Thinking About Afghan Operations: How a Female Engagement Team Failed
The mountains slowly shed their snow and the foothills below were once again warm by midday.
By Tessa Poppe
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted
The mountains slowly shed their snow and the foothills below were once again warm by midday. The fighting season was about to begin in Afghanistan. It was March 2011 and our ad hoc female engagement team (FET) prepped to go out with Special Forces (SF) to conduct a medical mission in a remote village. Our FET was born out of the few female soldiers who lived on our small forward operating base in Kunar Province. The hope was to implement small projects that would help Afghans earn money and feed their families since most of them were widows. I felt it was a chance to make a difference, as our Agri-Business Development Team (734th ADT) struggled to find its footing and its purpose.
We convoyed up a steep pass until the trucks couldn’t go any further and then we walked, stirring up sagebrush that sprouted beneath our boots. I watched the hilltops for the Taliban as our team of medics, Civil Affairs, and MPs navigated the rocks. A drone buzzed overhead, heading toward the Pakistani border, roughly three ridgelines away. It occurred to me then how small I was and how little our good-hearted efforts mattered against the illegal timber trade, the porous border, al Qaeda or malaria. But even then, I wanted it to matter.
The women made me uneasy that day. They stared and didn’t talk to us. How could I blame them? We carried grenades, ammo, and weapons, hoping to sit down and have tea while thinking that suicide vests were not out of the question. We took our helmets off, showing them our hair, as if it this would instantly make them feel safe. But I never put down my rifle. I trained for convoys and foot patrols; I had about four hours of Rosetta Stone Pashto. Nevertheless, this is where counterinsurgency happened, in mountains and valleys no one heard about.
One woman showed me a receipt from a doctor in Peshawar, which was over 140 miles away. This is how far she had to go for medical attention. Most of the kids were sick and coughing. Our answer was handing out stuffed animals. Then we gave the women toothpaste and hygiene products and began to explain what they were. “We know what they are,” one woman said, “We just don’t have them.” I quickly felt the impact of our good intentions running head-long into systemic issues and our own ignorance.
I remember the SF soldiers brought a large box of Pudding Snack Packs to give the kids. A small boy took them and one by one threw them down, watching them go splat on the rocks below. The soldiers didn’t bring any spoons and the kids had no idea what to do with them. There were soon small piles of butterscotch pudding scattered around the village, an odd but comedic picture, indicative of our lack of understanding.
“I couldn’t do anything for them,” my medic told me. And I responded, “Neither could I.” We were tourists, unable to solve problems with units that changed every 12 months. Everything was temporary, except Afghanistan. Although we did other programmatic work like husbandry training and a literacy program, none were sustainable. Where there were few roads and doctors, we attempted to hand out pudding and toothpaste.
When the next team came to replace us, their commander refused to conduct FET missions. “That is not our task,” he explained. He was more excited about going into the Pech Valley to establish demo farms. A moronic move, but fresh commanders always arrived with a new way to “win the war,” with little to no understanding of where they actually were. Whatever we had accomplished with our small team, it ended that same day.
Tessa Poppe served in the Army National Guard as a Military Police Officer for seven years, leaving as a Sergeant. She deployed to Iraq in 2007 and Afghanistan in 2010. She graduated Georgetown University with a Master’s Degree in Security Studies, focusing on human security and stability operations. She holds the Army National Guard chair in Best Defense’s Council of the Former Enlisted. She is currently a program specialist in overseas safety and security at the U.S. Institute of Peace. The views expressed are her own.
COLBY BROWN/U.S. Army