Michael's Dispatches

North to Norway: Pencari Tracking


27 August 2012

photo2-1000Bomb dog that walked over Bomb in Sangin, Afghanistan (Helmand 2010)

At this rate, 2012 will be the first year since 2004 that I have not stepped into a war.  An invitation came last week to attend a combat tracking course in Norway.   I received a similar invitation several years ago to attend a British military tracking school in Brunei on the island of Borneo.  The British school was excellent.

photo5-1000In Iraq, this British unit drove through an ambush with 46 bombs. We did not see bombs. The lethal attack was sprung behind us after we made it through. American Dustoff MEDEVACs responded. (Iraq 2007)

In the combat tracking world, there is full-fledged tracking, and the more basic GSA (Ground Sign Awareness).  GSA is a fundamental skill for tracking, and GSA often is all that is needed to avoid IEDs and ambushes.

GSA that I learned from the British in 2009 has often been useful.  After returning to Afghanistan, the instruction proved its value in combat areas.  Thanks to that course, last year in Afghanistan, I spotted an IED emplacement freshly under construction.  There were no explosives in it yet.  My guess is that they started emplacing it after our helicopters landed nearby.  A couple hours before that find, we had a fatality a few hundred meters away, and the next day, another.  The village was loaded with IEDs.

The commander of the British tracking school was Major Dean Williams.  After working his way through the ranks, Major Williams retired from the British Royal Marine Commandos, and started a company called Pencari, which means “seeker” in Malay.  Pencari will be teaching the Ground Sign Awareness Instructor’s Course in Norway at the Land Warfare Center, Engineer School, Mine and Explosive Center.  The course will start in one week.

photo3-1000Just down the road from here, months before this image was made, five were killed in one incident. IED attacks were happening in this area daily. The detectors will not locate bombs just to the left or right, and if there is an ambush here, everyone must depend on their own eyes. (Helmand 2010)

For spotting IEDs in Afghanistan, basic Ground Sign Awareness can compliment or trump much of the tens of billions of dollars that we spend on gadgets, many of which seem to be of limited use.  Armor is for post-blast, and much high-tech gear only works on roads because heavy IED gear must be mounted on vehicles.  No gear can read the local population.

No gear can notice a sports shoe print.  I have never seen an Afghan farmer wear a sports shoe, but have seen plenty of Taliban (etc.) wearing them.  The few trained trackers in Afghanistan are aware that Taliban, Haqqani, and others, wear sports shoes.  Afghanistan is not the Florida turnpike where profiling makes a mess of our PC world; in combat, profiling is a basic survival skill, and if troops encounter young men wearing sports shoes in a village, they should put those men on the ground and sort it out from there.  
If they have a tracking team, they can question the sports shoe men, and then just follow back their tracks to see if they are truth-telling.  Most areas in Southern Afghanistan can easily be tracked through.

Before going into the meetings in Afghanistan, to wade through the smiles and lies of tea time, Afghans normally take off their shoes at the front door.   In small villages, their shoes mostly are old and ill fitting. Watch for sports shoes.

In the “Dead Taliban of Chora,” please notice the shoes on the dead guy.  Then scan around and look at the villagers’ shoes.  The dead guy was attacking Afghan Police and was shot.  He was from a nearby village.  Enemy activity had been high, and the shoes on these villagers were better than what is often seen.  The footwear in this village is better than in many, but relatively pitiful compared to what some full-time enemy wear (not implying they are enemy).  The red band on the rifle is for recognition.  We were there without the military and our security used red for recognition.

The Taliban often wear sports shoes that are unmistakable, or at least good sandals they can run in.  No electronic gear will notice if the six guys in front of you are all wearing excellent footwear, or the new tracks on the road that appeared overnight say NIKE.  Please have a look at the good sandals these dead guys are wearing:  They attacked some cops last year and got shot.

Many of our troops spend months around a particular village.  Most Afghan villagers have only one set of shoes.  A tracker might take inventory of which villager wears which shoes, and the tracker might surreptitiously photograph them, their footwear, and their tracks, and make a notebook.  He knows who works which fields.  If there is an attack, he can compare tracks against his notebook.  At least one British trooper did this with success.

photo1-1000Blast: Afghan Soldier is startled. An IED strike hit a US Soldier seconds earlier. RED AIR (Kandahar 2011)

Handheld gear does not work until the user is within the fatal reach of the bomb.  If the gear detects the bomb, the point man is already within the distance of a push broom.  If the device is command detonated, the enemy will just kill him, and his bomb detector will fly away in pieces.

The last two IED fatalities that I witnessed were far from roads.  In the first case, the gear had been used to sweep a narrow path, and the victim stepped off the path and got hit.  The strike occurred in early-morning darkness, so he would not have seen it anyway.  Bottom line: the gear and the bomb dogs did not save him.

Video of that loss: Fool’s Gold and Troops’ Blood.

image009-1000A dying American Soldier just suffered a triple amputation and is waiting for MEDEVAC. See RED AIR (Kandahar 2011)

The next fatality happened the next day in broad daylight.  This time it was an Afghan Soldier.  Importantly, most members of combat units do not carry counter-IED gear, and it only works part-time anyway.  Many IEDs contain little to no metal, and are not detectable by some equipment.

