Training Female Engagement Teams: Framework, Content Development, and Lessons Learned
Andi Allen, Gina Ladenheim, and Katie Stout
Complex operations often require the development of specialized teams with multidisciplinary perspectives. Examples of these groups include human terrain teams (HTTs), provincial reconstruction teams and, most recently, female engagement teams (FETs). These specialized programs are tasked with engaging local populations to ascertain information on civil-society needs and problems, address security concerns, and to form links between the populace, the military, and the interagency. This paper will examine the background and viability of FETs and analyze their predeployment training.
The report draws upon interviews with both officers and enlisted members of FETs, as well as Afghan cultural advisors. Attention will be given to identifying patterns of successful interaction with locals and the knowledge, skills and abilities necessary to replicate success in a variety of environments. In addition, an assessment of common errors will be evaluated with the aim of incorporating solutions into FET training.
History and Background
The first FET was founded as an ad hoc team to support a specific operation of Combat Logistics Battalion-3 in February 2009. It was comprised of a team of females who provided the simple search function of the Lioness Program in Iraq, in which female service members searched female local nationals at checkpoints. In July 2009, Task Force Leatherneck established a similar FET following an incident in which trapped insurgents escaped a compound by dressing in burkas and walking through a Marine cordon.
From July 2009 to December 2009, FETs were ad hoc, on-call teams which were fielded upon the request of maneuver units. FETs conducted roughly 70 short-term search and engagement missions. Many local Afghans accepted the FET presence and some cultural and atmospheric information was gleaned, but there was no way to quantify the FETs' effectiveness in the larger operational mission.1
In January 2010, the FET mission became a consistent presence alongside Civil Affairs personnel in key population centers.2 FETs engaged the local population, gave them information about what the Marines were doing, provided humanitarian assistance and gathered information about the area of operation. Gradually it has grown into a formal program, and the first platoon of female Marines on a full-time FET is currently deployed in Afghanistan.3
Capt Matt Pottinger, an intelligence officer who co-founded the first FET, wrote that it was designed to allow access to half the population which normally would have been denied due to cultural sensitivities. He said that some military leadership has been critical of the idea of a FET based on the assumptions that Pashtun men would be offended by the presence of American women and that Pashtun women do not have enough influence or knowledge to make valuable allies. In Capt Pottinger's experience, both of these assumptions are incorrect. In fact, FETs have evolved to engage both men and women. Anecdotal evidence shows that Pashtun men often feel more comfortable opening up around American women than men. Pashtuns see American women as sort of a third gender: Pashtuns do not believe the rules for behavior and dress for Pashtun women should be applied to American women.4 Furthermore, according to Mariam Mansury, advocate and congressional liaison at the Hunt Alternatives, a Washington DC-based consulting group, Pashtun women have a powerful role in their families and in society. They have a wide network of male contacts and can be the difference between their sons becoming peacemakers or insurgents.5
To illustrate the potential effectiveness of FETs, Capt Pottinger and Hali Jilani, cultural advisor for MEB-A, cited their experience in Khan Neshin district. They said Khan Neshin is typical of the places Marines are attempting to seize the initiative in Helmand province: it is poor and socially conservative, it has a diverse population of Pashtuns and Baluch, and there is a mix of longtime residents and new arrivals. The main concerns are water scarcity, security, and inadequate medical care. Although the Marine presence has allowed for a modicum of security and the bazaar has reopened, locals are still wary. They worry that the Marines will not stay long-term, and, once they are gone, the Taliban will take over again.6
Capt Pottinger and Ms. Jilani said this condition, typical across much of the Helmand province, is one in which FETs can provide tangible gains. A FET came to Khan Neshin Castle for a weeklong mission, and, every time their patrol stopped to talk to local men outside a compound, the FET was invited inside to visit the women. During each visit, the FET successfully encouraged the women to open up about their daily lives and concerns. Word spread among locals that female Marines were in the area, and the FET discovered that some Afghan women had been eagerly waiting for a chance to talk to them. One woman said they had "prayed you would come to us." The FET accepted tea and bread from the families they visited and dispensed over-the-counter medicine.7
Capt Pottinger and Ms. Jilani said of Khan Neshin: "Here, as elsewhere in Helmand, the presence of female Marines softened the interaction with local men and children." They quoted a local man who opened his home to the FET as saying, "Your men come to fight, but we know the women are here to help." They also reported that male Marines on patrol without the FETs said Afghan men thanked them for bringing women to help.8
However, according to MSgt Julia Watson, 2nd MEB-A FET officer in charge, the anecdotal evidence does not provide tangible proof that FETs are "doing anything out of the ordinary." She says female Marines in Civil Affairs positions have far more productive interactions with locals, and much greater ability to deliver on their interactions than FETs do. She said FETs do not have the ability to deliver because their multi-pronged mission statement involves too many items, too little training and their unit structure prevents them from full integration into the infantry company level.9
