Best Defense

Women in COIN (II): How to do it right

Women in COIN (II): How to do it right

While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on October 9, 2009.

I’ve been reading a recent internal summary of how Marine “Female Engagement Teams,” or FETs, have worked in Afghanistan. The bottom line is that done right, this approach works surprisingly well, with benefits among the population that can’t be achieved by males. The findings run directly contrary to several assertions made in the comments reacting to my previous post on this subject.

First, Afghans don’t seem to mind the female teams. Paradoxically, “Female Marines are extended the respect shown to men, but granted the access reserved for women,” the report finds. “In other words, the culture is more flexible than we’ve conditioned ourselves to think.”

Second, the teams have been successful in reaching the other half of the population, one that carries disproportionate influence with the prime Taliban recruiting pool. “Local women wield more influence than many of us imagined — influence on their husbands, brothers, and especially their adolescent sons.”

When one patrol that took a FET with it was observed, the female Marines were invited inside several compounds, while the male Marines stayed outside. “And in each case, the FET succeeded in breaking the ice and getting women to open up and discuss their daily lives and concerns.” Nor was this an isolated event. When patrols returned, “we discovered some Afghan women had been anticipating the opportunity to meet American women. In one home, the women said they had caught glimpses of the patrolling FET through a crack in the wall and that they had ‘prayed you would come to us.'” The fact that the Afghan women welcomed return visits indicated that their men hadn’t punished them for speaking to Americans.    

The women interviewed also had surprisingly diverse backgrounds. Though all impoverished now, some had once been prosperous. One group of young women reported that they had been held captive by the Taliban.

The interactions also seemed to change how some local men viewed the Marine presence. “One gentleman with a gray beard who opened his home to the FET put it this way: ‘Your men come to fight, but we know the women are here to help.'”

But, the report warns, these teams can’t be run casually. They are best done as a full-time job, overseen by an officer who trains and shapes the group, rather than a pick-up team of female Marines who happen to be around. The FETs also need extremely good interpreters, who must be female, fluent, and healthy enough to walk foot patrols. It also helps if they are self-confident enough to confront an Afghan male who rudely intrudes on the conversation.

There are several other tips in the report of the sort that only come from observed experience:

  • Afghan security forces have to be watched and prevented from coming along as peeping toms. A special eye needs to be kept on non-Pashtun soldiers and policemen. 
  • The female Marines should wear headscarves, so when they remove their helmets inside compounds they are clearly seen as women, especially by men watching from the sidelines.
  • First engagements should not be turned into interviews. Nothing freezes interaction quickly than ripping through a list of questions, the report notes, except perhaps whipping out a notebook in which to record the answers. Do that only on subsequent visits, after a relationship has been developed.
  • Take humanitarian aid into the compounds, where the women can get it, instead of dumping it on a clamoring crowd in the marketplace, where the strongest, fastest or most-feared men get it. “We recommend using the FETs to distribute grain directly to the women of each household.” Good gifts are rice, beans, sugar, tea, cooking oil and aspirin. 
  • The FETs need two types of preparation: All the Marine stuff about patrolling, search techniques, and immediate action drills, plus training in culture, history and the use of interpreters.

NB: The main barrier to more intensive and extensive use of the teams seems to be the inflexibility not of Afghan men but of U.S. Marine and Army officers.

MANPREET ROMANA/AFP/Getty Images