Small Wars Journal

Trying to Win Afghanistan without Afghan Women

Thu, 02/18/2010 - 10:24am
Half-Hearted: Trying to Win Afghanistan without Afghan Women

by Captain Matt Pottinger, Hali Jilani, and Claire Russo

Download the full article: Trying to Win Afghanistan without Afghan Women

By fits and starts, United States and allied military forces are realizing how difficult it will be to win the war in Afghanistan without half its population, the Afghan women.

One of the few military efforts aimed at earning the support of women began a year ago when a handful of female U.S. Marines and a civilian linguist formed the first "Female Engagement Team" (pronounced "FET"). The team visited rural Pashtun women in their homes and distributed humanitarian supplies, in the process earning the goodwill of women who, before they had spoken with the Marine team, had viewed international troops with fear.

Since then, more FETs have stood up. The 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade now employs several teams on an intermittent basis in southern Afghanistan. U.S. soldiers and airmen in the country's east run FETs that, in cooperation with district governments, teach health classes to local women. All international and Afghan security forces were ordered in November to establish FETs of their own.

Download the full article: Trying to Win Afghanistan without Afghan Women

Captain Matt Pottinger is a U.S. Marine based at International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Headquarters in Kabul. He co-founded and trained the first Female Engagement Team in February 2009.

Hali Jilani is a Pashtun-American who has worked at the grassroots level in war and conflict zones for two decades. Fluent in Pashto, she is serving in southern Afghanistan as Task Force Leatherneck's cultural advisor.

Claire Russo is a civilian advisor to the U.S. Army in eastern Afghanistan. She deployed as a Marine officer to Anbar Province, Iraq, in 2006.

About the Author(s)


Been there (not verified)

Wed, 02/24/2010 - 9:12pm

This is absurd. Every Man knows that women pull the strings. They may, in certain cultures, keep their opinions to themselves in public but they are not powerless by any means. Does Islam say the woman is servant to the man? I think so. Guess what, so does the Bible. Does that mean women are treated poorly? Are they powerless? God No, far from it. They have a great deal more authority than many would believe. One of the things that alienates the Taliban from the general populace is their extremist interpretation of Sharia law and resultant abuse of women.

Dear "oldpapajoe" let "SF guys" speak for themselves and while we're at it, not all "SF guys" are created equal. This "FET" team buisness is an excellent idea, and something I asked for while working as a part of a team. Glad to see it's getting some traction.

Dear soup kitchen, while you're passing out bowls of porridge, someone will be sneaking in with a suicide vest. The more rational of us will continue to kill bad guys, protect the good guys, and pay for a few schools to teach the children a better way.

Finally, having spent a good bit of time in Afghanistan with a gun, I am jubilant that our command finally has a sense of purpose and direction. It is something we have lacked for a while.

Three Time AFG Vet (not verified)

Mon, 02/22/2010 - 11:41am

I have to STRONGLY disagree with the "SF guys."

I have had three tours in Afghanistan as a Civil Affairs guy. I had women working for me on each tour and they frequently had contact with the Afghan women. This never led to problems with any ethnic group to include the Pashtuns. In fact, our understanding of and relationships with the locals were improved in each case.

Women in AFG have a huge influence on their families and can play a major role in keeping their young sons from becoming TB. In Zabul in 2005, the 173rd used to female soldiers during a cordon and search in Deh Chopan. The local women were so impressed by the American women that when the TB came out of the hills after the Americans departed, they at first refused to cook for the TB. Only after the men begged their cooperation did they yield.

Bill (not verified)

Fri, 02/19/2010 - 11:03am

Might I suggest:

"A Guest of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village," by Elizabeth Fernea.

oldpapajoe (not verified)

Fri, 02/19/2010 - 9:10am

One correction on my last post. I meant to say the SF are NOT, I say again, NOT, closed minded.

oldpapajoe (not verified)

Fri, 02/19/2010 - 9:04am

The SF guys I have spoken with are darn experienced guys, ranging in rank from E7 through O6. They are closed minded folks, either. Quite the reverse in fact. They accept the "strange" [as in definately not American or European] culture of the Afghans, noting its strengths and weaknesses. Their point is that to think that the Afghans believe in or have any interest in so-called "modern", western secular values will alienate the rural Afgans immediately and put them into the radicals camp quicker than you can say IED. As you well know, the Afghans have a long history of fighting infidels and are --to put it mildly -- suspicious of any outsiders, especially if they are not Muslim. The SF guys note that the rural Afghans consider women dressing and acting like men (wearing uniforms, carrying weapons, speaking to anyone, giving instuctions to men, etc) as repulsive, and indicative of the ills of western non Muslim, non Afghan cultures.

Kabulite (not verified)

Fri, 02/19/2010 - 6:39am

Dear Anonymous: not sure if the people here in Kabul view themselves as despirately poor. Kabul is doing very well these days and as far as soup kitchens go, well tea, bread and rice are cheaper and the standard fair here but most people here are small business folks proud and strong, not despirate or rich either, but by Afghan standards "NOT US" they are doing fairly well. Lets respect them and not demean them with the usual way Americans tend to view small countries.

Chris (not verified)

Thu, 02/18/2010 - 11:35pm

Regardless of the importance or influence women may have in a society, you can still bet that the women's network has a good idea on what their men-folk are saying/ thinking/ doing. I saw this in Afghanistan when a local Head of Shura was tipped off by the wife-network (and subsequently passed on to us) information about an IED - at least that was his version of events, and I saw no reason to disbelieve him at the time.

I don't know whether we will make our strategic goals any easier through the engagement of women, however it has the potential to pay dividends in the intelligence stakes. For that reason alone I think it is a worthy undertaking.


I've not been overly impressed with what "Special Forces Guys" have to say about Afghan culture.

I've lived and travelled in rural Helmand province, and like any rural/small community, women have greater importance than urbanites like to give to them. They are an asset to the family, at the very least, and in fact, have influence and special knowledge within the family and community about things men do not. That knowledge can be key to COIN.

And anonymous: Soup kitchens in Kabul? Really? Kabul is doing quite well, by Afghan standards, economically. That would be nothing but a feel good short-term sop.

And, yeah, I've recently lived and worked in Kabul city proper, as well as the surrounding districts as well.

Anonymous (not verified)

Thu, 02/18/2010 - 7:20pm

That's a good start. Here's a better idea. Why don't we take some of those billions of dollars of NGO money and set up some soup kitchens in the major cities like Kabul, with a population of three million, most of them desperately poor?

I think that will go a WAY LONG way to winning over the Afghans, don't you?

Anonymous (not verified)

Thu, 02/18/2010 - 7:19pm

That's a good start. Here's a better idea. Why don't we take some of those billions of dollars of NGO money and set up some soup kitchens in the major cities like Kabul, with a population of three million, most of them desperately poor?

I think that we go a WAY LONG way to winning over the Afghans, don't you?

Anonymous (not verified)

Thu, 02/18/2010 - 6:10pm

oldpapajoe - I had the pleasure of talking with one of these women Marine FET (a former graduate of the Corps' Lioness program, originally in Iraq).

She made it a point to tell me her Team did not make overt engagement upon entering the village, but allowed the women (an Afghan spokeswomen)to approach them, and invite them for conversation with the group - a small nuance perhaps, but worth mentioning I thought. : )

oldpapajoe (not verified)

Thu, 02/18/2010 - 12:07pm

The Special Forces guys who have served in Afghanistan consistently point out to me that in the Pashtun culture--and perhaps most of rural Afghanistan--women are, well, property. They have no societal impact. They are not leaders of the community in any formal sense. Men generally don't spend time socializing with "their" women. Furthermore, it is a massive insult for anyone not of the family to engage in any activity with women without the concent of the man, the father, the head of the household, especially if those interfering or interacting with the women are Kafir/Infidels. And as we all know, insulting a Pashtun has dire and long term consequences. One veteran said it best about those new to Afghanistan: "I guess we aren't in Kansas".