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Women in War: Female Engagement Teams in Afghanistan
January 3, 2011 1:49 PM   Subscribe

Since the spring of 2010, all-volunteer units called Female Engagement Teams have been doing what male soldiers can't: speak with women and children in rural Afghani communities, both to gain information and to foster trust. These soldiers may carry M4 rifles, but their toolkit includes sidewalk chalk and jump ropes, too. The FETs, trained for this specific mission grew out of more ad hoc programs like the Lioness program for traffic checkpoints in Iraq. "The FET mission to me is so critical that if I had to exchange blood for it, I would," said Sgt. 1st Class Sawyer Alberi, an FET team leader for the National Guard. "The FET mission is nested very closely in the COIN mission, and unless you do it, you're not doing the whole COIN mission." First Lieutenant Quincy Washa, platoon commander for the Female Engagement Team with Regimental Combat Team 1, describes the teams' role. Despite the apparent importance of the FETs' work, the program is still an experiment; it is unclear whether it will continue after the current teams' deployment.
posted by ocherdraco (21 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
I find it strange that the Marines seem to be getting on so much better in Afghanistan than the Army is. Let's hope this program continues and more doors get opened.
posted by Burhanistan at 2:04 PM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


When I think of all of the fantastic innovation that has come out of the U.S. military, I sometimes wonder how any of it gets past standard issue military dogma. This program sounds exactly the like the out-of-the-box (relatively, for the military) thinking that might actually give the U.S. a chance in Afghanistan; and perhaps in the whole Middle East.

The U.S. military is probably the most disciplined, well-organized, large group of skilled people in the world. They have excellent resources, and are excellently resourceful. Imagine, now, that we gave each of them something besides guns (and I don't mean Bibles), and think about how much positive change they may be capable of bringing to any corner of the planet.

It's like we have this screwed up understanding of what constitutes diplomacy; like it's some spy game as revealed by Julian Assange; or that it's only effective when bullets do the talking. Diplomacy doesn't just prevent wars; it can create a bond of friendship and mutual respect among people of different cultures. I sincerely hope that somebody higher up makes the FET into a pet project, and that it prospers.
posted by jabberjaw at 2:36 PM on January 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


Judging by the first two informative and interesting links, this is a great post ocherdraco, thanks!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:47 PM on January 3, 2011


On the one hand, it's a great idea.

On the other hand, I can't help but feel that this is regressive, considering that the army still will not allow female combat troops, but their idea of innovation is adding a platoon of women whose sole purpose is to sit down for tea.
posted by TypographicalError at 2:50 PM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


On the other hand, I can't help but feel that this is regressive, considering that the army still will not allow female combat troops, but their idea of innovation is adding a platoon of women whose sole purpose is to sit down for tea..

For those wondering about this quote, here's the details, from the first link:
Whatever the outcome, the teams reflect how much the military has adapted over nine years of war, not only in the way it fights but to the shifting gender roles within its ranks. Women make up only 6 percent of the Marine Corps, which cultivates an image as the most testosterone-fueled service, and they are still officially barred from combat branches like the infantry.

But in a bureaucratic sleight of hand, used by both the Army and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan when women have been needed for critical jobs like bomb disposal or intelligence, the female engagement teams are to be “attached” to all-male infantry units within the First Marine Expeditionary Force — a source of pride and excitement for them.
It's backdoor one of putting women in not quite so direct combat situations, but strikes me as a typical military way of bending the rules to make things work. It's a backhanded baby step in a way, but it is a step.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:57 PM on January 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


The single most awful thing I consider when withdrawal from Afghanistan is discussed is this: what happens to the country's women and children? I'm all for respecting the values and social mores of other cultures...until we get talking about women in Afghanistan. At that point, I get perfectly comfortable with my American ethnocentrism. There is tolerance, there is understanding, and then there's just plain right vs. wrong.

