Military tactics Q: purpose of urban patrols in Iraq-like insurgency situations?

Reading about attacks on US troops in Iraq it seems to me a common occurrence is a patrol of US troops being hit by a roadside bomb, or being shot at (like e.g. in the bomb attack that triggered the Haditha incident).

What I (being very much ignorant of military matters) cannot picture is what such patrols are done for, especially in hostile-minded areas where locals aren’t likely to point you to suspicious people.

I assume the possible outcomes of such a patrol would be

  • in most cases: eventually coming back from a singularly unenjoyable drive through town, or
  • being attacked and possibly being able to fight back, under circumstances of the attackers’ choosing (i.e. unfavourable ones)

So what would such patrols ideally accomplish? I don’t assume you could turn a corner and surprise people setting up a mortar, or dragging an abductee to a car - they would be able to arrange for sufficient warning of your approach, wouldn’t they?

  1. Many of the same reasons that police officers patrol a major city.

  2. Presence, to “show the flag” and give the local people a sense of security. Despite what some people here like to think, most Iraqis just want to get on with their daily lives and the presence of armed Americans keeping the peace is a great thing. I’m not going to argue with anyone about this, if you don’t believe me you’ll just have to spend some time in a warzone to see what I mean. You can call it “peacekeeping” if it makes you feel better.

  3. Intelligence gathering. Your presumption that locals never provide intelligence is false. Hint: It doesn’t always happen in broad daylight. It’s a subtle process. Once you’ve driven around the neighbourhood for a month or so, things that are out of place become noticable. Cops who have been patrolling a neighbourhood for a while generally know when something isn’t right.

  4. Liason with the local population and distribution of humanitarian aid.

  5. Look for a fight, draw fire. Sometimes it’s a crappy job but it has to be done. The insurgents are not going to come looking for you, so to kill them you have to go out side.
    It’s the only real way to fight an insurgency, firepower alone isn’t going to do it. Most people I know who know about this kind of thing are critical of many US methods. They favour an even more decentralized approach, with small, highly trained units living amongst the population, becoming at least somewhat proficcient in the language and customs, gathering intelligence, running small scale operations. Modern communications make this possible to an extent not seen Malaya or Vietnam.

This is, in my opinion, exactly what is wrong with the US approach. They don’t patrol enough and when they do, they are buttoned up in armored humvees and helicopters. They need to walk the streets and learn their beat. Fighting an insurgency is all about establishing who has the credibility to govern and a military can’t establish that credibility behind garrison walls.

I would say it is because they have no alternatives.

Without making “patrols” the occupying forces would be completely separated from the outside “hostile” environment. Limiting yourself to your base/fort area renders you essentially besieged. Although you may invite attacks upon your position, which we should assume to be favourable, it would lower morale. Morale will obviously sink if all you are ever doing is defensive fighting.

The alternative to fortifying yourself in static defense is to make regular patrols and attempt to maintain security, control, friendly interactions with civilians, as well as “taking the fight to the enemy.” The obvious flaw is that every thing outside the fort is innocent except attacking insurgents. However, each shot taken which does not hit an insurgent hits an innocent (eg. house structure, car, or worst of all civilian). Since you cannot “hit” insurgents with anything approaching 100% accuracy, you will begin to incur the hostility of the civilian population. Finally, since you cannot identify between a civilian and an insurgent, except when they are firing upon you, all is lost.