Michael's Dispatches

Quick email from Borneo Island II:


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.

The Dutch are still here and are fuming that they got pulled from the course.  In fact, the British said they were welcome to stay, but the Dutch government ordered their Marines out of the classes and to stay on base.  According to the Dutch Marines, the rub comes from the SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) between the Netherlands and Brunei.  Many people might recall the great controversy over SOFA negotiations between Iraq and the United States.  We and the British have SOFAs with countries around the world that detail myriad topics, such as how soldiers will be treated if something happens to them, or they get into trouble with the law, or what sorts of weapons can be brought into the country.  The agreements are extensive and probably make lots of lawyers rich.  As told to me by the Dutch soldiers, apparently there is no SOFA between the two countries, and so after spending probably hundreds of thousands of dollars, the Dutch are going home.  The four students in our class were just part of the group.  There is another Dutch contingent that was doing a recon for a major training exercise, and they are going home, too.  Apparently the Dutch will not be coming for the big exercise, though I am told that the USMC is coming.  British instructors tell me that the U.S. Marines actually are very forward-leaning on tracking.  That the U.S. Marines are on the trail of tracking probably has General James Mattis’s fingerprints on it.  That man is a warrior.  I met him in Fallujah, and Mattis actually told me his name as if I didn’t know.  (Who doesn’t know General Mattis?  In smaller circles, he’s as respected as Petraeus.)

So I’ve been talking with the Dutch every day after training and they are stuck on base getting madder by the day because they can’t train in the jungle with us, and there is no plan to get them out yet.  The fact that the Dutch are angry that they cannot train is a sure sign that these are excellent soldiers.  I believe all are combat veterans (I’ve talked with about eight and all of those were veterans).  They are getting ready to go back to Afghanistan.  So I asked four of the Dutch what they thought about fighting in Afghanistan, and was stunned by their answer.  All showed great enthusiasm for the mission itself, and all wanted to go back right now.  These are the first non-British Europeans who showed enthusiasm for the fight.  (Though I hear some of the French will crack Taliban heads.)  This might explain why I heard Secretary Gates compliment the Dutch in Afghanistan in December.  I wanted to ask Secretary Gates why the Dutch were one of the few he singled out, but during the times I had the chance to talk with him, other topics were up.  I asked the Dutch – four of them – about the state of morale of the Dutch in Afghanistan.

“Very high,” was the exact answer.

“Really?”  I asked the group.

“Yes, really very, very high.”

All four said they wanted to go back.  Stunner.  Makes me want to ask the Dutch government if I can go out with their people in Afghanistan.

But enough of that.  Tracking training is the soup of the day.  Today we started with some class work, then headed to the jungle to try to track on a two-day old trail.  Two days ago, we had split into three groups and done some training in that area, and today’s first task was to try to follow a two-day old trail left by one of the other groups.  Of the seventeen students, two are Brunei soldiers (also enthusiastic about the training) and the rest are all British soldiers.  Of the fifteen British soldiers, I think about nine are Nepali Gurkhas.  The instructors are letting me bounce between groups, so today I went with a group of five Gurkha students and one Gurkha instructor – all veterans of Afghanistan.  Others have served elsewhere, such as in the fighting in East Timor.  My best guess is that this class seems to have maybe 20-30 years of collective combat experience.  Anyway, we started to track on that two-day old trail and they were on it like hound dogs.  We didn’t even see a full boot print until we were maybe 200 meters inside the jungle, but the British soldiers were successfully following the sign.  After maybe an hour, we reached the end point and I was completely drenched in sweat.  If we had been tracking on real enemy, we might well have eventually caught up with them and killed them.  Actually, tracking is extremely dangerous, so it might have been us who got killed, but that’s war and we all understand the danger.

