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


  1. Cynthia Beam says:

    Abby, We are so proud of you . You may not remember me I am your moms cousin Cyndi. I am also The Past State Commander Of the Disabled American Veterans of The State Of Vermont. So if you need anything or I can help with anything let me know. The film was great and I am so proud to know you are there. Your cousin Cyndi

  2. Elizabeth Chase says:

    Abby, I always thought you were someone special and you are. The film was incredibly informative to those of us so far away.Seeing you in your working world so far away brought tears to my eyes.We the woman of Springfield are so very proud of you and the work you do for our country.

  3. geoff says:

    Wow. Very inspiring work. Glad to see some positive progress and smart problem solving going on over there.

    Thanks so much.

  4. Joe says:

    Great work Abby, we need a lot more women just like you if we are to have success in this war.

  5. Olga says:

    Wish I was there with you on your mission.

  6. Phyllis Millette says:

    Thank Heavens for the US Female Marines. This is the first time the invasion has turned out helpful to the citizens of Afghanistan. Thank you one and all

  7. mark lenfest says:

    now send them to congrss they need to let them know how wrong they are

  8. mark lenfest says:

    send the combatants home leave these great women as somone said thonly positive thing to come out of this war the only time i felt iwas doing any good in nam was when we were treating the vilagers

  9. Ruth Schaaf says:

    A heart warming initiative. We need more of this. This is hopeful.

  10. Maniza says:

    Ah that must be it! Women US soldiers in Afghanistan—the war is being lost by the US because it doesn’t have more women soldiers in Afghanistan????? What are you smoking!

  11. John B F says:

    The compassion we have as humans is undeniable, but I get upset when warriors reach out and try to become humanitarians. The line between military action, killing, fighting and caring is unfortunately gloriously, painfully blurred by Army personnel. How can I deny that essentially what these women do is good? I cannot. But you must also know that my work as a medical humanitarian non-military Nurse Practitioner is compromised and my colleagues and myself are endangered and sometimes killed because the humanitarian space has been violated. Armies and soldiers are for fighting.

  12. Great blog here! Additionally your website lots up fast! What web host are you using? Can I get your associate hyperlink for your host? I wish my site loaded up as quickly as yours lol

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