Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

CST: Afghanistan

By Paula Broadwell Best Defense wandering reporter Two years ago, a small team of female Marines — drivers, engineers, cooks and other specialists — began conducting "female engagement" initiatives with women in southern Afghanistan. If winning the hearts and minds of the local population was the goal, they thought it behooved them to amicably engage 50 ...


By Paula Broadwell
Best Defense wandering reporter

Two years ago, a small team of female Marines — drivers, engineers, cooks and other specialists — began conducting "female engagement" initiatives with women in southern Afghanistan. If winning the hearts and minds of the local population was the goal, they thought it behooved them to amicably engage 50 percent of the population, women to whom American soldiers had virtually no access because of cultural and religious boundaries in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

Since then, the Marines expanded the program and formalized their training linguistic, cultural, and tactical training in advance so they weren’t left learning on the job ad hoc, sometimes painfully and with the begrudging support of a commander. Their rapport-building efforts, which included medical outreach and the establishment of micro-finance projects to help women generate income, were soon recognized by Gens. Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus, both of whom pushed for the Army to officially adopt the Female Engagement Team (FET) program over the past year.

Engagement with Afghan women over the past nine years has not been non-existent. Initiatives include outreach through existing organizations, such as Agri-business Development Teams, Human Terrain Teams, Civil Affairs Teams, and Female Treatment Teams. In addition to these engagement platforms, FETs are another enabler within the toolbox. One representative in a Special Operations Unit here says they should not be viewed as an independent capability, but rather a complement to other enablers.

These and other outreach programs have benefited the ISAF mission, but the engagements vary by command and individual leadership and are sometimes sidelined by a commander who may not have the resources or feel the women’s initiatives are a priority. This may be one reason the big Army has been slow to show progress in streamlining and institutionalizing the training effort in the United States. The Defense Department has yet to assign troops specifically for the mission, as opposed to carving the teams out of existing units, or institutionalize the pre-deployment training. Gen. McChrystal issued his guidance and intent for the engagement efforts last March, but there had been little momentum to help units preparing for deployment as well as those deployed to delineate the standards, until a recent push from Gen Petraeus. His Counterinsurgency Advise and Assist Team hosted FET shura, or community meeting, here in Kabul two weeks ago to debate frameworks for the program.

The debate at the recent FET shura highlighted that there are very successful FET programs in Regional Command (RC)-East, RC-Southwest, and RC-North and although each is unique from the other, they are most often tailored to meet the needs of the commander and the area. "There are 34 provinces within Afghanistan and to standardize and institutionalize a capability by big Army, or create a FET-in-a-box as some would like to do, would not do justice to the commander who knows his battle space best," according to an advisor at Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command — Afghanistan. ISAF Joint Command recently issued an order which dictates the minimum training, capability and employment of FETs. Although the advisor cited above feels the big Army should not dictate more specific training or employment, and that instead the commander on the ground should determine the need for additional capability and associated training and employment, others with FET experience argue that it may not be wise to trust that a commander will use this resource wisely without more explicit guidance.  

While coalition forces have currently decentralized these choices in the field and the big Army is contemplating whether to set establish official programs and more explicit guidance, an interesting development has quietly occurred within the Special Operations Community: the rapid institutionalization of the women’s engagement concept, which they have dubbed "Cultural Support Teams" (CST). The idea was then accelerated last spring by a directive from Admiral Eric Olson, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command, who noted growing interest in the Navy and Marines and a growing number of successful vignettes from the frontlines.

Last May, the Army’s elite Ranger Regiment also issued a request for qualified female troops to support their mission in Afghanistan. The operative word there is "qualified." The qualifications requirements for these women are critical, given the austere nature of the mission. They would have to be physically and mentally fit and agile, surpassing the average Army standards for fitness and aptitude. "We are identifying soldiers with extreme capability to deal with stress, solve problems, build rapport, and deescalate tense situations. They will undergo rigorous physical demands and tests of mental agility," said Clair Russo, a former Marine officer who spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan and helped with the startup of the Marine’s female engagement program in southern Afghanistan. Russo now assists with the CST training at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina.

The mission of the women’s teams is to support the warfighters engaged in everything from the non-kinetic governance and development initiatives inherent in Foreign Internal Defense, Village Stability Operations, and other capacity building initiatives that "white" special operators perform, to support of more kinetic special operations activity. The primary focus in all of these endeavors remains non-kinetic engagement with Afghan women in their respective area of operations (though they will not be restricted from interaction with male Afghans). Their missions might include efforts similar to the conventional force’s medical civic action programs, humanitarian assistance, and civil-military operations. These women, just over two dozen trailblazers, aren’t organized or authorized to "go commando" and kick down doors, but greater tactical proficiency is understandably identified as a critical skill because of the isolation, and often higher-threat environment, of special operations units. Somewhat different from the conventional-force FET missions, this elite group also has to demonstrate more advance skills in the areas of tactical questioning, negotiations, analysis of human behavior, marksmanship, tactical movement, basic medical training, combat lifesaver, and other essential skills. Like other military engagement initiatives, such as the conventional forces’ FETs or the Afghanistan-Pakistan Hands initiative, the CSTs are schooled in Afghanistan’s physical, cultural, and religious landscapes. They, too, are trained to understand the nuanced roles of Afghan village shuras, tribal politics, district and provincial governors. And eventually, women in the Afghan National Security Forces (a small but growing number) may assume similar engagement roles as coalition forces transition to an Afghan lead, so some of the CST efforts might eventually include partnering with and mentoring the few women in these positions.

The first CST tranche arrived in Afghanistan early this year. The commanders of the major special mission organizations that own them are tremendous advocates of the initiative – true believers. But one inherent problem remains: supply does not equal demand. So, all you athletic, determined ladies out there, here is where you can go to sign up. CST information is also available on Facebook. There are opportunities to join the CST for active duty, reserve, and national guard officers and senior enlisted women.

Thinking beyond the current battlefield in Afghanistan, Special Operations Command has widened its lens and will eventually send CSTs to its other theaters of operation as well, such as Africa, where similar conservative indigenous environments limit a male soldier’s ability to interact with women. As the program continues to evolve, each Special Forces Group will have approximately a company size element of women trained for such endeavors. "CSTs were created to meet the needs of the SOF community. This is our commander’s answer to our needs just like the RCs have developed models that meet their needs. Although we have a solid program with growing potential, it is by no means the end all answer," according to the SOF CST Advisor.

Lt. Gen. John F. Mulholland Jr., commander of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command stated that this endeavor is a "landmark moment" at the women’s graduation ceremony in December. He was correct. And given the roles these women have played in the last near-decade of war, and will endeavor to do on the frontlines of other conflicts, could the next landmark moment be a call to overturn the ground combat exclusion policy?

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1