Michael's Dispatches Michael's Dispatches

Gates, Petraeus, McKiernan, McChrystal and Rodriguez

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13 May 2009
Borneo

Again, this is a quick email.  The Gurkhas here in Brunei just conducted a live fire training exercise.  They walked half the night carrying between 80-100lbs, mostly ammo, and made an assault at first light.

Every British officer I talk with asks what in the world happened with General McKiernan, and why was his relief performed so publicly.  I do not know.  And I do not personally know General McKiernan.  I do know that these ears have never heard someone speak a foul word about him, and I talk with lots of interesting people.  If he, McKiernan, was a bad general I would have heard about it.

Read more: Gates, Petraeus, McKiernan, McChrystal and Rodriguez

New Boss for Afghan Fight

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11 May 2009

The inbox is full this morning.  General McKiernan, our top leader in Afghanistan, is to be replaced.  National Review Online and others have asked me for comment.  Am in between training here in Borneo so there is no time for much, but I did send this to NRO:

"In December 2008, I saw General McKiernan briefing Secretary Gates in Afghanistan.  That's as close as I've come to General McKiernan.  Though I do not personally know General McKiernan, I have heard only positive reports about him.  His replacement, Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, has an outstanding reputation in the special operations community.  McChrystal has a solid reputation for knowing the fight.  Unfortunately, though our special operators are the best in the world at the fight, they only stumble and fumble with the press.  With media, our special operations forces are clueless and self-defeating.  This is crucial.  McChrystal can win every fight on the ground and still lose the war.  Time will reveal whether McChrystal can adapt and win."


Gurkha II

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Today’s mission included moving to capture some bomb makers.  What the Gurkhas did not know was that the action they thought they were moving to was not the actual training.  The real training was to be an attack on them that would occur along the way.  Major Will Kefford, the commander of C coy, continues to throw unexpected curveballs at the men.  Nothing is sacred.  Everything is a trick.

Before we set off, Major Kefford said to me something like, “See that man on the ground over there?  That’s Agnish.  He got the Military Cross in Afghanistan on the last tour.  Very good man.” I asked about other awards and Major Kefford said that men from the 1st Royal Gurkha Rifles received five Military Crosses on that deployment and they were awarded by the Queen.

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Gurkha

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Some years ago, American soldiers would complain that their training for deployment to Iraq was terrible.  They would tell me that the training often was irrelevant, or simply wrong.  Major Mary Prophit told me back in 2005 that according to her training, Iraqis were likely to yell at her or ignore her because she’s a woman.  Yet it was a fact that Major Prophit got along just fine.  I saw with my own eyes.  The Iraqi soldiers liked working with her, and would take direction from her.  But those were the early days.  Now, American soldiers tell me that their training for Iraq and Afghanistan is relevant, accurate, and excellent.

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Pitcher Plant

Write a comment The British tracking school had us traipsing through miles of jungle, swamps and areas that looked similar to parts of Afghanistan.  Along the way were many special plants and creatures.  In Florida, it was always special to see pitcher plants.  But here in Borneo, we passed by countless thousands.  In Florida, the pitcher plants I have seen all grow from the ground, while here in Borneo the pitcher plants I have seen grow from vines.  This one is on the ground, but appeared to have fallen off a vine from overhead.

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Sad News from Borneo

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08 May 2009

Gurkhas in the British Army are training to return to Afghanistan.  I’ve been invited to train alongside them.  There is a sense of realism in the unit, probably because, as the British commander told me, about a third of the soldiers are combat veterans.  During these war games, the enemy (also British soldiers) is given free reign.  They can attack anyway they wish – without breaking the law, of course.  They are not permitted to, say, steal a helicopter to attack.  Just about everything else is game.  If the British enemy wages a successful attack against the British defenders, they get a day off from training and lots of bragging rights.  The commander told me that one time, they put the soldiers into the jungle and gave them three days to “kill” as many enemy as possible.  The winner would get time off.  Apparently it was three days of cat-like “combat,” with soldiers tracking and counter-tracking, ambushes and so on and so forth.  One group ran out of ammo so they tried a deception by slinging their weapons over their shoulders.  They got non-tactical and crashed through the jungle toward the helicopter landing site.  Another group had sneaked up to the site and were defending it.  The plan was to act like the exercise was over, and get close to the defending soldiers, then beat them up or whatever, and take their weapons.  The Brits play rough.  But the group with ammo (blanks) didn’t fall for it, and shot them.

