Female Engagement Teams: U.S. Leaders Tank Ditch to Progress

Employing U.S. females to engage the Iraqi and now Afghan women is not a new idea. Small-unit leaders quickly learned storming a home went more smoothly with U.S. women present to keep Muslim women calm. Calm mitigates escalation.

Currently in Afghanistan, teams of women of varying size don their counterinsurgency garb and head into villages to meet with women, distribute medical supplies and glean the latest scoop on up-and-coming sheiks and who planted the latest IEDs and where they might be found.

Small Wars Journal recently published an article critical of U.S. half-hearted attempts in Afghanistan. At issue – the continued practice of ignoring the Afghan female population, fully half the nation.

Despite promising results from the female engagement teams and the push by some for FET units from every climate and culture, Small Wars says U.S. leaders are far from committed, and highlighted four factors that seem to be sabotaging coalition potential.

First are the “die-hard presumptions by battlefield commanders that engaging local women will pay no dividends.” Talking to local women is worth the effort. They wield influence over the family including their husbands and children who are Afghanistan’s future. Women have valuable information about the community, and they are willing to share.

Second is the “hackneyed hypotheses that female engagement teams will offend most Pashtun men.” Afghan Pashtun men like Western women and are not offended by their presence as many believe. They prefer them over U.S. males, seeing U.S. women as a sort of third gender. Whatever, it works. (Could it be the U.S. males who are intimidated by their female counterparts? Gasp! Sounds like one for the Magic Eight Ball.)

Third, crippling the FET effort is the continued “unwillingness to establish full-time FETs made up of volunteers who are given the resources and time to train as professionals should.” The teams are still ad hoc. They are thrown together with people who have other jobs and responsibilities.

Does this imply the FET work is not important enough to warrant full-time teams? Does this hint at the idea that Afghan women are unimportant and, dare we say, the counterinsurgency role of U.S. females equally inconsequential? Does it seem these women provide some gender service for male unit commanders? Creepy. If they took the teams seriously, it might not be so icky.

But the biggest problem may be the “failure to involve FETs in the planning stage of operations, leading to poorly conceived missions.” We say the true culprit is combat (or rather combat exclusion) and the divided gender-specific roles played upon the Afghan stage. During clearing operations, for example, female Marines may be “used” to calm the Afghan women, only to be disbanded when the crucial work is about to begin. Their full counterinsurgent potential is lost and the goodwill garnered is lost. Granted, their units are demanding their return, but Small Wars maintains the FETS should remain in the villages building relationships.

Are U.S. commanders unknowingly sabotaging their own hard-fought gains due to a lack of understanding and myopic approach to complex cultural challenges?

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