Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

“Reach the Women”: The US military’s experiment of female soldiers working with Afghan women

Gary Owen 13 min

In 2009, the United States military in Afghanistan started deploying female soldiers to the field so that they could interact with Afghan women during operations and patrols. A picture of life as a member of what were called Female Engagement and Cultural Support Teams has come in a recently published book, Ashley’s War, by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. AAN’s guest author Gary Owen (*) has been reading the book and looking at other sources in order to find out more about these units presented as going out to “hear children’s and women’s concerns.” The missions’ mandate was vague, he says, no tools were developed to monitor its success or failure and the female soldiers ended up doing all sorts of things, from teaching Native American culture to Afghan kids to holding women at gun point. For the US military, the experiment was a success; it spearheaded a significant shift in American military policy, opening up many positions to women that had not been available before. However, one thing the teams did not achieve, Gary Owen concludes, was help Afghan women.

Since the fall of the Taleban, empowering Afghan women has been one of the goals of many of the various countries and agencies that have been part of the post-2001 intervention in Afghanistan, including the US. A great deal of money has been put toward that effort, most recently by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) with its five-year, 416 million dollars ‘Promote’ project designed to “empower women to become leaders alongside their male counterparts.” (1) However, on the battlefield, coalition forces were late to recognise that women, both Afghan and in their own military, could be useful. It was not until 2010 that the US developed two programmes to enable them to deal with Afghan women civilians. Conventional forces fielded Female Engagement Teams and special operations forces stood up their own women-only ‘Cultural Support Teams’, both meant to enable connections to civilian Afghan women on the battlefield.

The recent release of the book ‘Ashley’s War,’ by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, about Ashley White, a Cultural Support Team operator who was killed in action in Kandahar in 2011, has focused public attention on the all-women teams attached to special operations teams. Like most American counterinsurgency (COIN) initiatives, the results are difficult to quantify. However, both initiatives played an important role in the securing a role for women in ‘combat arms positions’ in the US military. Combat arms are those military specialties, like infantry, field artillery, and special operations forces like the SEALs, that had always been closed to women due to gender because they were expected to involve fighting. The teams proved that not only could women play a role in attempting to counter an insurgency, they could do so while operating side-by-side with some of the most elite members of America’s armed forces.

From men on horseback to women reaching out to women

The US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 happened in the most American way possible: an all-male assault, with Green Berets riding on horses like cavalry in a spaghetti Western calling in airstrikes on Kalashnikov-toting terrorists and eventually toppling the Taleban regime. Eventually though, the ‘remnants’ of al-Qaida and the Taleban having been (repeatedly) mopped up and the insurgency sparked, there came the realization that the coalition also had to try to win hearts and minds; at about the same time the US launched a determined effort to capture or kill so-called ‘high value targets’ in order to defeat or at least degrade the insurgency was also underway.

In order to execute its kill/capture campaign, the Americans used a variety of tactics, including precision air strikes and night raids on Afghan homes suspected of harbouring insurgents. Both caused upset among the Afghan population and friction between President Karzai and his American allies, since the airstrikes also killed civilians, and the night raids meant that Afghan homes were being broken into by foreigners on a regular basis.

The sanctity of the Afghan home is something poorly understood by Westerners, but the American military did come to realise that the biggest challenge they faced was the presence of women in those homes and the taboo they broke in entering them. Even during the day, while conducting patrols to collect ‘atmospherics,’ US soldiers were unable to talk to Afghan women given the scandal this would trigger. And trying to ‘reach the women’ was a distinctly American aspect to the growing counterinsurgency and ensuing development efforts. It was not going to be enough to get rid of the Taleban if the US did not also do something to improve gender equality in the country.

A need for women soldiers was therefore also felt in the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) which were established over several years from 2003 onwards by the Americans and their allies. Led by military personnel, supported by civilian development experts and working with local Afghan government leaders, the PRTs’ aim was to try to convince Afghan civilians of the merits of international forces and their government.

They were one of the conduits for development funding under the COIN concept of ‘money as a weapons system’. (2) In addition to USAID funds, local commanders had funds available to support smaller development projects they thought might help win the hearts and minds of the population, one of the main tenets of COIN. The PRTs’ focus on the entire population of Afghanistan meant that there was a need for American women to accompany American troops on patrol, especially after the military surge in 2009 and its corresponding civilian surge meant to extend the reach of foreign dollars and advisers to the Afghan civilian population.

