The cornerstone of any COIN effort is establishing security for the civilian populace.—Gen. David Petraeus
The American military had been engaged in Afghanistan for almost eight years before anyone seemed to notice the effects of the occupation on nearly half the adult population, which happens to be female. George W. Bush had famously announced the "liberation" of Afghan women from the Taliban and let it go at that. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton points to women’s progress on paper and in public life in the Afghan capital as reason to continue the war, lest those gains be lost. But among most Afghans, especially the nearly 80 percent who live in rural areas, the effect of the American military presence has been to replicate for women the confinement they suffered under the Taliban. Given cultural rules against mixing the sexes, Afghan men lock up their women to protect them from foreigners; and the American military, an old boys’ club itself, feels comfortable enough with that tradition to honor it.
But after Gen. David Petraeus resurrected the edicts of counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare from the ash heap of Vietnam and inscribed them in the 2006 US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, they appeared in Afghanistan as holy writ, reinforcing famous "lessons learned" from Iraq and exalted to the level of "strategy." COIN tactics (for that’s all they are) call first for protecting the "civilian populace" and then "rebuilding infrastructure and basic services" and "establishing local governance and the rule of law." American commanders, saddled with nation-building, doled out millions of dollars in discretionary funds intended for short-term humanitarian projects to build roads (which unescorted women can’t use) and mosques (for men only) before anyone suggested that women perhaps should be consulted.
In February 2009 Marine Capt. Matt Pottinger set out to do something about that. He helped organize and train a team of women Marines to meet with Afghan women, just as male soldiers had been meeting with Afghan men for years to drink tea and discuss those ill-conceived "infrastructure" projects. A handful of female Marines and a civilian linguist, led by Second Lt. Johanna Shaffer, formed that first Female Engagement Team (FET). Its mission was a "cordon and search" operation in Farah province that included "engaging with" Pashtun women and giving them some "humanitarian supplies"—known in COIN jargon as PSPs, or Population Support Packages, which might contain anything from a crank radio to a teddy bear—to earn their "goodwill." That’s the point of protecting the populace—to win them over to our side so the forsaken insurgents will shrivel up and die. These tactics failed miserably in Vietnam, and they appear to be failing in Afghanistan, but with counterinsurgency as our avowed "strategy," Pottinger’s idea of engaging the hidden half of the populace was way, way overdue.
In a report issued earlier this year, Pottinger and two civilian colleagues, Hali Jilani (a Pashtun-American cultural adviser to the Marines) and Claire Russo (a former Marine intelligence officer currently advising the Army), noted rather vaguely that "more FETS have stood up," including "several [Marine] teams on an intermittent basis in southern Afghanistan" and some FETs run by "U.S. soldiers and airmen in the country’s east." In a separate report issued in January, Russo noted that six FETs had been active in eastern provinces.
The imprecision of these reports reflects the haphazard origins of the FETs and the resistance of the military to the whole idea. Until March, when the Marines trained forty women at Camp Pendleton, California, to deploy to Helmand province in April as the first full-time Female Engagement Teams, no women had been trained for the job before deployment and none were assigned exclusively, or even primarily, to FETs. Instead, with grudging support from a few commanders, Pottinger—and later Russo—cobbled together FETs composed of those few women already on hand, all of them already assigned to other full-time military jobs. Without the doggedness of Pottinger and Russo, and the willingness of brave women soldiers to volunteer for a second job, FETs probably wouldn’t exist. That they’re far from perfect should be no surprise.