In Afghan War, Letting Women Reach Women
The Marines in a recent “cultural awareness” class scribbled careful notes as the instructor coached them on do’s and don’ts when talking to villagers in Afghanistan: Don’t start by firing off questions, do break the ice by playing with the children, don’t let your interpreter hijack the conversation.
And one more thing: “If you have a pony tail,” said Marina Kielpinski, the instructor, “let it go out the back of your helmet so people can see you’re a woman.”
These are not your mother’s Marines here in the rugged California chaparral of Camp Pendleton, where 40 young women are preparing to deploy to Afghanistan in one of the more forward-leaning experiments of the American military.
Next month they will begin work as members of the first full-time “female engagement teams,” the military’s name for four- and five-member units that will accompany men on patrols in Helmand Province to try to win over the rural Afghan women who are culturally off limits to outside men. The teams, which are to meet with the Afghan women in their homes, assess their need for aid and gather intelligence, are part of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s campaign for Afghan hearts and minds. His officers say that you cannot gain the trust of the Afghan population if you only talk to half of it.
“We know we can make a difference,” said Capt. Emily Naslund, 26, the team’s executive officer and second in command. Like the other 39 women, Captain Naslund volunteered for the program and radiates exuberance, but she is not naïve about the frustrations and dangers ahead. Half of the women have been deployed before, most to Iraq.
“We all know that what you expect is not usually what it’s going to end up being,” said Sgt. Melissa Hernandez, 35, who signed on because she wanted something different than her office job at Camp Victory, the American military headquarters in Baghdad.
As envisioned, the teams will work like American politicians who campaign door to door and learn what voters care about. A team is to arrive in a village, get permission from the male elder to speak with the women, settle into a compound, hand out school supplies and medicine, drink tea, make conversation and, ideally, get information about the village, local grievances and the Taliban.
Whatever the outcome, the teams reflect how much the military has adapted over nine years of war, not only in the way it fights but to the shifting gender roles within its ranks. Women make up only 6 percent of the Marine Corps, which cultivates an image as the most testosterone-fueled service, and they are still officially barred from combat branches like the infantry.
But in a bureaucratic sleight of hand, used by both the Army and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan when women have been needed for critical jobs like bomb disposal or intelligence, the female engagement teams are to be “attached” to all-male infantry units within the First Marine Expeditionary Force — a source of pride and excitement for them.
“When I heard about this, I said, Oh, that’s it, let’s go,” said Cpl. Vanessa Jones, 25.
The idea for the teams grew out of the “Lioness” program in Iraq, which used female Marines to search Iraqi women at checkpoints. Over the past year in Afghanistan, the Army and Marines have assembled ad hoc female engagement teams, but the women were hastily pulled from work as cooks or engineers.
The women at Pendleton are among the first to be trained exclusively for the mission. “Every Marine wants to go outside the wire,” said Cpl. Michele Greco-Lucchina, 22, referring to assignments off the base. “We all join for different reasons, but that’s the basis for being a Marine.”
The women said they were not looking for combat and would work in areas largely cleared of militants. But in a war with no front lines, and to be prepared for ambushes and snipers, they have taken an extended combat-training refresher course.
On patrols, the women will carry M-4 rifles, which are shorter and more maneuverable than the military’s standard M-16s, but once inside an Afghan compound, and with Marine guards posted outside, they have been instructed, assuming they feel safe, to remove their rifles and take off their intimidating “battle rattle” of helmets and body armor.
They have also been told to be sensitive to local custom and to wear head scarves under their helmets or, if that is too hot and unwieldy, to keep the scarves around their necks and use them to cover their heads once their helmets are off inside.
Marines who have worked with the ad hoc teams in Afghanistan said that rural Afghan women, rarely seen by outsiders, had more influence in their villages than male commanders might think, and that the Afghan women’s good will could make Afghans, both men and women, less suspicious of American troops.
Capt. Matt Pottinger, an intelligence officer based in the capital, Kabul, who helped create and train the first engagement team in Afghanistan, recently wrote that when one of the teams visited a village in southern Afghanistan, a gray-bearded man opened his home to the women by saying, “Your men come to fight, but we know the women are here to help.”
The man also sheepishly admitted, Captain Pottinger wrote in Small Wars Journal, an online publication, that the women were “good for my old eyes.”
Rural Afghan women, who meet at wells and pass news about the village, are often repositories of information about a district’s social fabric, power brokers and militants, all crucial data for American forces. On some occasions, Captain Pottinger said in an e-mail message, women have provided information about specific insurgents and the makers of bombs.
As part of their conversations with Afghan women, the Marines are to ask basic questions, including what is the most difficult problem facing the village. The answers will go into a database to guide the military and aid workers. As Ms. Kielpinski, the instructor, told the Marines, “If the population has told you that their biggest problem is irrigation and your unit does something about it, that’s a huge success.”
For now, the Marines remain apprehensive about the unknowns they will encounter. Capt. Claire Henry, 27, the top commander of the team, said she worried, like any officer, about her responsibilities to the women working under her. “You’re about to take Marines into harm’s way,” she said, “and at the end of the day you want to make sure you give them the right training and that they’re physically and mentally prepared for it.”