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Tracking School: Day 16

One tracking scenario occurs deep in the jungle and requires a helicopter to get there.  Another scenario goes through a mostly barren patch of land that resembles parts of Afghanistan.  The third scenario is to track the enemy after an attack through a local town.  All scenarios include tracking terrorists after they conduct realistic attacks.

Yesterday I did the “Afghanistan” patch with Royal Marines, and today I would follow Gurkhas through an urban course.  Early this morning, the three groups of students went their separate ways.

As the helicopter roared away with students heading into the jungle, I sat with the five Gurkhas and we waited to deploy by Landrover.

Sgt Som Thulung, from Western Nepal, has done three tours in Afghanistan, one tour in Iraq, another in East Timor and yet another in Sierra Leone.   I mentioned to him that Prachandra had resigned – I saw it on the news before sunrise this morning – and Sgt. Som could hardly believe his ears.  I was surprised that none of the Gurkhas in the group were aware that Prachandra had resigned; my morning usually begins with a reading routine, and stories had popped up on Nepalese and Indian news.

Sgt. Som told me that yesterday, on the jungle scenario, the Gurkhas got on track and came to a sheer cliff that was about a hundred feet down.  He said they were actually looking at the top of the jungle canopy, and the enemy tracks disappeared off the cliff into thin air into unseen jungle below.  Sgt Som mentioned that he’d done about six years of jungle work, and that when you fly in a helicopter, or look at satellite imagery, the jungle below can be deceptive.  The jungle can appear to softly undulate, when hidden from view under the canopy are in fact sheer cliffs and unpredictable terrain relief.  The trees grow at different heights, often disguising the features, much like a beard can disguise a chin.  Sgt Som told me the map they carried was wrong, and did not show the big cliff, but he said the tracks disappeared off the cliff.  They rappelled down, down, down.  Maybe a hundred feet to the jungle floor, and there they found the track.  They kept on it and eventually came to what the British call a “LUP,” or Lay Up Point.  I’ve forgotten what we call it.  “RON” or something along those lines.  It’s just a camping site, but of course the military version, so there is no campfire and no lanterns swinging in the wind.  Imagine coming back to base and emptying your rucksack only to see a cobra plop out.  You have to keep all the zips closed on your gear lest a cobra slip into your rucksack.  Scorpions and little critters really do crawl into your boots, and the hammock and mosquito net is a 5-star accommodation compared to what it could be.  Sgt. Som explained that they thought the enemy had left the LUP only 2-4 hours earlier.  (Turns out he was right because the enemy had attacked their target, evaded into the jungle, rappelled down the cliff, then gone even deeper into the jungle before “camping” overnight.

Inside the jungle, “sunrise” and “sunset” come a good hour or so after and before it does outside of the jungle.  Moving in a jungle at night, in rough terrain without light, is asking for trouble.  (Such as in the form 100’ sheer cliffs.)  The enemy didn’t get far after the attack before they set up camp for the night.  Maybe they had set up the ropes in advance, thinking the cliff would stop any trackers.  But the Gurkhas had moved out at around daybreak.  Likely the enemy was still in their hammocks, and in a real situation might have thought they had successfully evaded.

After some hours more, the Gurkhas caught up to them.  If it had been Afghanistan (not that there are jungles in Afghanistan), probably the soldiers would have had the element of surprise, and likely would have killed the Taliban, Al Qaeda, or whomever.  Once trackers find the enemy, they are not obligated to attack all by themselves, if at all.  An airstrike might do, or the commander might decide to send reinforcements and box them in, or something else.  The commander might decide to try to capture some enemy, or just kill as many as possible.  He might continue to track them to the hornet’s nest, and then make next decision.  That’s up to the commander.  I’ve seen so many British and American commanders in action in combat that I am confident that if they are given timely and accurate information, it will be a bad day for the enemy.  The job of the tracker is to deliver the commander’s intent, whatever it may be.

So the Gurkhas who succeeded yesterday in the jungle hunt, set out this morning to hunt in town.  Five students and one Gurkha instructor, all combat veterans, some with multiple tours.  We started at the site of an “RPG attack on critical infrastructure.”  The scene was completely realistic and of a sort that frequently occurs.  Most Americans who served combat tours in Iraq or Afghanistan probably have seen many similar attacks.

The trackers make frequent use of something called “track traps.”  Track traps are everywhere.  There must be untold billions of track traps spread around the globe.  A track trap is a place where – unless the enemy is a butterfly or owns a flying carpet – the enemy will leave obvious tracks (obvious to a good tracker) and there’s nothing the enemy can do about it except to not step in a trap track.  But in the real world, no matter how good the enemy is, he simply cannot approach many targets without either going into a trap track, taking serious tactical risks, or both.  Sure, the enemy can wipe the tracks with a branch, but that just makes it more obvious.  (Wiping can disguise some information, but does not erase the direction, and in fact is adds a piece of evidence that the enemy is “track-aware” and is trying to fool the tracker.  It also shows that the enemy thinks he’s got time to foil the tracker, which is another clue.)

The only way to perpetrate today’s attack led through one of the ultimate track traps; a beach where few people walk.  So we found the RPG, and the students picked up a great deal more information at the site.  The enemy had run away from the scene of the attack and made no effort to hide their tracks.  We started down the beach, but the enemy did apparently have a trick for us; the trail finally ended at a spot where high tide completely erased the tracks.  But that was only a temporary delay; the students later picked up sign leading away from the beach and into town.  There were many turns and so forth, and though the students stayed on sign, they were allowed to ask questions of local people, because this is what we really do in the war.

The instructors trust the tracks more than information from people we might encounter, even though the people here in Brunei have no reason to be dishonest.  In fact, the people in Brunei seem to like the British, and the Gurkhas, and they are eager to help.  Passersby frequently wave and smile.  Anyone you want to talk with will stop what they are doing and happily offer assistance, but they give us information that’s off.  The information is always basically accurate, but filled with inaccuracies.  A witness might say that six to seven men passed by two hours ago.  In fact, the students might estimate, based on tracks and sign, that four to five men passed by.  Later, we learn during the debriefing that we were tracking four men.  So far, from what I’ve seen, the information the locals are giving is always right, and always wrong.

In any case, the Gurkhas tracked about four miles, mostly through an urban area, and found success.    The other two groups also succeeded.  If this had been real combat, this would have ended in a firefight, or some other type of fight.
Tomorrow morning my group will fly by helicopter deep into the jungle.

Good night.

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


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Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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