Read more: Sad News from Borneo

Making Tracks

8 Comments The tracking school ended on Day 17.  The full course is scheduled for 21 days, but the final four days are admin.  A new class has arrived and begins on Monday.  I’ll go through the first couple of days with the new class, and will get a couple more days training with the dogs.  Another group of British soldiers is training for deployment to Afghanistan.  I’ll start training with them this afternoon.

Read more: Making Tracks

“Tuning In”

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The helicopter lifted off at about 0737hrs, Borneo time.  Our “mission” would begin deep in the jungle where, yesterday, a helicopter pilot had spotted several men crossing a clearing on a ridge that marks the border between the countries of Malaysia and Brunei.  When the men spotted the helicopter they disappeared into the jungle.  Some miles away, an ambush had occurred leaving one dead and several wounded, and so the commander decided to check out the pilot’s hunch that these men might have been involved.  A tracking team was dispatched.

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Bird's Nest

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This nest was about four feet off the ground, deep in a jungle on the Brunei-Malaysia border.  It appeared to be made from spiderweb and straw.  I came across it yesterday and have no idea what species of bird made it.  I photographed the nest and left immediately.

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Tracking School: Day 16

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05 May 2009

In order to “burst” back the salient points of this combat tracking course, I must return each day, worn out from training, and stream back the information without editing.  I’ve taken many photos but there is no time to upload images while still cleaning gear each day, and hoping to get a few winks before returning to the course.  My hope is that the reader will forgive any sloppiness in exchange for more raw information.

The final three days of testing involve three separate tracks, and since we are divided into three groups, the groups simply alternate scenarios.  I am actually alternating groups and scenarios, so that I go with all three groups, and do all three test scenarios.

Read more: Tracking School: Day 16

Days 14 & 15

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A Quick Email

Day 14
04 May 2009

Brunei, Borneo Island

Testing for the combat tracking course began today.  Just around sunrise, the students were given a mission.  Their combat gear was ready, and helicopter transport was only about one minute’s walk away.

Before I boarded the helicopter, Major Dean Williams handed me a printout of a story describing how we just lost more U.S. soldiers in Mosul.  It was bad news to start the day, and there were other reports about our losses in Afghanistan.  Reports from the wars are nearly always so vague as to border on meaningless, other than a few sad statements.

Read more: Days 14 & 15

Mysterious Places

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02 May 2009

A quick email Borneo Island:

Jungles are mysterious places.  There was a small, round stone on the ground.  The coarse grey orb was larger than a marble but smaller than a golf ball.  Two strips of tape were fastened around it.  One strip was fastened around the stone’s “equator,” and the other was fastened “pole to pole.”  A small tail of monofilament line was taped to the stone.  Five yards away was a skinny tree, maybe thirty or forty feet tall.  A strong cord was looped over the top branch, and the two ends of the cord were tied to some wood down by my feet.  Up in the branch where the cord looped over hung a small sack which looked like a tea bag.  “What in the world is that?”  I asked.

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May Day

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01 May 2009

Borneo Island

Day thirteen of tracking was a live fire exercise with assault rifles.  All seventeen students have repeatedly demonstrated that they can track other men through miles of varying sorts of terrain, including heavy jungle, and a nearby town.  During the last several days, no group of students have lost the quarry.  Sometimes the students track sign for hundreds of meters, or even a couple of miles, before seeing an obvious footprint.  In a mere dozen days, tracking skills have increased dramatically.

And so today, a new branch of tracking knowledge was being grafted onto the trunk of combat skills the soldiers already possess.  Most of the students have been in firefights and other dramas – all are highly trained – which is helping the grafting process to go easily.

Read more: May Day

Saving Lives and Winning Battles

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Excellent American soldiers visit the folks who keep the Strykers coming.  And look at that!  Captain Brad Krauss and Devon Hoch on the ends.  I knew them from the fighting in Iraq and can verify that they saw a lot of combat, and their lives were saved by their Stryker on numerous occasions, such as the time that Brad Krauss got blown out of the vehicle.  That’s why I called him “Superman.”

And a thank you from this writer to the civilians who keep those Strykers coming.  Strykers are incredible vehicles, and the civilian maintenance crews that I’ve seen in Qatar and Iraq have been outstanding and highly dedicated.

Read more: Saving Lives and Winning Battles

The Swamp of Death

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30 April 2009

Borneo Island

Day twelve on the tracking course was a smoker.  My fingers are tired from the jungle and so this email will be short.

