There is a direct relationship between the security of women and the security of states. Levels of democracy, economic development, and identity show that the physical security of women is a better predictor of state security and peace.1 For this very reason the Marine Corps needs to take a progressive role in the training and employment of increasing female engagement efforts in Afghanistan before harm comes of our actions. There is doctrine, MOSs, and vast research from those who have been engaging women for decades in Afghanistan that has yet to be fully utilized to support engagement efforts. There is also a century’s worth of science available from anthropology and ethnography to draw from before we make decisions regarding what some believe is a new concept. Not doing so could keep us fighting Taliban in Afghanistan for decades.
The engagement concept isn’t new in counterinsurgency (COIN), as the success of the combined action platoon program2 in Vietnam and the many examples found in the 1940 Small Wars Manual show us. Using female servicemembers wasn’t necessary until the last decade where the culture prohibited servicemen from interacting with half of the population in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although we had observed lessons in Iraq on the enabling effects of using female servicemembers to access, engage, and search Iraqi women, we didn’t bring a trained capability with us going into Afghanistan, resulting in the Afghanistan female engagement teams (FETs) being built in reaction to a security incident in July 2009.3 This effort combined the concepts of two earlier Marine Corps programs that were initiated in Iraq—the Lioness Program and the Iraqi Women’s Engagement Program (IWE). Lioness was mainly a search effort at entry control points and was used for some “knock and greets,”4 but had little to no follow through after initial contact with women. IWE was aimed at identifying sources of instability from the women, connecting the women together, and then coordinating with local government, civil affairs personnel, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) to facilitate the reduction of those instabilities.
Under 2d MEB-Afghanistan (2d MEB-A), teams were ad hoc and on call. During this time they gained anecdotal cultural and atmospheric information, and many local Afghans accepted FET presence, but at the time there was limited ability to assess their effectiveness according to the MEB-A’s logical lines of operations (LOOs). Ad hoc anecdotes led I MEF (Forward (Fwd)) to bring an all-female detachment to serve as full-time teams that would eventually be replaced by II MEF (Fwd) FETs. The anecdotes also supported a recommendation5 to the Commander of International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) to replicate the Marine Corps model of FET, which promptly led to a directive for ISAF units to standardize engagements.6
Based on a few successful vignettes, ISAF units looked to the Marines in Helmand for lessons on training and employment, making FET a “buzzword”7 that has continued to generate a lot of confusion and disputes as to best training, employment, and effects. It has also sparked the U.S. Army to rush to adopt the Marine Corps’ FET program,8 resulting in degraded learning due to assumptions from the absence of method, purpose and end state of female engagement.9 Although FETs have received high visibility in the media due to their access to half of the population and their roles as women in combat and COIN, the effort needs evaluation to ensure that its ever-changing mission supports long- or short-term essential stability tasks.10
In support of the local battlespace owner’s intent, the FET mission statement has gone through many changes but has always retained the notions of direct engagement with the local population, disseminating commanders’ messages, information collecting (passive and active),11 deescalating/softening the public’s perception of offensive operations, and influencing and understanding the needs of the population.
Marine leaders have leveraged the availability of these Marines to mitigate these challenges when it comes to the female population in their area of operations. But the culture is so diverse and ancient that there are few who are able to become experts on true engagement. I propose that true female engagement should be a part of meaningful dialogue and not just “girl talk” or information collection. These face-to-face engagements require appropriate follow through and resources that will give the commander the ability to understand and influence the population to support operations.
As the employment and engagement mission of the FET has morphed over time, so too has its predeployment training. The current concept of employment is for a single team to be used as a “female in a box” for multiple efforts, such as searching, information operations, military information support to operations, civil-military operations (CMO), and garnering information that has infringed at times into intelligence collection.12 Being marginally trained in a variety of skills and then thrust into on-the-job-training once in-theater will not yield full capacity and may be dangerous. This “jack-of-all-trades, master of none” approach leads to an unbalanced engagement, confuses the local population, overlooks opportunities for nonkinetic targeting, reduces the ability to build relations, and inhibits follow through in an effective and sustainable manner, especially when female servicemembers are often viewed as a benevolent presence.
