transformé les visions géographiques du monde hitherto resulting from Mercator’s representations. In addition, with his book Global Anthology of Strategy, he proposes to incorporate for the first time non-Western strategic thoughts into the usual Western-centric corpus.

[1] The end of the feudal Shogun regime and one of the major events in Japanese history.

[2] He succeeded Burhanuddin Rabbani as head of the Islamic State of Afghanistan on 22 December 2001.

[3] The Loya Jirga is a term of Pashto origin that refers to an assembly convened to make major decisions concerning the Afghan people.

[4] Former name of Iraq.

[5] American politician, Assistant Secretary of Defense between 2001 and 2005.

[6] Almamy is the “Commander of the Believers”. This title was used in the XVIIIᵉ and XIXᵉ centuries by Muslim warlords from several Fulani states in West Africa.

[7] Frederik Willem de Klerk was South Africa’s last white president and led the reforms that ended the apartheid policy in 1991 and the constitutional negotiations with the African National Congress in Nelson Mandela that led to the country’s first multiracial government.

[8] Part of the 1969 Sino-Soviet border conflict. A series of armed incidents between the Soviet Union and China, particularly around an island on the Ussuri River that brought these two states to the brink of nuclear war.