18 February 2010

Looking for a few good women...

Another day, another great article from Small Wars Journal. Today, I was treated to a great piece on "Female Engagement Teams" (or "FET"), teams of female American service members and linguists who gather human intelligence and perform medical care in Afghan villages.

Counterinsurgency is all about the population, and guess what: half the population is female. More importantly, women also comprise the most vehemently anti-Taliban portion of Afghanistan's population. If you're looking to start an "oil spot" among the local population, winning over the women is a good starting point.

Westerners often overlook the role of women in the Muslim cultures, relying on stereotypes which teach us that women play little role, if any, in these sorts of societies. Nothing could be further from the truth; the role of women in Pashtun regions should be no surprise to anyone who has opened up a sociology textbook. As the authors note, engaging both women and men with FETs pays off huge dividends in counterinsurgency operations:

Some officers still imagine that engaging women is not worth the effort. “Pashtun women don’t have enough influence or knowledge to make valuable allies,” they argue. On the contrary, experience confirms that local women wield more influence in their homes—including over their husbands and their sons—than people uninitiated in Afghan family culture believe to be the case.

Rural Pashtun women are responsible for raising children, collecting water, cooking, and helping farm and care for animals, among other jobs. Though rarely seen by outsiders, they are keen observers and opinion-makers about the goings-on in their villages. “The women pass all the news in the villages,” says an Afghan National Army colonel who cautions against ignoring half the country’s population. “They know who is doing what, who should and should not be in the area. They talk around the well or while they are collecting firewood about the news they have heard from their husbands [and their kids].”

The tactical benefits of speaking with women have already been well established. Pashtun women have on numerous occasions given FETs important information about local personalities, economics, and grievances, as well as about the enemy. The longer-term benefits of earning the confidence and support of Afghan women are more difficult to quantify but, on balance, are likely to be even more profound....

...Many Pashtun men, far from shunning American women, show a preference for interacting with them over U.S. men. Pashtun men tend to view foreign women troops as a kind of “third gender.” As a result, female servicewomen are accorded the advantages, rather than the disadvantages, of both genders: they are extended the respect shown to men, but are granted the access to home and family normally reserved to women. In many circumstances, this attitude opens opportunities to allied forces. Afghan culture turns out to be more flexible than many male officers have conditioned themselves to believe.
As the article stresses, few commanders realize the value of FETs, and the teams are often undermanned, or staffed by female "volunteers"--which, in military terminology, means less-than-enthusiastic participants in the program. Moreover, serving on a FET is an "additional duty" for many, which means that a number of female service members still have to perform their regular "day jobs". In addition to the obvious difficulty of balancing two jobs, the New York Times also hints at a bigger issue, one of petty office politics. Indeed, if commanders are forced to give up a female for the FETs, they might choose to send their less-than-stellar performers, allowing their better female troops to divert their full attention to their regular duties. Once again, petty office politics sometimes rears its head.

Certainly, it should not be too difficult to fully staff these teams. There are many females assigned logistical or administrative jobs on large forward operating bases who would love to get out from behind a desk and participate in FETs. In fact, on larger forward operating bases, it's easy to forget that you're in another country, as there's often little more than US service members and contractors running about. Surprisingly,
female service members had a higher chance of becoming pregnant than they did of meeting an actual Afghan female "outside the wire"!

I found it interesting that many FET members actually asked to have their tours of duty extended, and claimed that they would volunteer to return to Afghanistan as a FET. Rank need not be a factor among FET team members either, FETs need women with good social and diplomatic skills, and they need full-time, enthusiastic participants, not "hey-you" team members.

There are a lot of great vignettes in the article that are well-worth reading. Most amusing, though, was the ending, in which the authors dubunk the rumor that women aren't allowed in jobs which specialize in combat. People still believe that in this day and age?

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