Women at War

October 21, 2009
Op-Ed Contributor

One ill-informed social norm that has stymied U.S. effectiveness in counterinsurgency operations relates to the efficacy of having female military personnel serving on the frontline. While many women in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown their ability to use force, one particular group exemplifies how women are essential to winning local hearts and minds. The apparent success of the Marine Corps Female Engagement Teams, or F.E.T.’s — first established last February in Afghanistan — illustrates that the odds of success significantly improve when we use these forces to establish bonds with the other half of Afghanistan’s population — its women.

The F.E.T. units are comprised of female marines with various operational specialties who conduct liaison work with Afghan women in remote villages. Their assignments range from searching women at checkpoints to running medical clinics to their core mission of engaging rural Pashtun women, often in their homes.

According to a September Marine Corps After Action Review, the teams have been most effective when Afghans perceive their intent as one of establishing a relationship of mutual trust and interest, rather than one of gathering intelligence. They often are welcomed into village homes while dressed in military drab and headscarves. Afghans purportedly view these American women as a “third gender” — female marines are extended the respect shown to men, but granted the access reserved for women. This access has shown the Americans that indigenous women wield significant influence with their husbands, brothers and, especially, their adolescent sons. The presence of F.E.T.’s sends a strong signal of peaceful engagement to local villages. As one village elder put it, “Your men come to fight, but we know the women are here to help.”

Employing women directly on the front lines in this manner may be critical to meeting our objectives. However, significant impediments inhibit the engagement teams from having a broader impact: The Defense Department’s ground combat policy that excludes women, the ad hoc nature of the teams, and the readiness and quantity of available female troops and qualified Pashto linguists.

The Defense Department’s most recent version of the “ground combat exclusion policy,” established in 1994, states: “Service members are eligible to be assigned to all positions for which they are qualified, except that women shall be excluded from assignment to units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground.” The policy goes on to define “direct combat” as “engaging an enemy on the ground with individual or crew served weapons, while being exposed to hostile fire and to a high probability of direct physical contact with hostile force’s personnel.

“Direct ground combat takes place well forward on the battlefield while locating and closing with the enemy to defeat them by fire, maneuver, and shock effect.”

However, the persistent threat of counterinsurgencies combined with evidence of women’s proven effectiveness in such situations serve as powerful reasons for updating the law.

The U.S. military’s Central Command recently published a “Memorandum of Law Concerning Women in Combat Support Operations.” It explicitly condones the use of the F.E.T.’s. The Defense Department’s general counsel is scheduled to consider the matter in the near future.

For now, these F.E.T. initiatives are confined to the Marines and there are relatively few women available for these jobs — only 6 percent of Marine Corps personnel are women. Moreover, given the ad hoc nature of the teams — F.E.T. members have “day jobs,” serving as logisticians or intelligence officers or in other vital positions — their commanders are often understandably reticent to give up an individual for an additional duty.

While their efforts pay high yields for the military, the missions are hazardous: F.E.T. convoys have been the target of I.E.D.’s and enemy rifle fire. To prepare for such missions, female marines must find time to pursue supplemental training — in immediate action drills, search techniques and cultural nuances — beyond their own operational specialty. Fortunately, the success of the peaceful engagement teams has created incentives to establish improved training for team members, although the dearth of women Pashto translators remains a critical problem.

The success of the F.E.T. initiative illustrates how the Marine Corps is adapting to the counterinsurgency threat in an innovative way. Now it is time for Defense Department to adapt its regulations as well.

Paula Broadwell, a former U.S. Army officer, is a research associate at The Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University and a board member of Women in International Security.


September 27, 2009

With the theme “Resistance, Resilience and Respect for Human Rights” [CHinemma', Nina'maolek, yan Inarespetu para Direchon Taotao], the International Women’s Network Against Militarism concluded its 7th International Women’s Conference held in Guam on September 14-19, 2009.  Participants from Australia, Belau, Chuuk, Guahan, Hawai’i, Japan, Okinawa, Northern Marianas Islands, Palau, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, South Korea and mainland United States, took notice of the increasing militarization in their countries and its impact on the socio-cultural, political, economic and environmental aspects particularly on women and their communities.  Country reports as well as panel presentations showed the pattern of militarization in said countries, as well as in other parts of the world. Some reports also emphasized the relationship between militarism and colonialism and called attention to the negative effects of such relationship.

The US military’s ‘global defense posture” means more military intervention by seeking more access to more territories through “visiting” agreements, basing agreements, expansion of bases and waging both conventional and unconventional wars, thus undermining the sovereignty of peoples, denying them of their right to self-determination and of their patrimony.

Amidst global financial and economic crises that has shaken the whole world and the global superpowers led by the US and aided by its allies in the Asia-Pacific region, including Australia and Japan, military build ups in the region continue.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have claimed thousands of lives especially from the civilian populations, are continuing.  Apart from creating a culture of violence that especially affect women, youth and the elderly, environmental impacts have been noted by the participants, contributing significantly to the destruction of indigenous societies and global climate change.  War exercises and trainings continue, in the name of the “anti-terrorism” campaigns in many parts of the world, particularly with former colonies in the Asia-Pacific region.  We are aware that the legitimate actions against terrorist acts against the civilian populations are necessary, but must not be used as a pretext to justify military interventions that in the end terrorize civilian populations and create a culture of violence.

The US government in its realignment plan is expanding military power in Asia-Pacific, including the relocation plan of 8,000 Marines and their 9,000 dependents from Okinawa to Guahan that would go with building a new military facility in Okinawa. The meeting denounced this military expansion package plan in either place, and is firm in standing in solidarity with the Guahan people. The meeting forwards the following demands:

We ask women of “host” countries to push their governments to send foreign troops back to the US.
We urge the American people especially women to urge the US government for policies that respect the sovereignty of other countries and denounce the continuing wars of aggression and for demilitarization; instead the US government and its superpower allies to rechanneling a big portion of their military budgets towards health programs for its peoples especially women and children, for livelihood programs and secured jobs, and for the general welfare of their citizens.

Stop the expansion of bases in Guahan and other parts of the world!
End all military agreements that support US military hegemony!
Demand US responsibility to clean up the toxic wastes they left behind in the Philippines and Puerto Rico.
Pull out US troops from the Philippines and other countries!