It all started with classes this morning, then we headed into the jungle for a bit of tracking fun.  The school is enjoyable because the instructors are enthusiastic and equally competent. All the students see it's value as it applies to their previous combat experience.  I believe that only two of the fifteen British students are not combat veterans.

Read more: The Swamp of Death

A Beautiful Track

24 Comments

29 April 2009

A quick email from Borneo:

The fact that the United States Army has not created a large tracker-training program is a stunning failure in our combat preparations.  There is no doubt in my mind that some of the Americans who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan would be here today if all of our soldiers conducted even ten days of serious tracking training.  Furthermore, there is no doubt in my mind that more enemy would have been hunted down.

Day eleven of training was more interesting than day ten.  The morning started with classes on urban tracking.  Some of the students, including me, were skeptical that we could track someone who was walking down roads, sidewalks, parking lots and so on.  Urban tracking sounds like dog-work, and there are four tracking dogs here.  Megan is a ten year-old black lab who has gone out with us on numerous occasions, including early this evening for night tracking.  The classes with Megan are designed to familiarize us with dog capabilities and limitations.  She tracks like a rocket.  Her handler, Sgt Matt Ball, was bragging about her one day, saying she got a medal for catching a murderer.  Even Megan is a veteran.  But we are learning to visually track and so it wouldn’t do anyone any good to put Megan on point for us.

Read more: A Beautiful Track

Veterans vs. Veterans

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28 April 2009

A quick email from Borneo Island:

Day nine of the tracking course was the most interesting so far.  We started with classroom work then headed to the field.  We spent all day in an area that closely resembles many parts of Afghanistan.  It was plenty hot, too.

Unfortunately, I cannot write much detail about today’s course due to the sensitivity of the subject.  The little bit that can be said is that we were training to address the IED threat.

In broad strokes, today’s training involved a team who put out a “mechanical ambush” very similar to those we see in the war.  I went out with a team of four British soldiers who set up the ambush.  All are Afghanistan veterans.  The only difference between today’s ambush and what I have seen in the war is that the British are far more proficient than the enemy, and so the ambush was much better constructed than most of the real ones I have been through.  For instance, the British soldiers used better deceptions than the enemy normally uses, and so in that regard today’s course was actually, I believe, more difficult than what the soldiers will face when they return to the battlefield.  Otherwise, everything was dead on.

The ambush was set and a tracking team moved in to try to detect it.  And so, I saw the ambush being put in, and then tagged along with the soldiers who were trying to detect it without getting flattened in the process.

Read more: Veterans vs. Veterans

Scientists Must Get to the Front

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27 April 2009

Now is a moment when we need the scientists on the frontlines:

  • WHO has declared Public Health Event of International Concern; EU has encouraged Europeans to avoid travel to Mexico or US.
  • Canada has confirmed 6 (not 20) cases, is evaluating other patients.
  • No new US cases; 1 has been admitted due to other medical conditions.
  • Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong have announced they will be screening passengers arriving from US and Mexico.
  • 3/4 cases in France now cleared; 1 confirmed case in Spain and others being eval'd; 2 suspected cases in Scotland; 1 in Israel; numbers in New Zealand unclear; Mexican case numbers continue to vary depending on source.
  • Google has app plotting reported cases.

Quick email from Borneo Island II:

21 Comments

27 April 2009

We just finished day eight of tracking school.  Part of the day was spent in the hot jungle, but there is also scattered terrain here that resembles Afghanistan.  Needless to say, the British Army probably has found every speck that resembles Afghanistan because it’s good for training.  So we spend a good amount of time on sand and rock.

The students’ ability to track has improved dramatically in just eight days.  Of the seventeen remaining students (four Dutch were jerked out by their government), none are struggling.  This supports claims by the instructors that just about anyone with good eyesight can learn to track.

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Quick email from Borneo Island:

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26 April 2009

We just finished day seven of a twenty-one day tracking course.  The instruction started with a little classroom work on surveillance and deception tracking. All of the instructors and nearly all of the seventeen students are combat veterans.  This is helping the instruction go very well.  The students who are combat veterans are especially keen on becoming trackers; for them it’s a no-brainer that every infantry soldier should have a level of tracking proficiency.  An instructor pointed out this morning that all those UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) are nice, but how often do you really get those?  Not to mention that even the best UAVs can’t see most tracks/sign.  Since nearly everyone here has fought in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, everybody knows that the reality of UAVs is that, although they are incredible assets, UAVs have severe limitations.  And usually they are not around.  High-tech is not a replacement for basic soldiering skills, especially when the high-tech isn’t around much of the time.

Read more: Quick email from Borneo Island:

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