Because Pashtun gender prohibitions are designed to protect Pashtun women not Western women, female servicemembers are perceived as a “third gender”13 and as being “there to help versus there to fight.”14 This perception allows us access to the entire population, which is crucial in population-centric operations. Our military’s need for information is inexhaustible, and we are anxious to collect it, but we’ve allowed advertisement of the FET to be viewed as “collecting intelligence from the Afghan women.”15 16 Garnering information should not come at the expense of the population, for it’s the people we should be protecting as we aim to separate them from the insurgents. There is a belief that because we are females, we have an edge since insurgents and malign actors do not appear to know or account for the capability of female Marines.17 From my limited experience and what Afghan men and women have told me, I argue this concept and believe that the Afghan people are acutely aware of our intentions and capabilities as FETs. The truth is, once we leave their compounds, there is nothing we can do to protect the women we engage. Afghan women have been beaten and intimidated for far less than engaging with a Western female,18 and our engagements must be thoughtful and well planned so as to not place Afghan women in jeopardy.
It should be required for female engagers to be fused into a gender-mixed team19 rather than constructed into all-female teams if we want to fully expand the ability to understand the operational environment. But in training and employing all-female teams (believed to have a distinct identity and an autonomous mission), by default we have created “METs” (male engagement teams). Not only does this put a wedge in our unity of effort toward the population, it may, to our detriment, affect the perception and our influence on the local population.
FETs, like their male counterparts, are and should engage with local men. It’s important to recognize that it may be more critical for female enablers to engage with local men than solely with local women. Not only do the vast majority of female engagements only occur and are allowed through the men of the community,20 but neither can we bring jobs, education, or long-term solutions to the plight of the Afghan women unless the Afghan men facilitate them. Possibly the most valuable part of a female engaging is not that they are talking to Afghan women, but that the Afghan men are interacting differently with and often providing more and differing information to female servicemembers.21 It makes sense that if the military’s desire was really to help these women, then we’d have the influence and authority to do so, beyond simple interaction, in the eyes of the Afghan men.
What does a young,22 all-female team bring to the table in order to get buy-in for sustainable effects along the LOOs when working with decisionmaking Afghans? Without the money, rank, influence, or power that our male Marine tribal elders (our inferred social structure)23 carry, the FETs may have severe limitations.
Since we have the perception that we are women “there to help,” it needs to be noted that engagement creates expectations. FETs are meeting with local women and discussing their problems. These problems are largely related to livelihood, insecurity, health care, education, employment, and other socioeconomic needs. Discussing needs raises expectations that the FETs will provide this socioeconomic assistance. But, FETs lose out on fully influencing the local people if they pass off what they should and could follow through on to other enablers, essentially saying, women really can’t take care of the problem, and they are just here to talk (collect intelligence), hand out soap and aspirin, and nothing more.
While it is critical to have all-female personnel for the majority of engagements with conservative Afghan women, FETs as they are constructed and trained are not linked to other similar enablers and lack transitional efficacy in their work. There are multiple, short-term initiatives that are providing a temporary means to win hearts and minds, such as medical outreach, humanitarian assistance, providing school supplies, and small businesses for women, but until recently they lacked the coordination with the district stabilization team, PRT, Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA), or NGOs that bring the capacity for long-term sustainability. There is a time and place for these efforts, but without key leaders in the community, and a unity of effort, these efforts have a short shelf life, create a society of dependency, and often fail once units leave the area.
Until recently FETs also lacked a systematic approach to consulting women, as our approach should be less dichotomous and focus on “them and them” versus “us and them.” We should be facilitating local women engaging each other in order to connect the women to GIRoA at the district level; Helmand Women’s Department; preexisting networks, such as midwives; and the over 23 women’s associations in Helmand.24
Thanks to guidance from the CMO/G–9, concept of operations and utilization, the ingenuity of FET personnel and exceptional leadership within their ranks, the FETs are now beginning to address the expectations they create. Although FETs are beginning to increase their effectiveness, their construct is a redundant capability and a nonintegrated enabler because they are in fact conducting CMO and the core tasks of civil affairs. As the Commandant’s Planning Guidance 25 and Marine Corps Operating Concept 26 suggest, the Marine Corps is not only short civil affairs personnel,27 but also is looking to reduce the redundant efforts in order to be more effective. Civil affairs Marines focus on the population; the Afghan women are simply the female demographic of the population, so an increase in the force structure of overall billets in the civil affairs community (Active and Reserve Components) makes sense instead of building an autonomous enabling unit that is likely not an enduring requirement post-Afghanistan. While quantity is not quality, the quantity of FET personnel currently being employed could easily augment the female Marines in the Reserve and Active Component civil affairs detachments.
