When Half the Country is Off Limits

January 31, 2011 | Caitlin Thompson

fets_thumbnailOf the many challenges facing United States military engaged in the war in Afghanistan, chief among them is a battle for perceptions. Are American-led coalition forces seen as an occupier or as a crucial rehabilitator of a broken country? In the nine-year conflict, not only has the coalition been tasked with deposing the Taliban and securing the country from insurgent attacks, but it has also had to lay the groundwork for a self-governing political system. In order to do this, earning the trust of both government leaders and everyday citizens is paramount. And in a country where politics is played at the most local levels, winning hearts and minds can be the most critical mission.

But what happens if half the country is off limits? Because of strong cultural traditions – particularly in the tribal Pashtun regions of the country – men are forbidden from interacting with women unless bonded by marriage or blood. And as a result, coalition forces have been limited by whom they can talk to when trying to engage in the kind of small-scale diplomacy that can prevent an angry villager from joining the insurgency.

“You really have to have female counter-insurgents if you are expecting to have a successful counterinsurgency strategy,” says U.S. Marine Captain Matt Pottinger. “If you cannot access or even deliver a message to half of the population just because of this taboo between the sexes, you’re at an enormous disadvantage in trying to persuade people that you’re there for reasons that are in their interests.”

Capt. Pottinger spent five years as a Marine, deployed once to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan. It was on his first Afghan deployment in Helmand and Farah in 2006, when he found himself in a rural outpost meeting only with local men, that he and fellow Marines came up with the idea of using female-only teams to talk to the community’s women.

“Having female Marines available would help in reassuring local men in that area that the male Marines would respect local customs with regards to separation of the sexes,” he says.fets_body_image

The concept itself wasn’t new. In Iraq, “Lioness” teams of female Marines had been successfully used to conduct searches of local women. But Capt. Pottinger thought the teams could be used not only for military objectives, but also for community outreach such as medical treatment missions that included women – something that was otherwise impossible.

“What we wanted to do in Afghanistan that took the Lioness concept even further was to put the focus not on searching women, but on actually engaging with them and learning about what was happening in the areas,” he says. “Making it more of a conversation and an engagement.”

These units, known as female engagement teams or F.E.T.s, received early and enthusiastic support from some military brass, but there was some pushback from the U.S. Congress.

“Politicians tend to react when they hear there are women in potential combat situations,” he says. “There’s political risk, and there are real physical risks.”

And many of the more junior officers expressed doubt at the program’s utility. Until they saw how effective female Marines were with local Afghans, that is.

“We had an engagement with an older woman from the village,” says Sergeant Abby Blaisdell, a F.E.T. leader. “She wanted to see the doc for her headaches. The doctor determined she had headaches from fasting for Ramadan, and gave her some Aspirin to take at night.”

These female engagement teams were first deployed in Afghanistan in February 2009 as an ad hoc experiment in the Marines. F.E.T. units have now spread to the Army, Air Force and Navy, and there are currently 40 teams working in provinces throughout the country. There is also a months-long formal training process that creates all-female companies of officers as opposed to the quick-and-dirty training in the days leading up to a mission.

Because the F.E.T.s are reaching one of the most isolated communities in the world, the intelligence and cultural understanding that emerges from behind the veils is that much more important.

“As a woman, I can relate to some of the experiences they have being in a male-dominated career – being in the military,” says Sgt. Blaisdell. “I love this job. When you know that you’ve helped somebody, that’s worth it to me.”

fets_body_image2Pottinger recalls when a Marine patrol was sent to secure a village from which insurgents had perpetrated a string of IED attacks. The tribal elder agreed to allow the Marines to search the village’s homes, but only after being assured that no western men would lay eyes on the village’s women.

“We had brought a team of seven female Marines and an Afghan-American woman serving as an interpreter,” he says. While the men searched, the F.E.T. approached the village’s women. “I mean it was really the first time where female Marines in Afghanistan, at least in Helmand province, had made contact with local women.”

The Marine’s mission was successful – they found an IED-making workshop and detained three of the village men. Meanwhile, the F.E.T. discovered that the village women were terrified of the metal-detecting wand Marines had been using to conduct searches and preferred being pat down by the female Marines.

“They were totally fine with any physical contact instead of the wand, and that broke the ice,” he says. “The local women warmed to these Marines, and at one point one of the local women asked one of the Marines if she could sing. It created a really surreal moment where they’d been in there for over an hour and suddenly there’s singing coming out of the house and the local women were really enthralled in hearing one of these Marines sing songs for them.”

Pottinger also says that there are early indications that the F.E.T.s are also winning over an unintended audience – Afghan men.

“I remember one old guy who said, ‘The men are here to fight, but we know that women are here to help,'” he says. “That was his assumption. ‘If they’re women, they’re not here to get in gunfights with Taliban. They must be trying to do something for us.'”

Women, War & Peace followed a Female Engagement Team, led by Sergeant Abby Blaisdell, during a week of missions in Arghandab Valley, Afghanistan