Tonight President Obama will give a policy speech on Afghanistan. Hopefully it will give us some real strategic direction. However, before we get to the strategic level, we need to remember that the US military itself has major tactical deficiencies. One such area is the confusion over presence patrols and movements to contact. Many small unit leaders do not appear to understand how and why they are conducting these missions. Hopefully this article helps our squad and platoon leaders accomplish these missions.
In John T Reed's review of Craig Mullaney's Unforgiving Minute, he pointed out Mullaney's ignorance on presence patrols and movements to contact. This is sad, but unsurprising. I have talked earlier about the Army's tactical deficiencies at the small unit level. The Army officer basic course common core (which all basic courses cover) touches upon tactics, but only as slogans. There is a section on the "Military Decision Making Process", which is a battalion+ level staff planning procedure. The field grade officers have made MDMP the holy grail of tactics in OBC, even though it is just a process and inapplicable at the company level. Mullaney went to Afghanistan in 2003. I hope we're better at it today.
Incidentally, when I looked up Presence Patrol on the Small Wars Journal, I found the discussion "What is Prescence Patrolling?", started five days ago. That is a sad sign for this anti-intellectual Army.
Looking at the Mullaney's description on the Presence Patrol, and on the Small Wars Journal, people seem to think that it is an information operation technique, where you show the flag and remind everybody of your presence. This is an unfortunate legacy from the Cold War, where the US Navy did "Presence Patrols" and coined the phrase. That cultural connotation has carried over into Army operations. However, the Navy Freedom of Navigation and Presence patrols took place in an uncluttered environment, relatively devoid of civilians. The intended target, other navies, were bound by peacetime rules of engagement. The patrols aimed to reinforce existing attitudes, not to change them.
On the other hand, in today's War Amongst the People, ground presence patrols operates on the human terrain. Showing the flag to the population has little effect on hearts and minds. Especially when the Yanks go back to base at the end of the patrol, while the Taliban maintains a permanent presence, as is the current practice in theater. Therefore, these patrols do not accomplish their IO mission, but rather present well-scheduled targets to Taliban IEDs and ambushers.
Therefore, we need to rethink presence patrols and make it militarily useful to the small unit. To the small unit (Company and below), the presence patrol has two purposes: To gather intelligence from the population, and to disrupt enemy Tactical Assembly Area activities.
1. Gather Intelligence
The fact that the Taliban can mount attacks means that we do not know who the enemy is, especially at the small unit level. The presence patrol is the primary intelligence tool available to the small unit leader. You need to keep talking to the locals and finding out what's going on. Just as all operations start with a map reconnaissance, you need to start with a map of the human terrain: Who are the village leaders? Who is related to whom? What blood feuds are in place? Etc.
One of the biggest innovations over the past 8 years, at the small unit level, is the Company Intelligence Cell. As we are doing more distributed operations than ever, and as we fight amongst the people, it is absolutely critical that all "Battlespace-Owning" companies have their own intel cells. These intel cells organize intel and analyzes trends. Regarding War Amongst the People, your intel cell collates the link diagram of your population, telling you who are hostile, who are possible abetters, and whose support you need. If you haven't head of it, read up on it in the Infantry Magazine and the Small War Journal.
To build and maintain your "model"/link diagram of the population, you need to get out there and talk to people, get the latest gossip. If the locals won't talk to you, then you need to build relationships with them. Start with "Hello"s and go on from there. Start a business relationship by hiring a few day laborers to work on your outpost, pick up trash on the surrounding roads, etc. A business relationship is a perfect cover to start talking. Once you know the Who's Whos, then you have a starting point to get to the suspects.
2. Disrupt the Enemy
Of less military utility, but still important, is Disrupting Enemy TAA activities. Just like you, the enemy needs a secure Tactical Assembly Area to plan ops, rehearse actions on the objective, and do pre-combat inspections. If you are patrolling an area, you deny the enemy the availability of that area for TAA activities. He has to go elsewhere, away from the cover of the population.
Therefore, your patrol schedule has to be random, and sometimes you should stay the night.
To sum up, you are not doing presence patrols. You are doing reconnaissance patrols, reconning on the population as opposed to the terrain.
On the subject of "Movements to Contact", you should never just go from one point to another, waiting to get hit. You will always know where the potential ambush sites are, even from a simple map recon. You can then do things like taking detours, clearing enemy Objective Rally Points, etc.