During predeployment, FETs have received, on average, a 3-day training session on CMO. Female Marines slated to engage should attend the civil affairs MOS school in addition to their units’ predeployment training. Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MarSOC) has had a similar capability called cultural support teams since November 2009.28 MarSOC sees the value of gender in the conduct of CMO and has begun to send its female Marines to the Civil Affairs School in Quantico.
While some support the concept of disbanding FETs and increasing females in civil affairs, those who oppose focusing FETs as civil affairs augments argue that by doing so other capabilities, such as collection, influence, and searching, will be lost. The seeming losses of these tactical capabilities are in reality a part of the civil affairs milieu. CMO is by definition operational in nature and the responsibility of the commander. All Marines conduct CMO, not just those who are civil affairs Marines. CMO crosses all LOOs during all phases of operations, enhances a commander’s ability to influence and have access to people, and is not limited to development.29 Therefore, if a female civil affairs Marine is needed for occasional searches, then so be it. A trained civil affairs Marine will turn the search into an engagement opportunity.
Civil affairs teams specialize in assessing and working with the civil dimension. It is significant to relate the August 2006 female engagement efforts led by a female civil affairs Marine in Al Qa’im, Iraq. Qa’im had been under insurgent control until 2006. This started to change in late 2006 as it became the first part of Anbar Province to effectively throw out and fight insurgents (also known as the Al Anbar Awakening). In 2008 Qa’im had become the most economically and politically advanced city in Anbar. As there is not a single effort that could cause the local people to shift their support away from the insurgency, the role that local women played behind the scenes when they decided to organize, meet often, and bring problems they couldn’t fix on their own to their city-level government (due to CMO efforts toward the female demographic) may not be accounted into why Al Qa’im had the COIN success it did so quickly after the local women became more involved.
Cultural intelligence analyst, Larissa Mihalisko also related what a civil affairs team (including a female civil affairs Marine) did in Now Zad during and after COBRA’S ANGER (conducted during December 2009):
They humanized the ‘Taliban,’ in that [the civil affairs team] broke down that label to identify the real reasons why people were fighting. Always unsatisfied with the cheap, lazy label of ‘Taliban’ that did nothing to help Marines figure out how they could best counter to the insurgency, I think their proximity to the Afghans and incredibly robust engagement efforts made them actually empathize with locals. When I talk about proximity and engagement, I don’t mean that they just lived next to the district center and held shuras. They visited people’s homes, opened schools, jump-started major de-mining operations, knew the names and backgrounds of every local, engaged their communities at home to get involved, danced at weddings, buried the dead at funerals, and much, much more. . . . they kindly allowed the civilian to help dissect Now Zad with them, and although I was always warmly welcomed there is nothing like living with these people [as the civil affairs team did].30
The Afghan’s ability to perceive honesty, sincerity, empathy, and even alternate motives is astounding, as this ability is what they have had to rely on just to survive decades of war. They can recall vivid images of past decades like it happened yesterday, and what our FETs are doing today will be vivid in the minds of the youth for decades to come. Essentially FETs are planting “seeds of hope” among the women. If the seeds don’t grow, if they are injured, or if their environment doesn’t change, then after a time we may lose the support of not only the Afghan women (which was beginning to occur during my deployment in 2010), we may also lose the support of generations to come as stories are passed for generations about our failed attempts to help them after we drink their tea and they risk their lives to give us information. Hence, we are possibly creating a new generation of Taliban that is fueled from Afghan mothers to their sons.