Honestly, sometimes I think we should project out a couple years' worth of expenditures in Afghanistan, put all that money into a refugee assistance program, and then simply say, "We're leaving, and we're taking as many interested women and children with us as possible."
posted by scaryblackdeath at 3:11 PM on January 3, 2011


The single most awful thing I consider when withdrawal from Afghanistan is discussed is this: what happens to the country's women and children? I'm all for respecting the values and social mores of other cultures...until we get talking about women in Afghanistan.

This is one of those canards that has been trotted out since before the war... I remember a particularly heinous episode of Seventh Heaven (yes, I saw it, don't ask...) in 1999 which focused entirely on the women and children of Afghanistan and how much they need our help. It was a thinly-veiled call to war then, and it's a weak apologetic now.

Do you honestly believe that after a decade of war their lot has improved? That more war is what they need? That those five years of Taliban rule were so terrible the bombing campaigns they endured for ten years after are a delight? There are many ways to improve the lives of women and children in distant countries and military campaigns are not one.
posted by mek at 4:17 PM on January 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


ocherdraco, this is a superb post.
posted by Morrigan at 4:20 PM on January 3, 2011


Wonderful. A velvet glove covering the death hand of U.S. imperialism. These women are the willing tools of military occupation, trying to reduce the hatred felt toward the invader and the consequent battle casualties, rather than protesting against the pointless U.S. presence. How wonderfully neo-liberal and cynically insincere. Also known in other forms as the Human Terrain Program, or PsyOps, these programs look for Quislings, collaborators and informers. Notice the women are all armed. This is not nation building or humanitarian aid and assistance. The beggars have no choice but to play along. Otherwise they get reported and corrected.
posted by Veridicality at 5:01 PM on January 3, 2011


The single most awful thing I consider when withdrawal from Afghanistan is discussed is this: what happens to the country's women and children?

In 1978, the Communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan took power to promote a socialist agenda, state atheism, equality of sexes and put women in positions of political power. In an op-ed, they wrote "Privileges which women, by right, must have are equal education, job security, health services, and free time to rear a healthy generation for building the future of the country ... Educating and enlightening women is now the subject of close government attention." When the US intervened, it was on the other side, funding the religious fundamentalists so that 30 years later, we can wring our hands at poor backward Afghani culture and their lack of respect for women's rights, a lack that was created when the US helped to destroy the secular part of their culture.
posted by AlsoMike at 5:51 PM on January 3, 2011 [16 favorites]


It's incredible to me that this is considered 'just an experiment' now in Afghanistan. The Lioness program in Iraq was a pretty common sense way to avoid offending Iraqis at checkpoints, and all of the participants who I ever spoke were really enthused about it. They also tried this woman engagement idea in Al Anbar around 2007-2008, but with the Iraqi Security Forces stepping up their responsibility for the security mission I can see why there wasn't much interest in maintaining it--the ISF doesn't really do these kinds of engagement missions.

Unfortunately, while Afghanistan's population is one of the most surveyed and civilly engaged in the world (the amount of data that's collected is staggering), what happens with the information that's obtained from these sorts of programs is another question.
posted by _cave at 7:48 PM on January 3, 2011


Do you honestly believe that after a decade of war their lot has improved? That more war is what they need? That those five years of Taliban rule were so terrible the bombing campaigns they endured for ten years after are a delight? There are many ways to improve the lives of women and children in distant countries and military campaigns are not one.

Well upwards of 100k civilians died under the Taliban. 3k or so died last year, a majority at the hands of the Taliban. So I'd say by that measure their lives are better but still bad. Leaving they go back to worse.
posted by humanfont at 8:35 PM on January 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Well upwards of 100k civilians died under the Taliban.

Upwards of 100k civilians died during the Afghan Civil War. The Taliban certainly had and have no compunction about killing civilians; they did carry out several massacres and do specifically target civilians. But you're laying all the civilian deaths during a civil war at their feet which is dubious. Sort of like saying that upwards of 100k civilians died under the United States of America during the American Civil War (which had a population then comparable to Afghanistan now). It's also a comparable number to the civilian deaths caused by one bomb dropped by the USA about 65 years ago.