The Gurkhas finished slightly ahead of the other two groups, so we sat in the shade and I asked one young soldier – a Javelin missile “gunner” – how he likes the Javelin.  I’ve seen Javelins used to lethal affect and I know the British soldiers have harvested a lot of Taliban with those things.  He told a story from about December (he has just arrived from Afghanistan to attend this tracking course) wherein they were after some Taliban.  He was on a roof with his missile when the Taliban lit into them from four directions.  Machinegun fire, he thinks it was a PKM, raked across his position and bullets ricocheted all around.  A bullet hit his missile, and in fact the soldier was certain that the bullet would have hit him had the missile not been there.  He said the Javelin smoked a little but didn’t explode.  Frankly, I would not have expected an American made missile (the Javelin is made by Raytheon) to explode if it were shot.  Maybe it could explode, I don’t know, but American military ammunition is made to accept abuse without getting angry.  I saw an AT-4 missile blown straight in half in Mosul, by an IED, and it just sat there in pieces.  The vehicle was destroyed, though.  None of the ammunition exploded or burned.

The Gurkhas all agree that Taliban are tactically inept.  Though the Gurkhas insist that the Taliban don’t know to fight well, they all agree that the Taliban are very brave and have an extreme home field advantage.

I asked if any of the Gurkhas were Maoists and they seemed surprised at the question, and all said an emphatic “no.”  But I was going somewhere with that.  The Nepalese have just seen their own government turned on its head by the Maoist insurgency, and I wanted to know if they saw any similarities with Afghanistan.  This is important because Nepal is very similar to Afghanistan and Nepalese are in many ways similar to Afghans.  I’ve spent a good amount of time in both places.  One very sharp Gurkha said he sees similarities because the Maoists started in the villages, and through the years finally “invaded” the bigger cities, and won the war.  That’s what he sees happening in Afghanistan.  The Taliban are trying to take the countryside then the cities.

The sharper, older Gurkhas are really good to talk to about Afghanistan.  Nepal is a very primitive country, and largely inaccessible, like Afghanistan.  The terrain in both places is extreme and villages are scattered everywhere.  Roads and infrastructure are minimal.  But the Gurkhas are British soldiers, and as such they get to see the world.  They live in places like the United Kingdom and Brunei, and they work with foreign armies and so forth.  So as British soldiers, they gain a lot of worldly experience and knowledge, but they are also intimately familiar with primitive living in remote places.  I’m nearly the opposite: having come from the United States but spending years at a time in primitive places, my experience is like a photo-negative of the Gurkha soldiers’ lives.  And so I get insight by listening to their ideas.  I asked one of the older Gurkhas – very smart chap – if he thought Afghanistan had a chance.  At first he said “no.”  Then he thought for just a few seconds and said, “Yes, Afghanistan does have the chance but it takes maybe 20-25 years.”  (Basically what General Barry McCaffrey is now saying, and in fact McCaffrey told me 25 years.)  I said to the Gurkha, who didn’t want his name printed, that I think it will take a hundred years to get Afghanistan on its feet. It must be strange for Afghans to see Nepalese wearing British uniforms.

During breaks from tracking training – I was sweating like crazy in the jungle heat – I asked many questions about Afghanistan and Nepal, and he talked about a simple way to make many of the Afghans lives easier.  Most Afghans don’t even have electricity.  When he was about fifteen years-old, his dad installed a “Gobar Gas” (methane) generator next to the house in Nepal.  The generator is simple: the owner just collects human and animal waste, and through a fantastically simple process, the contraption creates methane, which is then used for lighting, cooking, heating in the winter.  It also creates excellent fertilizer, all while improving sanitation.  What’s the catch?  None that I’ve heard of.  He said that his dad made the first Gobar Gas system in his village, and today it would costs maybe $300 total investment.  Between their own toilet and four cows, they create enough methane to cook, heat and light the house.  More than two decades after his dad made it, the thing is still working and doesn’t cost a single rupee to operate.  When the other villagers saw it work, hundreds of Gobar Gas systems popped up around the village.  I’ve seen these systems in use in Nepal, and photographed one about five years ago.  It worked like a charm.  But this Nepalese man, a British soldier, never saw a Gobar Gas system in Afghanistan, but he is certain that the idea would take hold in the villages.  My guess is that the only real disadvantage is that the idea is incredibly effective, simple and cheap, and so we probably wouldn’t want to get involved.

Anyway, another great day was had in the tracking school, and I think this British soldier from Nepal helped me figure out why the U.S. Army near-about ignores tracking; it’s incredibly effective, simple and cheap, and so we probably wouldn’t want to get involved.


Please click here for Part V of this series on the tracking course in Borneo.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Doug Wright · 12 years ago
    First: your emails on the tracking class are great, informative too. Hope your web server person is collecting them so they might be available in one place.

