The Best Defense

Women in COIN (II): How to do it right

While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on October 9, 2009.

I've been reading a recent internal summary of how Marine "Female Engagement Teams," or FETs, have worked in Afghanistan. The bottom line is that done right, this approach works surprisingly well, with benefits among the population that can't be achieved by males. The findings run directly contrary to several assertions made in the comments reacting to my previous post on this subject.

First, Afghans don't seem to mind the female teams. Paradoxically, "Female Marines are extended the respect shown to men, but granted the access reserved for women," the report finds. "In other words, the culture is more flexible than we've conditioned ourselves to think."

Second, the teams have been successful in reaching the other half of the population, one that carries disproportionate influence with the prime Taliban recruiting pool. "Local women wield more influence than many of us imagined -- influence on their husbands, brothers, and especially their adolescent sons."

When one patrol that took a FET with it was observed, the female Marines were invited inside several compounds, while the male Marines stayed outside. "And in each case, the FET succeeded in breaking the ice and getting women to open up and discuss their daily lives and concerns." Nor was this an isolated event. When patrols returned, "we discovered some Afghan women had been anticipating the opportunity to meet American women. In one home, the women said they had caught glimpses of the patrolling FET through a crack in the wall and that they had ‘prayed you would come to us.'" The fact that the Afghan women welcomed return visits indicated that their men hadn't punished them for speaking to Americans.    

The women interviewed also had surprisingly diverse backgrounds. Though all impoverished now, some had once been prosperous. One group of young women reported that they had been held captive by the Taliban.

The interactions also seemed to change how some local men viewed the Marine presence. "One gentleman with a gray beard who opened his home to the FET put it this way: 'Your men come to fight, but we know the women are here to help.'"

But, the report warns, these teams can't be run casually. They are best done as a full-time job, overseen by an officer who trains and shapes the group, rather than a pick-up team of female Marines who happen to be around. The FETs also need extremely good interpreters, who must be female, fluent, and healthy enough to walk foot patrols. It also helps if they are self-confident enough to confront an Afghan male who rudely intrudes on the conversation.

There are several other tips in the report of the sort that only come from observed experience:

  • Afghan security forces have to be watched and prevented from coming along as peeping toms. A special eye needs to be kept on non-Pashtun soldiers and policemen. 
  • The female Marines should wear headscarves, so when they remove their helmets inside compounds they are clearly seen as women, especially by men watching from the sidelines.
  • First engagements should not be turned into interviews. Nothing freezes interaction quickly than ripping through a list of questions, the report notes, except perhaps whipping out a notebook in which to record the answers. Do that only on subsequent visits, after a relationship has been developed.
  • Take humanitarian aid into the compounds, where the women can get it, instead of dumping it on a clamoring crowd in the marketplace, where the strongest, fastest or most-feared men get it. "We recommend using the FETs to distribute grain directly to the women of each household." Good gifts are rice, beans, sugar, tea, cooking oil and aspirin. 
  • The FETs need two types of preparation: All the Marine stuff about patrolling, search techniques, and immediate action drills, plus training in culture, history and the use of interpreters.

NB: The main barrier to more intensive and extensive use of the teams seems to be the inflexibility not of Afghan men but of U.S. Marine and Army officers.


The Best Defense

Taliban without al Qaeda? Don’t bet on it

If the Taliban took over Afghanistan, would al Qaeda again have a safe haven? I think so. The time to drive a wedge betwixt the two was back in 2002-2003, after the American invasion, when both groups had fled Afghanistan in disarray, and were licking their wounds and reproaching each other as they hid in Pakistani frontier villages.

That thought is provoked by an article in today's New York Times and by a  series of interesting interviews with Taliban members recently carried by Newsweek. After the U.S. arrived, notes one Talibaner interviewed: 

The Arabs were disappointed the Taliban hadn't stood and fought. They told me they had wanted to fight to the death. They were clearly not as distressed as the Afghans. This was understandable. The Arabs felt they had lost a battle. But the Afghans were much more devastated-they had lost a country."

The groups began rebuilding, the same Talibani recalls, by using raids and even funerals as recruiting and fund-raising tools. After one cross-border raid against an American outpost, he recalled:

We carried the stiff and bloodied bodies of our martyrs back to Wana. Thousands of locals attended their funerals. ... As the news traveled, a lot of former Taliban began returning to Wana to join us.

Another Taliban member says they benefited from American violence and the abuses of the Kabul government:

The Afghan Taliban were weak and disorganized. But slowly the situation began to change. American operations that harassed villagers, bombings that killed civilians, and Karzai's corrupt police were alienating villagers and turning them in our favor. Soon we didn't have to hide so much on our raids. We came openly. When they saw us, villagers started preparing green tea and food for us. The tables were turning. Karzai's police and officials mostly hid in their district compounds like prisoners.

As the old John Hiatt song laments, this is the way we make a broken heart. Or rather, this is the way we allowed a medieval bunch of Afghan hillbillies to re-group while we distracted ourselves with an unnecessary war in Iraq.

Meanwhile, someone tried to blow up the Indian Embassy in Kabul today. I wonder who doesn't like Indian influence in the Afghan capital?