11 May 2009
[These emails continue to be completely unedited, and written on the fly. There simply is not enough time to conduct the military training and also write detailed, edited reports.]
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.
But what about the British? I’m here in Brunei training with the 1st Royal Gurkha Rifles (1RGR) and have spent three days with them so far. Saturday’s mission was to locate an Afghan district leader and try to start a dialogue, but there is an active enemy out there trying to “kill” us.
The mission was issued by Major Will Kefford, who’s done three tours in Afghanistan and is now the company commander of C coy 1RGR. (“Coy” is Brit for “company.”) Major Kefford has instructed the “enemy” to make it as difficult as possible. No breadcrumbs, no breaks whatsoever. The enemy has a free hand to be as cunning and conniving as they can muster. I expect there are some nasty surprises waiting for us. Major Kefford has earned such a reputation for keeping the men on their toes, that his own men search his vehicle before it’s allowed onto base.
A great thing in our favor these days is that probably all of the leadership in combat units – in both the British and American militaries – have considerable combat experience. Our senior NCOs and officers in combat units typically come complete with years of combat experience, which makes for realistic, no nonsense training.
The 1RGR consists almost entirely of Gurkhas – who are all full members of the British Army – but the main leadership comes from British officers. I was told by an officer that last year 17,000 Nepalese men applied to the Gurkhas but only 200 were selected. I’ve been to many of the villages in Nepal where these brave soldiers come from. These are very rugged and friendly men, but potentially incredibly fierce.
And so to issue Saturday’s mission, Major Kefford called in 1LT Chris Hotchkiss, the platoon leader for 9 Platoon. Hotchkiss served an Afghan tour in the elite 3 Para. Major Kefford issued the order, and gave 1LT Hotchkiss a free hand to plan his own mission and execute it. Nobody would be looking over his shoulder and he would be allowed to sink or swim by himself.
During the first part of the mission, 9 Platoon found three IEDs and were killed by none.
During the second part, when I came along, 1LT Hotchkiss assigned Rifleman Mohan Gurung to watch out for me. Mohan said right off, “If there is any problems, stay with me and I will keep you safe.” I’ve seen the Gurkhas on the tracking course. They don’t seem to treat training as “war games.” They seem to treat it as actual war without bullets. Likewise, Mohan seemed deadly serious about protecting me because that was his assignment. This is what American and British units do, by the way. On bases you have free reign, but in combat the commander attaches the writer to a specific soldier, with instructions to the soldier not to let you wander off or get killed. Typically for the first few missions I’ll stick to the soldier like Velcro so that he sees I am tactically aware, and then you start getting free reign, within reason, outside the wire.
We soon found ourselves wading through murky water, then moving through the heat of dry land to locate the “Afghan” district leader. My tracking course actually came in handy when I spotted a sign that led to an RPG firing area that had been part of a recent exercise. I would have missed that sign if not for the tracking course. The instructors have done their jobs.
We moved through the heat until a Gurkha soldier spotted another “IED,” though it turned out this IED was not part of our exercise. Major Kefford didn’t know it was out there, and it must have been part of someone else’s exercise. But more interesting was how the Gurkhas treated it. Their voices gained the tenor that I hear in real combat. It was as if we were actually in Afghanistan. I pulled security – with no weapon of course – like usual, because in real combat, I always help pull security. I treated this like combat, too, and found my eyes straining to detect the slightest signs of ambush. Unfortunately the enemy was other British soldiers, and so it was unlikely we would detect an ambush until we were being mowed down, but our advantage was that Hotchkiss had selected an unlikely route. Some Gurkhas who have fought in Afghanistan told me that usually they didn’t detect the ambushes until the Taliban were actually shooting at them, but luckily the Taliban usually are terrible shots. I’ve asked many Gurkhas what they think about the Taliban. To a man, they have shown respect for the courage of the Taliban. But also to a man, they say that the Taliban are poor at infantry tactics such as fire and maneuver. Although some of the Taliban ambushes have been good, they are not as good as the kind that Americans or Brits can make.
The Taliban know very well that we listen to their radio chatter. And that chatter is some of the most hilarious chatter I’ve ever heard. Sometimes when I listen, through an interpreter, nobody can stop laughing. I’ll have to take a scanner over there and record some Taliban chatter and get it translated for you. You might think they are the biggest goof balls on the planet. A soldier told me that he heard the Taliban chattering, “Don’t shoot at the airplanes! They shoot back!” On a recent tour, the Taliban spotted Gurkha soldiers, who look like Hazaras and so the Gurkhas can easily pass for Afghans. The Taliban asked over the radio, “Who are these guys?” “I don’t know,” came the answer, “but they’re better than the ANA!” Sometimes the Taliban sing to each other at night, and using their radios they take turns requesting for certain Taliban to sing their favorite songs. Last year during one unfolding attack (the Taliban were getting into position), one Taliban kept saying over the radio “Allah u Akbar!” The Taliban commander kept telling him to shut up. But every few minutes the guy would say it again, “Allah u Akbar!” Finally the commander said, “Shut up! I’m going to stuff your mouth full of shit when we get back!” The drug-dealing Taliban curse like sailors.
Back to the exercise. Time melted into the day, and finally we came to the area where the “Afghan” district leader apparently lived. We didn’t know where he lived, and so had to ask. Some “Afghans” (actually Gurkhas roll-playing) came out, and one was livid that we passed through his compound. The “Afghans” were playing it up like this was Bollywood. They had even set up a small store like those in Afghanistan and had unfurled prayer mats as if they were Muslims. The Gurkhas have an extreme advantage in Afghanistan - the language. Many Gurkhas can speak Hindi, and so do many Afghans. I’ve been to many dozens of villages from which the Gurkhas are recruited and although their culture is very different from Afghans, the economic and development status are similar. Afghans and Gurkhas can communicate on social levels that transcend language. But the Gurkhas travel all over the world. They live in the United Kingdom and Brunei (the Sultan is so happy to have the Gurkhas stationed here that he pays the expenses), and they train in Africa, Central America, New Zealand, Germany. Name it. As British soldiers, Gurkhas see the world. It’s very interesting to hear their views about Afghans.
And so the “Afghan” roll players today, who had been to Afghanistan, were playing it up and doing a great job. The man who was livid was talking with 1LT Hotchkiss, who was using Rifleman Mohan as his interpreter. All was done in Hindi, not Nepalese, just as they would in Afghanistan. One interesting moment occurred when the Gurkha, who was dressed for the occasion, saw my camera. I thought if he were really into the role, he might become angry at the man with camera, and he did! Hotchkiss played it perfectly, saying I was a member of the media and that the Afghan man was welcome to talk with the media and say anything he liked. Amazingly, the “Afghan” immediately started to calm down. I’ve seen actual situations like this in real life. We finally met the district leader who also was unhappy and said he didn’t want any media around, but lightened up at the end. Using Rifleman Mohan as an interpreter, the "Afghan" asked Hotchkiss why the British were even here; they haven’t kept their previous promises, he said. Tea was served just like in Afghanistan, along with biscuits. Hotchkiss asked where the chief of police was located, and the man said that the chief had been stealing money so the villagers ran him away. Hotchkiss asked when this had occurred. “Seven years ago.” The district leader said the Taliban has been coming in at night and had tortured villagers. The fact is, in Iraq and Afghanistan, he who tortures gets his people killed, and the roll-player clearly understood what a lot of people do not.
Unfortunately, this raw email must end abruptly. Duty calls. There is another training mission to tag onto.