There was one clear problem: even though women were allowed to do many of the same jobs as their male counterparts, they were not allowed to serve in combat arms positions. This meant that the infantry, which regularly engaged the civilian population, was entirely male. Thus, for the programmes run by the military and their USAID/Department of State partners at the PRTs which focused on women, the Female Engagement Team concept was born.

The Female Engagement Teams of all services had a fairly simple mission: reach the women. According to the commander of one of the conventional Army teams, “Our job is to get the women and children’s side of the story and hear their concerns.” In a COIN environment, ‘concerns’ are all tied to supporting that COIN mission. So one woman’s worry that her husband lost his job as an opium farmer could be used as actionable intelligence in countering opium production in the area. While the Female Engagement Teams were focused on so-called ‘soft’ information collection, there was also always the possibility that the information they collected could be used as part of more direct military action later.

Clearing a room at gun point, teaching native American culture

The first Female Engagement Teams in Afghanistan were formed by US Marines in Farah province in 2009, with origins in similar programmes in Iraq. Where those efforts differed was in the focus of the mission: while the Iraq teams were more concerned with security, the Female Engagement Teams in Afghanistan broadened the scope to include more interaction with the women and children encountered on patrol. Early Female Engagement Team efforts were fairly ad hoc, but the Marines formalised the training process, and the first teams trained specifically for the mission were fielded in 2010. Their main purpose was to provide security for the rest of the patrol by searching the women and children if required, but they were also trained on basic information collection, asking questions such as the most difficult problem facing a particular village. The female Marines were also given rudimentary cultural training and a refresher course on combat skills in the event they did encounter the enemy. The other services followed suit, and soon Female Engagement Teams were made up of women from all branches of the military.

Even with formalised training, the end result could still be fairly ad hoc, though. When journalist Ann Jones, writing for The Nation, joined a US Army Female Engagement Team in Kunar in the summer of 2010, she saw an improvisational approach to Female Engagement Team organisation and training. The women in the teams had their other ‘day’ jobs to do as well, turning up at night “to see a PowerPoint presentation on Afghan history, learn Pashto greetings from the young Afghan-American female interpreter (or ‘terp’) assigned to the team, or study patrol formations with the infantry sergeant and then go outside to drill in the dark.”

The team she accompanied, which had only trained for two weeks, seemed ill-equipped for the cultural challenges they faced: “The team had been taught to ‘clear’ a room at gunpoint,” according to Jones, but hadn’t been given basic cultural training on things like not “pointing the soles of their feet at their hosts” when seated. Teams could also find themselves doing tasks that seemed to have no bearing on the mission at all, like teaching kids in Kunar about Native American culture, or a month later about the wonders of Australia.

Fighting an insurgency means being prepared at a moment’s notice for the eruption of violence. The village the patrol walked through one day might be hostile the next because someone’s cousin had been killed in an airstrike. So the villagers that brought tea the one day might be ready to tell the Taleban “the Americans are here” the next. In the Female Engagement Team, this dichotomy was even more stark, as the members were expected to gather information from the women, which meant sitting in a quieter setting away from the men, but also prepared to help defend their unit against insurgents if they came under attack. That constant contradiction meant that their mission could change fast, often leaving Female Engagement Teams with just a vague notion about their purpose.

Dum Dums lollipops for the kids

That changed with the advent of Cultural Support Teams, the term chosen to describe the all-women teams which began to be fielded with special operations forces that wanted similar cultural engagement for their units. In the spring of 2010, then-commander of US Special Operations Command, Navy Admiral Eric Olson, issued an order to create these new teams. The first Cultural Support Teams were deployed to Afghanistan in 2011, and it was while on a raid with US Army Rangers that Cultural Support Team member Lieutenant Ashley White was killed by an IED.

The Cultural Support and Female Engagement Teams differed in a couple of key ways: while the Female Engagement Teams were often comprised of volunteers who also did their military ‘day’ job, Cultural Support Teams trained specifically for their role. Women went through a weeklong formalised selection process at Fort Bragg, home to some of the most elite units in the US military, including the secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). That process mirrored training undergone by American Special Forces (SF, commonly called ‘Green Berets’) and was designed to test candidates both mentally and physically. That was followed by six weeks of additional training in how to work with special operations units.

