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Quick email from Borneo Island II:

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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