As for bomb dogs, they are helpful but not magic.  Sometimes they are fantastic, but bomb dogs can be like kids.  They get hot, tired, and emotional, and then just stop working.  A dog walked right past a bomb in Sangin.

Some innovators are now talking about using rats.  How far can a rat go on a hot day?  Any idea that our troops can leash rats and follow them for five miles though hot deserts while they scurry around sniffing for bombs, is insane.  Rats might be great for detecting bombs in a house or limited areas, but for most Afghanistan combat, forget it.

The only thing that works all of the time, and often at a good distance, is the human eye and human understanding of the environment.

image011-1000Despite the dog and the detectors, an Afghan Soldier stepped on an IED minutes after I took this photo. Dogs and detectors cannot be everywhere. (Kandahar, 11 September 2011).

The best way to detect bombs is for the locals to warn you about them.  The second best way is for every combat troop to be keenly aware of Ground Sign and the environment.  The third best way is dogs, and then the billions of dollars in gadgets.  If the job is to search bags at an airport, or cars at the Mexican border, a dog can be a wunderhund.  But in a hot Afghan desert, or when other dogs are going nuts in Iraq and distracting him, Joe the Dog is baggage.

In Kandahar last year, we saw what we thought might be a bomb, and it happened to be right next to me.  The dog came up, stood on it, smelled it, and indicated that it was nothing.  The dog also could not climb walls, so he had to be constantly carried over using a ladder.  To be clear, bomb dogs do great work in Afghanistan, but they only work within a narrow bandwidth.  Dogs are also vulnerable to PTSD.  When there is drama, dogs immediately look to their handler for reassurance, but that can only go so far.

As for the dog that missed the bomb in Sangin, the gear missed it, too.  The well-trained EOD man detected it.  British Soldiers said that the dog and his handler walked right over the bomb.  When I came up, the handler looked depressed.

In about early 2010, I was walking with Command Sergeant Major Robb Prosser at the Kandahar Airfield boardwalk.  There was a Soldier with fresh scars on his face and a very bad look.  CSM Prosser stopped what he was doing and walked over and asked the Soldier if he was okay, and what happened.  His dog missed a bomb.  As I recall, his dog was killed.

One wonders how many dogs and handlers have been killed by bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The following link describes 22 incidences of dogs, handlers, or both, being killed: http://www.jbmf.us/mem-wot.asp  No mention is made of the dog we heard described at the boardwalk, nor does the list include British, Canadian, Aussie, and other allies.  They all have taken dog-team hits.  These losses are not always due to a canine missing an explosive, but some are.  It is safe to guess that losses of dogs and handlers, including those of our allies in Iraq and Afghanistan, would be in the numerous dozens.

Photograph of dog diving for the shade.

photo6-1000This photograph was made shortly after an IED strike. An Afghan Soldier stepped on it just around the corner to the right. We also had a dog and all the fancy gear on this mission. Made no difference. A second bomb was hidden just around the corner. Neither bomb was found by the electronics or by the dog. The first was found by an Afghan Soldier’s foot, and the second by a U.S. EOD man. Luckily the first bomb only partially exploded and the Afghan Soldier was only lightly wounded. I photographed obvious ground sign (rock markers) as we passed by after the strike and after EOD destroyed the second bomb. With GSA training, that strike might have been avoided. (Kandahar 11 September 2011)

The only gear that everyone has all the time is their eyes and their mental software.  Some guys are naturally good at spotting IEDs, but there is little doubt that between our campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, significant ambushes and IEDs could have been noticed, and casualties avoided, and more enemy killed and captured, with simple tracking and better GSA.

image015-1000Afghan Soldier's rifle destroyed after he stepped on IED and was killed. (Kandahar 2011)

That we have been at war for 11 years, spending enough money on counter-IED measures to put a man on the moon, and have failed to institute widespread tracking training, is a great training failure.

image017-1000Despite all the gear, and the dog, an Afghan Soldier stepped on an IED in broad daylight. He walked off the cleared area. (Kandahar 2011)

It is an honor to be invited to write about Norwegian forces, who obviously are taking this skill seriously.  It is also an opportunity to improve my own GSA before I shift to covering U.S./Mexico issues.

image019-1000Shortly after lethal IED strike (Kandahar 2011)

Before saying anything about the Norwegian side, I must get to Norway to receive ground rules from the Norwegian command.  After the Norwegian military lays down their ground rules, I will begin writing about the course.

Norway and this trip will be expensive.  Reader support is requested, appreciated, and needed.

Please help fund this writing: it is not easy, and it is not cheap.

For more on tracking, and for a video of an IED strike that might have been avoided with GSA, please see “Watch Your Step.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    hercdriver · 7 years ago
    There's no such thing as useless knowledge.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    ag · 7 years ago
    All kinds of tracking...since way back and the Indian trackers our Military used to use...techniques still used today. The invaders here are easier to track than yours, Mr. Yon. At first you follow the trail of trash. As they infiltrate the country you follow the trail of dope, theivery, broken fences, stolen horses, dead cattle, rapes, beer cans and murders as well as "tennis shoes", usually white...provided on the other side of the border. The commenter is right....there is no such thing as useless knowledge unless it is some much needed wisdom to go along with it. Enjoy the training...and Mike....don't name your rooster, since you're talking about the good old days.

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