Woman to Woman in Afghanistan
Yet Pottinger, Jilani and Russo, who wrote the report on FETs, are aware of the damage done by mistakes. Russo maintains that "simple engagement without proper task, purpose and operational integration is not sufficient and can actually be harmful." They cite the "negative consequences" of past blunders; one team so shamed Afghan women by searching them at the entry to a health center in full view of men that when the FET returned for another visit, women patients shied away from the center and doctors asked the FET to leave. Another team, having learned that village women walked more than an hour each day to get water, had a well built in the village. The village women had the well destroyed; that daily walk for water was their only chance to escape the house and be together. Pottinger, Jilani and Russo conclude that "having poorly trained or badly employed FETs" is not better than having none.
They also argue that FETs should not make single visits, noting that teams that pass through villages "just once" tend to "generate more friction than rapport"; but Russo's research revealed that FETs paid return visits "less than 50 percent of the time." In many cases, the FET women were tied up in their primary jobs and no commander saw fit to free them. Worse, as Russo notes, "oftentimes, the FETs are asking about problems that they have no capability to address"; they don't return because, unlike the commanders with near limitless discretionary development funds, the FETs have no resources at all. Russo calls this situation "counterproductive," noting that the failure to address women's problems "may reduce support for the Coalition."
Indeed, the village women the new FET visited were furious that a previous FET had promised them seeds for their gardens but never returned to deliver. They spent most of the meeting castigating us with a rage rarely seen in Afghan women. Yet similar stories were legion. In some instances, an infantry squad had brought a FET along on a mission because the troops had noticed that Afghan men would rather talk to American women than to them. The purpose of the FET got lost altogether when male planners could use American women to mediate between American and Afghan male egos—a tactic as old as Eden.
Pottinger, Jilani and Russo don't blame the women for these failures. They blame the good old boys of the US military. You can hear their exasperation in the words they choose to describe "four factors" that stand in the way of "successful female engagement." First, "die-hard presumptions by battlefield commanders" that talking to women will "pay no dividends." "Hackneyed hypotheses" that Pashtun men will object (they don't). "Failure to involve FETs" in planning, "leading to poorly conceived missions." And finally, "unwillingness to establish full-time FETs" with "resources and time to train as professionals should." They sum up the military attitude in the title of their report: "Half-Hearted: Trying to Win Afghanistan Without Afghan Women."
Typically, commanders sell short both Afghan and American women. They may use FETs when they feel the need—to search women, for example, as women soldiers were recruited to do in Iraq in the so-called Lioness program. But they see no value in women talking to women; they don't care about the female half of the Afghan populace, COIN tactics notwithstanding, and they want the women under their command to stick to their assigned jobs. As a result, when a FET does jar loose some valuable intelligence, it's likely to be lost.
Take the case of a woman I'll call Manizha, from the "hot" province of Nangarhar. After an Army FET held several women's meetings in the area last year, offering to help women, 25-year-old Manizha walked to the Army base with three young children in tow. She told her story to Ken Silvia, a retired NYPD detective working as a civilian law enforcement consultant to the Army. Her husband had died, and his brother had taken her as his second wife. The man abused her; she wanted the Army to help her escape with her children, and in return she promised valuable information. Her abusive husband was a Talib, then in possession of two suicide vests; Taliban often stayed in his compound and she had to prepare their meals. Manizha described Taliban movements in the area during the past two years—all verified by the Afghan Army intelligence officer attached to the base—and she had more information to offer about current and future plans. But according to Silvia, base commander Lt. Col. Randy George dismissed the idea of assisting her in exchange for her intelligence, saying, "We can't help everyone." (Reached by phone, George, who has since been promoted to Colonel, said he had no recollection of the incident.) Silvia, an outspoken critic of the "shocking" incompetence of Army intelligence gatherers, said the commander "couldn't see an Afghan woman as a person with valuable information to trade."
Silvia, on the other hand, says he sees Afghan women as "a grossly unexploited source of information" and FETs as "a great asset." But not anymore in Nangarhar, where word of what happened to Manizha, who trusted the American women, must have gotten around. Refusing to keep her safely at the base, the Army sent her under armed guard to a women's shelter in Jalalabad, or so Silvia was told. But there is no women's shelter in Jalalabad. Somehow she wound up in the hands of the police, who kept her in jail for several months, threatening to charge her with zina (adultery) or turn her over to her husband, and reportedly eliciting a lot of valuable information before an international anti-trafficking organization intervened and took her away. Two of her five children were left behind. After that, it's hard to imagine any woman in Nangarhar turning up to meet American women again or offering information to the Army.
In fact, Pottinger, Jilani and Russo note that in 2009 "so few U.S. servicewomen had meaningful contact with Afghan women that, statistically speaking, they literally had a higher chance of getting pregnant than of meeting an Afghan woman outside the wire." They ask, "Who is shielding their women from Afghan society more: Pashtun men or U.S. commanders?" And why? Is the separation of Afghan and American women deliberate, as the question implies, or merely a consequence of what Silvia calls the military's habitual "lackluster response" to women?
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For all their tensions and shortcomings, woman-to-woman FET meetings can change minds, American as well as Afghan. After our village meeting, the young FET women were shocked. One said, "I thought we'd meet women more our age, not these really old ones." I had to tell her that most of the Afghan women she had met were about her age, or only a few years older. I saw her distress. Then she said, "I'm going back. I can get my mom to send me some seeds, and I'll take them back myself." Another said, "Oh, my God, we have so much at home. If Americans could come here and see how people live, they'd feel as I do. I just feel—it's hard to complain about anything."
The American and Afghan women had things in common, but these seemed harder for the Americans to see. Just as Afghan women routinely endure physical abuse, several women on other FETs told me that physical abuse at home had driven them into the military, unaware as they were of the huge incidence of abuse and rape within the armed forces. As a Marine lieutenant, Claire Russo was raped by a fellow officer and so brutally sodomized that the physical damage is beyond repair. The Marine Corps, knowing this was not the man's first offense, declined to take action against him. Russo took the case to a criminal prosecutor, and her assailant, Capt. Douglas Dowson, was sentenced to three years in a California prison. After that, in July 2006 at a special ceremony at Camp Pendleton, Russo received an award from the San Diego County district attorney as a "citizen of courage" plus accolades from public officials all the way up to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who hailed her "resilience and resolve in the face of crime." Her three-star commander said that in pursuing her case despite potential backlash, she "exemplified" the Marine Corps values of "honor, courage, and commitment." To explain her dedication now, as a civilian adviser, to creating new FETs for the Army, Russo says, "The Marines leave no 'man' behind—unless you're a girl. I was through with the corps, but I wasn't through serving." She serves today as a muscular, formidably fit civilian with a very large handgun always tucked in her belt.
In November 2009 the commanding general of the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command signed an order calling on military units to "create female teams to build relations with Afghan women." Pottinger, Jilani and Russo write, "This order...reflects the considered judgment of command that FETs are an important part of our evolving counterinsurgency strategy." That's a legitimate argument for creating FETs of full-time, fully trained, professional female engagement soldiers to execute the clear-cut mission of bringing security to "the populace." That is, if you subscribe to the American occupation of Afghanistan at all—as I do not—and to the magic of counterinsurgency, which lately has been losing out as the tactic du jour to the more macho "kill or capture." But the commanders who blather about counterinsurgency yet fail almost entirely, and contrary to direct orders, to engage half the populace give the game away. To most of the military establishment, the FETs are not "an important part" of US strategy at all. Far from it. But American women meeting Afghan women may be the start of something more important than that.