    What's the odds on the USA or USMC having tracking classes or using the Brit's?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dinah Lord · 12 years ago
    Incredibly interesting and just chock-full of detail stories. Keep 'em coming, Michael!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Frank Burt · 12 years ago
    I always pay particular attention to your reports, Michael. They are an oasis of clarity and reason in a vast desert of disinformation and ignorance.

    The utilization of training resources such as the tracking school will definitely enhance our ability to fight what continues to be and will remain a long, drawn out struggle against the looming threat of terror. Much of what we learn there will be needed a lot closer to home in a not very distant future. But our current mission is to fight tyranny and evil there and to give those who live in the immediate shadow of that threat a chance to live a better life. Apparently those brave Dutch soldiers have bought into that philosophy. It is a shame their government is so caught up in political squabbling as to deprive them of the tools and skills they need to accomplish their mission. I hope our own government is wise enough to recognize that for the mistake it is.

    Thank you for your dedication to bringing us the truth about what is happening and for telling the story of these brave men and women who put it on the line for us and the rest of the world. Stay safe, Michael.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Sue · 12 years ago
    There is a similar ingenous "tool" in Asia...there was special about it but I forget where....simply it is a small solar collector that runs a household....villages have gotten together with one for each home and banded them together for the entire needs of the village. We forget that humans are the highest order of intelligence and creativity on the planet because of Western gadgets. The world as whole needs more encouragement for this than dollars that find their way into the "rulers' pockets.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ron · 12 years ago
    Thank you Michael. I am an ex Marine, and enjoy all your reports.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Randall Hannaway · 12 years ago
    I'm a Mountain Rescue and SAR guy and I really appreciate the tracking info. I've attened and taught many tracking classes but for the purposes of finding a lost person only, not for locating the bad guys. I'm sure there are similarities and look forward to learning more.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Chuck · 12 years ago

    I have enjoyed your post, and commetary for many years now.

    The Army had a tracking school in the late 1960's. Visual Tracker was the program out of Fort Gordon Georgia. We had five man teams also with a dog. I believe it was disbanded in 1970. Most of the teams went to Viet Nam I believe but some to Germany.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Pid · 12 years ago
    Another excellent report.
    Hat tip to the Ghurkas, lots of us Brits are proud of their work.

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mark P · 12 years ago
    Biggest drawback for Afg is that Muslims are forbidden to handle human waste. Would have to run entirely from livestock manure.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    COL Ron Forest, USA- · 12 years ago
    Michael, excellent report. Keep us posted on what we can expect inthe hard fight ahead. RonF ( old 1st Cav Trooper)
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Simon · 12 years ago
    Excellent read as always Michael, thank you.

    The Australian Army places emphasis on tracking courses too - I suppose it's because of their shared experiences with the British during the south-east Asian insurgencies in the 50s and 60s. The Dutch are working with the Australians in Uruzgan - perhaps if the Dutch don't get on this tracking course, you could mention to them that it might be worthwhile having a word to the Aussies when they get back to Afghanistan. There will certainly be qualified trackers amongst the Aussies and perhaps even qualified tracking instructors.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Holly Lovejoy · 12 years ago
    Great writing. Thank you for informing us with more of your insights into soldiering.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Lady Liberty · 12 years ago
    Well, looks like you were wise to head East instead of South of the one-time border. You might've been tracked by the swine.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dave · 12 years ago
    Maybe you could mention it next time you run into Sec. Gates, Gen. Petraeus, or Gen. Mattis.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Kudzu · 12 years ago
    There is a tracking course run by the US Army at Ft. Huachuca. Its called the US Army Combat Tracking Course which involves multiple federal, state, and local agencies. Its a two week course and runs year round, day/night, rain/shine in southeastern Arizona. This course has been around for the last years and was set upThe US Army course site is: http://www.universityofmilitaryintelligence.us/functional_courses/ctc/default.asp. The course was originally set up by Tactical Tracking Operations School (http://www.ttos.us/index.php)

