I want to get our military forces the hell out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible. But it really isn’t as easy as just declaring victory and going home. One of the first lessons taught to every officer is the simple fact that some basics always apply, and one of those basics is that getting into a conflict is a hell of a lot easier than getting out of it is going to be.

At this point, I don’t know what a victory in Afghanistan is going to look like, or even if it can be achieved. But I do know that there are things that we can do to bring down the violence and bring up the level of trust that the civilian population has in the American-led forces occupying their country.

Start by removing the last farcical restrictions on women in combat and fully integrate female Soldiers and Marines into foot patrols like the Marines have done in Afghanistan, using Female Engagement Teams (FETs) with excellent results among the population at large everywhere they have been tried that males simply can’t achieve.

Tom Ricks explains:

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.'”

The internal USMC report that Ricks has seen and that he bases the post on warns that FETs can’t be run casually. It won’t do to simply grab any female Marines who happen to be handy and say “You, you, you, and you – you’re our FET today.” Not at all. They need to be specialists who are on FET full-time, overseen by an officer who is responsible for training and shaping the team. They also need excellent interpreters who are “female, fluent and healthy enough to walk foot patrols.”  In addition, moxie helps, too, should the need arise to confront an Afghan male who interrupts a conversation.

When FETs are properly trained in the cultural mores of the population and go out on patrols and interact respectfully – small things like wearing a headscarf under a helmet and bringing along things like tea, cooking oil, rice, beans or sugar to give to women who welcome them into their homes and share a cup of tea – virtually assure that they will be invited back, and that the interactions between the Afghan and American women will yield valuable results for the counterinsurgency effort.

A simple change, like an FET going compound to compound and delivering humanitarian aid to the female head of each household rather than dumping it in a clamoring marketplace where the strongest and most feared men get the lion’s share makes a huge difference in how receptive to working with the Americans the Afghans will be, and the more receptive and open they are, the more successful COIN operations will be.

Of course, it will surprise no one, especially women who have served in the United States military, that the biggest obstacle to widening the use of FETs in Afghanistan is not Afghan males, but United States Marine and Army officers.

Crossposted from They Gave Us a Republic