The physical and mental requirements for the Cultural Support Teams were also greater, as they would be operating in conjunction with special operations units, with the expectation that they would be able to keep pace with troops used to operating more aggressively than some of their conventional counterparts. The initial week of selection was referred to by its architect, Major Patrick McCarthy, as “100 hours of hell.”

Later on, according to Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, most of the Cultural Support Teams supported ‘Village Stability Operations,’ (VSOs) helping the Green Berets and Navy SEALs running those operations “to better understand local power and politics dynamics and community needs as they sought to win ‘hearts and minds.’” The point of VSOs was to establish localised nodes of security, most notably by helping stand up Afghan Local Police (ALP) units, which were a crucial part of the COIN effort. None of those operations are profiled in Lemmon’s book, though, which is a curious editorial choice.

Members of other teams, such as Ashley White whom Lemmon wrote about, had no such ‘hearts and minds’ role. They were working with Rangers, the special operations unit noted for only participating in what the military refers to as ‘direct action.’ Rangers, unlike their Green Beret counterparts, prefer the capture/kill approach to COIN and as such were often given the night raids that were so disruptive to Afghan homes. Working with the Rangers, the Cultural Support Teams, writes Lemmon, would be “responsible for building crucial relationships with women on the scene that would reveal the information needed to help capture insurgents. This work would be done inside the homes of Afghan women and would take place in the midst of night raids aimed at capturing the weapons makers, fighters, organizers, funders, and insurgency leaders with whom the women lived as mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, and grandmothers.”

One scene from the book excerpted for Slate magazine covers their role well:

“I am Amber,” she told the frightened group, looking the women directly in the eyes as Jimmie translated. “I’m an American soldier, and we are here to help keep you and your children safe. We will make sure that none of the soldiers come near here.”

Slowly she put on her blue nitrile gloves, and softened her tone. “I am going to start by searching you—this just helps us all to stay safe.” Then she removed her helmet to make herself look less scary, and make it clear she was a woman, too. One of the children immediately stopped crying, and Amber draped a teal-colored cotton scarf over what she now called her “combat braids”: two long, blond plaits of hair that extended from just above her ears to her mid-shoulders. The higher-ups had told the Cultural Support Teams they should be able to prove quickly and uncontrovertibly that they were female while out on the objective; this would put the Afghan women at ease, which in turn might encourage them to speak more freely and share valuable information.

The Cultural Support Teams had joked about being asked to shed their helmets on target and how insane that would sound to most of the guys they worked with. “Hell, no,” one of the Rangers told Amber. “You’d never catch me doing that.” But they all agreed that making sure the women saw and understood who they were dealing with mattered most. Amber had turned to braids as a solution; they allowed her to look feminine without her hair getting caught in her helmet.

Amber pulled Jolly Ranchers, Tootsie Rolls, and Dum Dums lollipops from the pockets of her cargo pants as she searched the children. “Hands out,” she said, and half a dozen little hands tentatively reached out to accept the multicolored treats in clear, cellophane wrappers. The little boys were all curious about which candy the others were receiving; the tallest—she guessed he was the oldest—began divvying them up among the other kids.

As they stared at the exotic treats, Amber gently patted each one on the shoulder. Once she was done, she gave the kids the internationally recognized gesture of success: a hearty high-five. No one expected the kids to be carrying weapons, but they certainly could be given things to hold by men in their family who might think they were an ideal place to store whatever they did not want found.

A frustrating lack of answers

As American involvement in Afghanistan winds down, the future of these programmes is uncertain. Marine Female Engagement Teams ended their operations in 2012, ostensibly transferring those duties to their Afghan army counterparts. (3) Army Female Engagement Teams were still operating in the country into the fall of last year, but any semblance of formal Female Engagement Team operations had devolved from standing up dedicated teams commanded by female soldiers to preparing a handful of women to support future so-called ‘Key Leader Engagements’ by having them complete two day classes at Kandahar Airfield. Elsewhere, reported Foreign Police in 2011, US Special Operations Command was making plans to expand the Cultural Support Team programme, sending teams to “its other places of operations such as Africa (sic) where similar conservative indigenous environments limit a male soldier’s ability to interact with women.”

