Woman to Woman in Afghanistan

Ann Jones wrote an interesting article in The Nation about the deployment of Female Engagement Teams as part of a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan:

The American military had been engaged in Afghanistan for almost eight years before anyone seemed to notice the effects of the occupation on nearly half the adult population, which happens to be female. George W. Bush had famously announced the “liberation” of Afghan women from the Taliban and let it go at that. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton points to women’s progress on paper and in public life in the Afghan capital as reason to continue the war, lest those gains be lost. But among most Afghans, especially the nearly 80 percent who live in rural areas, the effect of the American military presence has been to replicate for women the confinement they suffered under the Taliban. Given cultural rules against mixing the sexes, Afghan men lock up their women to protect them from foreigners; and the American military, an old boys’ club itself, feels comfortable enough with that tradition to honor it.

But after Gen. David Petraeus resurrected the edicts of counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare from the ash heap of Vietnam and inscribed them in the 2006 US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, they appeared in Afghanistan as holy writ, reinforcing famous “lessons learned” from Iraq and exalted to the level of “strategy.” COIN tactics (for that’s all they are) call first for protecting the “civilian populace” and then “rebuilding infrastructure and basic services” and “establishing local governance and the rule of law.” American commanders, saddled with nation-building, doled out millions of dollars in discretionary funds intended for short-term humanitarian projects to build roads (which unescorted women can’t use) and mosques (for men only) before anyone suggested that women perhaps should be consulted.

In February 2009 Marine Capt. Matt Pottinger set out to do something about that. He helped organize and train a team of women Marines to meet with Afghan women, just as male soldiers had been meeting with Afghan men for years to drink tea and discuss those ill-conceived “infrastructure” projects. A handful of female Marines and a civilian linguist, led by Second Lt. Johanna Shaffer, formed that first Female Engagement Team (FET). Its mission was a “cordon and search” operation in Farah province that included “engaging with” Pashtun women and giving them some “humanitarian supplies”—known in COIN jargon as PSPs, or Population Support Packages, which might contain anything from a crank radio to a teddy bear—to earn their “goodwill.” That’s the point of protecting the populace—to win them over to our side so the forsaken insurgents will shrivel up and die. These tactics failed miserably in Vietnam, and they appear to be failing in Afghanistan, but with counterinsurgency as our avowed “strategy,” Pottinger’s idea of engaging the hidden half of the populace was way, way overdue.

The article points out an important similarity between Afghan and American military women:

The American and Afghan women had things in common, but these seemed harder for the Americans to see. Just as Afghan women routinely endure physical abuse, several women on other FETs told me that physical abuse at home had driven them into the military, unaware as they were of the huge incidence of abuse and rape within the armed forces. As a Marine lieutenant, Claire Russo was raped by a fellow officer and so brutally sodomized that the physical damage is beyond repair. The Marine Corps, knowing this was not the man’s first offense, declined to take action against him. Russo took the case to a criminal prosecutor, and her assailant, Capt. Douglas Dowson, was sentenced to three years in a California prison. After that, in July 2006 at a special ceremony at Camp Pendleton, Russo received an award from the San Diego County district attorney as a “citizen of courage” plus accolades from public officials all the way up to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who hailed her “resilience and resolve in the face of crime.” Her three-star commander said that in pursuing her case despite potential backlash, she “exemplified” the Marine Corps values of “honor, courage, and commitment.” To explain her dedication now, as a civilian adviser, to creating new FETs for the Army, Russo says, “The Marines leave no ‘man’ behind—unless you’re a girl. I was through with the corps, but I wasn’t through serving.” She serves today as a muscular, formidably fit civilian with a very large handgun always tucked in her belt.

In November 2009 the commanding general of the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command signed an order calling on military units to “create female teams to build relations with Afghan women.” Pottinger, Jilani and Russo write, “This order…reflects the considered judgment of command that FETs are an important part of our evolving counterinsurgency strategy.” That’s a legitimate argument for creating FETs of full-time, fully trained, professional female engagement soldiers to execute the clear-cut mission of bringing security to “the populace.” That is, if you subscribe to the American occupation of Afghanistan at all—as I do not—and to the magic of counterinsurgency, which lately has been losing out as the tactic du jour to the more macho “kill or capture.” But the commanders who blather about counterinsurgency yet fail almost entirely, and contrary to direct orders, to engage half the populace give the game away. To most of the military establishment, the FETs are not “an important part” of US strategy at all. Far from it. But American women meeting Afghan women may be the start of something more important than that.

Meanwhile, during a visit to the Marine Corps Base Hawaii, the head of the Marine Corps announced that the Corps will be downsized:

The new commandant of the Marine Corps revealed during a visit to Marine Corps Base Hawaii yesterday that the size of the Corps would drop to 186,800 from 202,000 after the U.S. pulls out of Afghanistan.

However, with the frenetic pace of base construction in Afghanistan (Col. Ann Wright reported that there are more than 400 military bases in Afghanistan), it seems that the U.S. has no plans to leave that country any time soon.

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