Woman to Woman in Afghanistan

Woman to Woman in Afghanistan

Female Engagement Teams join the counterinsurgency.


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.

The military officially maintains the fiction that women are excluded from combat, so Army FET organizers have to recruit volunteers among the women in "soft" skill jobs on base—women soldiers the Army hasn’t trained in the "hard" skills of combat soldiering. (They have the right to refuse to join the FET, but in the Army it’s hard to say no when you’ve been "voluntold.") The FETs are then attached to male infantry units for missions that take them outside the wire. The Marine FETs who volunteered for training at Camp Pendleton are similarly attached to male "maneuver units." Deployed to Helmand province, scene of the first major offensive of Obama’s war, some Marine FETs have been engaged in firefights. Yet it’s one of the ironies of FETs that women soldiers, insufficiently trained to defend themselves, must still be escorted by men, just like Afghan women.

* * *

So the first task of FET trainers is to bring women up to speed, or closer to it. When I joined a brand-new Army FET organized by Russo at a forward operating base in Kunar province this past summer, I met the team on the firing range, practicing "reflexive fire" with short-barreled M-4s under the tutelage of an experienced infantry sergeant and some of his men who had offered to help—"so they could hang around the women," the sergeant said. A gaggle of Afghan soldiers from an adjacent Afghan National Army base stood gaping until another American sergeant shooed them away, saying, "I don’t stare at your women. Don’t you stare at mine." The women soldiers, methodically gunning down targets, were a curiosity on their home base.

With fewer than a dozen women on the base, some of them in essential jobs, half a dozen had been handpicked for training—among them a radio specialist, a supply clerk, a fueler and two medics. They put in a full day’s work—the fueler started at 
4 am—then turned up for class in the evening to see a PowerPoint presentation on Afghan history, learn Pashto greetings from the young Afghan-American female interpreter (or "terp") assigned to the team, or study patrol formations with the infantry sergeant and then go outside to drill in the dark. One evening they practiced getting in and out of armored personnel carriers—MRAPs and M-ATVs—while the base was taking fire and firing back. Russo urged them to put in a couple of hours every day at the gym, as she did, to prepare for trekking to villages in blistering heat bearing loads of fifty to sixty pounds, not counting those PSPs—but there weren’t enough hours in the day.

Most of the women were young (21 to 27), and none of them matched the stereotype I heard from some blustering for-profit contractors on the base (none of whom had served in the military themselves), who saw the Army as a rehab center that rescues drug addicts, alcoholics, criminals and prostitutes from themselves and teaches them "discipline." The FET women had mostly been "rescued" from college education they had tried to pay for by working low-wage, dead-end jobs. They already knew a lot about discipline. Some had children at home, cared for by husbands or parents. Some had been deployed before to Iraq. None had bargained for jobs that would take them outside the wire, least of all in a "battlespace" on the Pakistan border then considered very "hot." They were excited and nervous. A few days before I arrived, five infantrymen had been killed. Three more were killed while I was there. The sergeant continued his drills.

Most of the FET’s prepackaged PowerPoint lessons clearly had been designed by men. A list of recommended readings included all the old macho accounts of mujahedeen "freedom fighters" but not a single one of many excellent books about Afghan women. One lesson, originally designed by men to teach men how to talk to men, taught FET women to pose "four key questions" to the Afghan women they "engage"—like, "Have there been changes in the village population in the last year?" That’s a question few women would be prepared to answer, living as most do within the confines of their family compound or immediate neighborhood. It has been a dubious assumption of the FETs that Pashtun women not only wield great power at home but also know all that transpires for miles around.

Such questions also suggest a significant mission creep: from winning hearts and minds to gathering intelligence. The newly trained Marine FETs are designated as Civil Affairs units, assigned to deliver humanitarian aid, help out at health clinics and so on; and despite the official claim that they don’t collect intelligence, they sometimes say they do. Russo argues that they should. "If you are going to send soldiers outside the wire, you have to give them a clear mission of real value that contributes to our overall mission here," she says. Hearts and minds aren’t enough. Her team members wanted both to "help" Afghan women and gather information that might save American lives.

Nevertheless, on this new FET’s first mission to speak with a gathering of women at a school in a nearby village—a meeting arranged, as all are, by local male officials—an opportunity to learn something about the enemy was lost. When the village women said they feared Taliban reprisals after our visit—raising the topic of the Taliban themselves—the team leader changed the subject. Later she explained that the purpose of the first visit is to "build trust"; "interviewing" is scheduled for subsequent meetings. The lost opportunity to learn something about the local Taliban while assuaging the women’s fear was a reminder that flexibility is not taught by PowerPoint, nor, as Andrew Bacevich has noted, can "cultural sensitivity" be assumed to be a skill "like marksmanship…in which soldiers can be trained."

After debriefing back at the base, the official FET mission report described the area visited as "safe," although the women who live there had tried to tell us that it is not safe for them. (A lot is lost in translation. Many interpreters dislike the Army, having been asked to say and do things insulting to their Islamic beliefs; and many say that no matter what they translate, the Army will give it a positive spin, as indeed the Army did when this contentious encounter was officially reported as a success.)

In fairness, it must be said that this FET had trained for less than two weeks, mostly on the "hard" skills they needed to accompany the infantrymen with confidence, and none of them had seen an Afghan woman before. The team had been taught to "clear" a room at gunpoint but not to avoid treading on the floor mats or pointing the soles of their feet at their hosts. (A Marine FET pictured in a recent New York Times video made the same blunders, although one Marine said they had been taught "everything." The women of both FETs kept their boots on, in violation of Afghan hospitality.) To show their respect for Afghan women, and identify themselves to onlookers as women, the Army FET had been taught to wear head scarves—in the style in which they are worn in Iraq. To "build relationships" they asked innocent questions such as "What foods do you like to cook?" (Answer: "What we have.")

Russo had already laid out the next training topics: planning and rehearsing mission meetings. Each FET member was to bone up on a critical area: local politics, tribal structure, current US projects in the area and aid available to women. Afghan manners were not on the agenda.

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?

* * *

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.

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy