WASHINGTON – Teams of female Marines are stepping off their bases in Afghanistan and entering villages to build relationships with an often overlooked sector of the Afghan population: women.
Contrary to their image in the West, Afghan women can be powerful allies because of their central role in their families. And in the battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan population, they can be a critical link, experts said Wednesday at a panel in Washington hosted by the Institute for the Study of War.
“Female engagement is really, absolutely a part of counterinsurgency,” said Claire Russo, who served in the Marine Corps for four years as an intelligence officer, including a 2006 deployment to Iraq. Russo now works as a civilian advisor to the Army in eastern Afghanistan to help create the so-called Female Engagement Teams.
Working on the teams, female troops engage with villagers, check on projects and pass out humanitarian assistance. Gaining access to the population is easier for female troops because Western women are seen as a “third sex” not subject to the cultural limitations on male-female contact in Afghan society, several experts said.
“When these female Marines go into these local communities … both Afghan men and Afghan women feel much more comfortable talking to them than they do to their male counterparts,” said Mariam Mansury of the Hunt Alternatives Fund, a Cambridge, Mass.-based foundation that promotes the inclusion of women in peace processes and has worked in Afghanistan since 2002.
Mansury worked with the Canadian-led Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar for more than a year as it developed a program similar to the FETs.
When the local prison was infiltrated in 2008, she said, one of the first to hear about it was the team’s female public affairs officer, who received a call from an Afghan woman before the NATO command raised an alarm.
“Women were able to shift the perception of the military operations in the community,” Mansury said about the Kandahar operation. Engaging women directly “creates a sense of investment on the other side.”
Women then feel obligated to discourage their families from sympathizing with insurgents, Mansury said. Russo agreed, saying, “Women are invited into homes almost categorically.”
This access can lead to important intelligence. “[Afghan] women observe key terrain every day,” said Russo. “These women know who’s supposed to be in their village and who isn’t.”
Russo added that Afghan women “are a critical vulnerability of the Taliban.”
Gen. Stanley McChrystal and other U.S. military leaders in Afghanistan have taken note. “Platoon commanders are my biggest allies,” Russo said about her effort to expand FETs. “They see the difference in the way we are received.”
But despite McChrystal’s support — as evidenced by his order last November encouraging units to “create female teams to build relations with Afghan women” — sending women out on such missions represents a shift in military doctrine that has created some controversy.
“I think there are a lot of men who are concerned about having women integrated with the infantry,” Russo said.
Staffing FETs can also create tensions within the women’s units. Currently, most female troops are part of outreach teams in addition to their full-time jobs. Sending female troops out in this new capacity also requires extra training.
“Certainly as the women are going out, [they need] a whole new realm of tactical awareness and combat skills,” Russo said. “The women would be much safer if they were getting tactical training.”
The Marine Corps, the branch most active in female outreach, has a specific training program that includes classes on the history of the Taliban and Afghan culture. It just deployed a team of women specifically for this type of outreach mission.
The Army is beginning to form such teams as well, Russo said, but “the women that are going out right now in the Army don’t have a lot of training.”