    So the last sentence in Mr. Yon's dispatch is very disengenious.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    John M McCarthy · 12 years ago
    To you and to those who read these postings: Please advise on how to assemble & maintain gobar gas units. This past weekend, I spoke at the World Activist Expo at Northeastern Illinois University hosted by Chicago Public Radio.
    I help support missions in in Port au Prince, Haiti, and in various parts of Kenya. In Haiti especially, the main source of cooking fuel is charcoal. The entire country is at a critical shortage of wood, as the geniuses who run that country have clear cut the forests bare. The deluge of hurricanes last fall have left them with no way to dispose of waste and no way to cook their food.
    It sounds as if gobar gas units could help to kill both birds.
    Keep up the good work, Michael, and many thanks to anyone who responds and can assist.
    My email is Johnnnymac66@aol.com
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Leonard Henry · 12 years ago
    My Gosh! The military just discovered that tracking skills might be a good thing to know! They were almost a generation behind the curve (Herbert McBride) with the knowledge that snipers might just be a good thing, too.

    The military probably doesn't know that one of the top tracking schools in the world is not that far from our military academies down in New Jersey and that it really isn't necessary to go half way around the world to learn this skill from experts. And they go to the jungle to learn tracking they'll use in Afganistan which I'm told doesn't have many jungles. Soil testure is important to the understanding of pressure releases and aging tracks.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    David Mullins · 12 years ago
    I am seeking the best practices in tracking courses and classes.
    There is not a day that passes where it can saves lives, lost ofr abducted children, military application, ambushes, Kidnappen victiums and of course military operations and the ameican favorite Hunting.
    Thank you
  • This commment is unpublished.
    G. Twickler · 12 years ago
    Anyone interested in matters such as combat tracking and common-sense small-unit tactics should read H. John Poole's books such as "Terrorist Trail" and "The Tiger's Way". According to MG Ray L. Smith, USMC (Ret.), in his books Poole basically tries "... to interest the U.S. military in more light-infantry skills at the squad level. These are the skills with which a U.S. brigade could rely more heavily on surprise than firepower, and thus have less collateral damage. They can be loosely categorized as "sneaking", "hiding" and "escaping".

    As to the Dutch marines being pulled out of tracking school, well, it??s just typical of my country??s politically extremely correct government. As far as I know, Dutch Marines have trained in Brunei before. Therefore I don??t understand what all the fuss is about. I suppose they preferred to keep it low profile. Fortunately, similar training opportunities are offered at Jungle Warfare Courses in Belize and Suriname, although I don??t know whether these are of the same quality.

    "These are the first non-British Europeans who showed enthusiasm for the fight." I??m sorry to disagree. I believe it??s the European politicians (casualty averse) and a large part of the population, who were told by the same politicians that soldiers would be sent to facilitate reconstruction projects , not to fight a rising insurgency, that lack the stomach for the fight. And although the feelings of regular soldiers might be ambivalent, I??m not surprised that morale in units such as the Dutch Marines is high. And I??ll bet Special Forces from countries such as Norway, Denmark, Germany, etc., some of which have operated in Afghanistan since 2001, showed "equal enthusiasm for the fight". Unless the US award PUCs for hugging the flagpole.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Robert Barren · 12 years ago
    Good article
    It is strange that we are teaching tracking again. We do it every War! The skill tends to remain in thought, it is a basic infantry skill. But you don't need a thermal site for tracking. You can't track well from a tank, Bradley, Stryker (sp)or APC. The Border Patrol for years was a bastion of tracking skills. They let it go and have brought it back. It is like community policing. You have to get down on the ground with the locals. That is part of Petraeus' plan. (Odd the Civic action teams that took over and ran Germany after that War did very well, and we have re-discovered that). We don't seem to have a centralized and saved place for shared cultural experience that gives historical perspective for combat. Action is based on percieved threat assesment based upon systems we want (missles will replace the need for armies--and we learned infantry skills again in Viet Niem). I assume that is what Gates is about canceling the F-22, etc., re-valuing basic infantry skills. The Boy Scouts used to teach tracking. Tracking is no longer part of their urban plan. So we go back to the beginning, those woodsmen in the Colonial Army knew what they were doing. We have to think about it.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Brian Phelps · 12 years ago
    Mother Earth News has a good article on building a Gobar Gas digester -- quoted at this link: http://www.mothercow.org/oxen/gobar-gas-methane.html

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