Looking back at the experience of the all-women teams in Afghanistan, the question of whether they were successful is impossible to answer given that no tools were developed to measure their success. A March 2014 paper published by the Chr. Michelsen Institute concluded that, in addition to clear measurements for success, the female engagement concept “demonstrated lack of consistency, assuming on the one hand that women would rise up at the call from Female Engagement Teams because they wanted to remove the shackles of oppression, but simultaneously avoiding the discourse of rights.” And trying to find answers to their effectiveness in Lemmon’s book is similarly frustrating.

From the book it is also impossible to pass judgment on the effectiveness of those Cultural Support Teams tasked with ‘hearts and minds’ missions. Instead, Lemmon looks at the experiment from the American women soldiers’ point of view, profiling the struggles of women who were denied the opportunity to be in combat arms units because of their gender and then saw an opportunity in the Cultural Support Teams and working with the Rangers to prove they could do what the men could do, and in some cases prove that being an ex-cheerleader (one of the book’s character’s previous lives) did not mean you could not be tough, too.

What becomes clear is that fielding these teams was never about providing assistance to Afghan women beyond what that assistance could do to support the military mission. A memo written by one of the early architects of the Cultural Support Team, Claire Russo, a former Marine intelligence officer, illustrates this. She stressed that the Cultural Support Team programmes should focus on “hard skills such as tactical questioning, engagement, and basic tactical movements” and not what she termed “culture classes.” So while the teams could run Australian Culture Days in Kunar, they were there for one reason and one reason only: make sure the night raids went well. They did have one unintended consequence though; they paved the way for women to serve in combat units in the US military in the future.

By successfully teaming females with top level units, special operations forces in Afghanistan indeed spearheaded a significant shift in American military policy. That shift began in earnest in January of 2013, when then Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta gave all branches of the military until January 2016 to provide justification for special exceptions to keep any military positions closed to women. If any branch of the military now wants to close a job to a woman, they need to explain why in detail. As part of that change, this spring marked the first time women were allowed to attend the US Army’s Ranger School in Fort Benning, Georgia, an elite combat leaders’ course.

For Afghan women facing American soldiers breaking into their home in the middle of the night, the Cultural Support Teams meant they at least got to be searched by someone of their own gender, kept apart while male soldiers searched the rest of the house, and saw their kids getting some hard candy. While the Cultural Support Team mission was less vague than their Female Engagement Team counterparts, the effect on Afghanistan and the counterinsurgency effort was the same: it was something the Americans needed to help the American military effort. This is what happens when one wages war. The pragmatism is not what was problematic about the Cultural Support Teams. Rather, it was the suggestion that this was ever about doing anything for Afghan women once the raid was over.

As one of the Ranger instructors featured in Ashley’s War explains to the Cultural Support Teams during training, “We are not at war to pass out blankets and hugs. I need you to find out where the bad guys are, as quick as you can.”


(*) Read Gary Owen’s more personal review of the book in his blog Sunny in Kabul here.

(1) According to USAID, “Promote is a joint commitment by the U.S. and Afghan Governments that will work to empower 75,000 women between the ages of 18-30 and help ensure these women are included among a new generation of Afghan political, business, and civil society leaders. Promote aims to empower women to become leaders alongside their male counterparts, and ensure they have the skills, experience, knowledge, and networks to succeed.”

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has been less than enthusiastic about the programme, stating in a letter to USAID that it was “concerned that some very basic programmatic issues remain unresolved and that the Afghan women engaged in the programme may be left without any tangible benefit upon completion.” In that same letter, SIGAR voiced similar concerns from Afghan first lady Rula Ghani, who hoped that Promote would not be a “game of contracting and sub-contracting and the routine of workshops and training sessions generating a lot of certificates on paper and little else.” Ghani is referring to the common practice by USAID to contract the work on these programmes to so-called ‘implementing partners,’ who then contract with local organizations to complete the work.

(2) This applied mainly to the Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP), which gave military commanders the ability to fund projects they thought might help win hearts and minds.

(3) See for example this excerpt from a Fox News report:

The men on the team prepared to raid the house and arrest or kill the target. Abdali and two other female colleagues were tasked with making sure no women or children were harmed during the operation.

The most dangerous part of their assignment was the possibility that the main target was hiding among the women — perhaps in disguise — so Abdali and her colleagues had to stay alert to make sure they themselves were not attacked while getting innocent women and children out of harm’s way.


Afghan Women COIN combat Cultural Support Teams Female Engagement Teams female soldiers special forces US military