To be clear: I reiterate that the Taliban are scummy scumbags. But you're trying to give the impression that they were butchering 10k+ civilians a year out of hand which isn't the case. They were participants in a bloody civil war during which all sides were red in tooth and claw.
posted by Justinian at 10:02 PM on January 3, 2011


Also some good news a key tribe in Hemland has cut a peace deal with the marines. Though to be honest it is more just hope of news on my part. Latest CNN poll 63% oppose /35% support the war, 56% say things are going badly. We've run out of voters. The moral and other concerns / arguments to stay don't matter. Politically it is not possible. Even if things get better, the numbers won't move enough. That's why this summer we start to pullout no matter what.
posted by humanfont at 10:04 PM on January 3, 2011


Well upwards of 100k civilians died under the Taliban. 3k or so died last year, a majority at the hands of the Taliban.

[citation needed]
posted by mek at 11:45 PM on January 3, 2011


I sent a link to this page to someone who is actually out there, serving with the Marines (but is not in the USMC) and has seen this in action. Here is the response:

[T]heir effect is variable depending on where they are. Because we [another country's military] have female medics, signallers, etc patrolling with the infantry, we don't normally need to have specific teams. Because female Marines aren't allowed to go on 'combat patrols' (not even the FET) they have to put these teams together and do specific patrols. At least they are thinking about it.

Make of that what you will.

Great post, BTW.
posted by Megami at 5:30 AM on January 4, 2011


Citations as requeted:
UNAMA documented a preliminary figure of 6,215 conflict-related civilian casualties during this period, including 2,412 deaths and 3,803 injuries. More than three quarters of all civilian casualties were linked to anti-Government elements reflecting an increase of 25 per cent over the same period in 2009. At the same time, the number of civilian casualties attributed to pro-Government forces decreased by 18 per cent compared with the first 10 months of 2009.
The situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security Section VII.55, Released Dec 10, 2010

Detailed civilian death tolls during the 1996-2001 Taliban government are subject to dispute because the Taliban had kicked out most foreign aid groups. We do have some specific reports of massacres against civilians
Here is an article on one of their more brutal moments where 4000-10000 civilians were killed in reprisals after capturing the city

The State Department's Human Rights report for 2001 on Afghanistan paints a bleak picture of ongoing extra-judicial killings, disappearances and internal displacements

The true numbers will never be known but it is certainly true that there were periods of exceptional disregard for human casualties on a scale well above the pace of incidents we see today.
posted by humanfont at 8:57 AM on January 4, 2011


Great post!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:16 AM on January 4, 2011


Mek, AlsoMike: At the risk of pointing out the rest of what I wrote, please read the rest of what I wrote. I'm not saying we should stay.

My honest opinion is that we screwed up in the very beginning because we didn't invade like we really meant it. Instead, we saved resources for Iraq, which was needless, when we should have used them in Afghanistan, when they would have likely made more of a difference. I don't feel bad that we invaded Afghanistan. I feel bad that the administration we had at the time screwed it up so badly that the situation is basically irretrievable now.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 9:58 AM on January 4, 2011




Mek, AlsoMike: At the risk of pointing out the rest of what I wrote, please read the rest of what I wrote. I'm not saying we should stay.

My honest opinion is that we screwed up in the very beginning because we didn't invade like we really meant it.


Sorry for not getting back to this earlier - my internet exploded for a few days. Anyway, I don't really want to tear into you for engaging this issue in a genuinely thoughtful way, but I think that this latter conclusion is just as wrong-headed as "we must stay." For many reasons, this war was doomed from its very inception, and its stated goals were and are functionally impossible to achieve. The world's largest and most advanced military did not fail to stabilize Afghanistan due to a lack of commitment.

For further reading I'll just link back to my colleague's comment on the same topic last week. I just noticed his Fisk link is broken, but it's worth reading. Heck, everything by that guy is.
posted by mek at 6:22 PM on January 7, 2011


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