If Afghanistan’s stability depends on the Afghan women’s involvement in democracy, and economics, then our female engagement effort needs an overhaul before we continue to unnecessarily put Marines’ and Afghan lives at risk. Therefore, the Marine Corps needs to look to our history and use existing doctrine and research available when determining the way forward with the employment of FETs.
1. Hudson, Valerie M., Mary Caprioli, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Rose McDermott, and Chad F. Emmett, “The Heart of the Matter: The Security of Women and the Security of States,” International Security, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Kennedy School of Government, Winter 2008/09, p. 7–45.
2. Krulak, Victor H., First to Fight: An Inside View of the Marine Corps, U.S. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1999, Chapter 12.
3. Pottinger, Matt, and Hali Jilani, “2d MEB-A Female Engagement Team: Findings and Recommendations,” Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned, September 2009, paragraph 2.
4. Farina, Jennifer, “Neither Joan of Arc nor Tank Girl: The Struggle To Be Sensible in Preparing Female Marines for the Twenty First Century Operating Environment,” Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned, 4 May 2009.
5. Vedder, Maria, “Recommended ISAF Guidance for Female Engagement Teams,” Combined Intelligence Operations Center-
Afghanistan, 23 February 2010.
6. Commander, ISAF, U.S. Forces-A Directive, “Engagement With Afghan Females,” Headquarters, ISAF, Afghanistan, 31 May 2010.
7. Owen, William, “The War of New Words: Why Military History Trumps Buzzwords,” Armed Forces Journal, Springfield, VA, November 2009.
8. Broadwell, Paula, “CST: Afghanistan,” Foreign Policy, Washington DC, 8 February, 2011.
9. Memorandum for G–3 (Operations), U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, “Review of Cultural Support Team Course (CSTC) Pilot,” Fort Bragg, NC, 13 December 2010.
10. Field Manual 3–07 (FM 3–07), Stability Operations, Department of the Army, Washington, DC, October 2008.
11. Naslund, Emily, “I MEF (FWD) Female Engagement Team Deployment After Action Report,” Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned, 10 October 2010.
12. FM 2–22.3, Human Intelligence Collector Operations, Department of the Army, Washington, DC, September 2006, delineates responsibilities between tactical questioners and counterintelligence/human intelligence personnel.
13. Mihalisko, Larissa, “Female Engagement in the MEB-A Area of Operations,” 2d MEB-A, Marine Corps Intelligence Activity, Cultural Intelligence Team, Quantico, April 2010.
14. Pottinger, Matt, Hali Jilani, and Claire Russo, “Half-Hearted: Trying To Win Afghanistan Without Afghan Women,” Small Wars Journal, Quantico, 2010.
15. Bumiller, Elizabeth, “For Female Marines Tea Comes With Bullets,” The New York Times, 2 October 2010.
16. Associated Press, “Female Marines Wear Headscarves Over Body Armor in Afghanistan,” accessed on FoxNews.com, 14 August 2009.
18. Amnesty International, “Women in Afghanistan: A human rights catastrophe,” accessed at http://www.rawa.org, dated 3 November 1995.
19. Beebe, James, Rapid Assessment Process: An Introduction, Altamira Press, Walnut Creek, CA, 2001.
22. Salmoni, Barak, and Paula Holmes-Eber, “Operational Culture for the Warfighter: Principles and Applications,” Marine Corps University, Quantico, 2008, Chapter 5.
24. Alternate Strategies Institute, IO [Information Operations] Capstone Task Order Product, “Prospect for Engaging Women in Helmand and Southern Afghanistan,” Germantown, MD, 30 March 2010.
25. 35th Commandant of the Marine Corps Commandant’s Planning Guidance, Headquarters Marine Corps, Washington, DC, November 2010.
26. Marine Corps Operating Concepts, Headquarters Marine Corps, Washington, DC, June 2010.
27. Cavallaro, Gina, “Amos’ Vision,” Marine Corps Times, Springfield, VA, 8 November 2010.
28. Talton, Trisha, “MARSOC Looks to Women for New Mission,” Marine Corps Times, Springfield, VA, 14 November 2009.
29. Joint Publication 3–57, Civil-Military Operations, Joint Staff, Washington, DC, July 2008.