A glaring structural weakness of the FET program is that, currently, parallel teams are being employed in Afghanistan: a Civil Affairs engagement team comprised of males and females, and a FET. Both are doing the same thing, except the FET lacks the ability to deliver either intelligence to their commanders or added value to Afghan villagers. FETs have a separate chain of command and different operating procedures for reporting information. MSgt Watson and Lt Col Valerie Jackson, a Civil Affairs trainer at Security Cooperation and Education Training Center (SCETC) in Quantico VA, said the FETs as they are being organized, trained, employed, and reporting need to be completely replaced with female Marines who have Civil Affairs military occupational specialty.10
According to MSgt Watson, as it is structured now, the FET is a separate unit of female Marines who are untrained, risking their lives and putting the infantry at risk. She said the FETs' efforts are often counterproductive because they have short and sporadic meetings with local women, collect information and then walk away. This hinders the effort to win support of locals because it imparts a false sense of hope which later turns to disappointment and bitterness. When FETs are unable to deliver any lasting goods or services (due to lack of clarity about their mission, poor training and institutional challenges), this has the unintended effect of breeding resentment which can be passed on to future generations, as has happened already due to inconsistent and poorly executed engagements. As the key goal of a counterinsurgency operation is to win over the hearts and minds of the local population, this outcome is undesirable, to say the least.11
Unless the FET evolves into a group of female Marines who are part of a Civil Affairs team, the length and scope of predeployment FET training must be increased, and FET members and their commanders must be clear on FETs' mission and scope. To underscore the importance of good training, Capt Pottinger said most unsuccessful interactions with locals are the result of poor training and poor preparation. Missions which require troops to go into areas they do not plan to hold are of limited value and cause more harm than good in the short term. Capt Pottinger said a FET accompanied by a HTT was passing through a village and stopped at an abandoned compound to spend the night, villagers came and asked them to leave, saying their presence would draw attacks from insurgents. The FET was able to gather rudimentary information, but had no positive influence on the villagers. With better planning, the FET's finite resources might have been used elsewhere.12
The FET established by Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB), Task Force Leatherneck, was trained for a period of six days. The Marine Expeditionary Force (FWD) FET currently in Afghanistan was trained for roughly three months prior to deployment. However, their training was about 70 percent kinetic and only 30 percent classroom instruction on language, the use of interpreters, and cultural awareness. In other words, the bulk of the training consisted of infantry tactics, tactical site exploration, combat tracking, night/day marksmanship, physical training readiness, martial arts, and other skills necessary for survival in a war zone, while the cultural, language, and role play scenarios were not as heavily emphasized. The FET leadership conducted most of this training based on the MEB FET after action reports of July-August 2009 and the Iraq experiences of those in the training group. According to the incoming FET when it arrived in Afghanistan, the Iraqi model of the Lioness Program was still entrenched in their training.13
A crucial part of training must clarify the FET mission and objectives. MSgt Watson recommends having a focused, doctrine-based training model. She writes that many of the FETs under MEF are not clear on what they are supposed to do, contrary to what battalion commanders and operations officers believe. The FETs are unprepared to know what to ask local women, what to do with the information in the larger picture of stability operations or how to write a report which could be used for non-kinetic targeting and planning purposes. Overall, she said they do not have a good grasp on how civil military operations ought to be conducted.14
FETs, because of their unique role in being able to reach Afghan women, should also be clear on Afghan women's constitutional rights and build upon what others have accomplished, according to Mariam Mansury. She said the Afghan constitution has made provisions for women's rights and Afghan civil affairs leaders are working to empower women. FETs' mission will not necessarily replicate that of nongovernmental organizations or women's rights workers, but they should be aware of what rights women actually have and what is promised under the law.
Unless and until FETs are fully dissolved into civil affairs battalions, all members of FETs should be given civil affairs training. The essence of a FET's purpose is civil military operations; therefore, they must be given the proper training to conduct their mission effectively.15
In addition to civil affairs training, FETs should be given specialized instruction which outlines their mission and scope, and narrows their focus on the right questions to ask and how to report information. Capt Pottinger notes that the most effective training methods are the practical applications in which trainees are placed in various scenarios with role players and are forced to take control of a situation while speaking through an interpreter.16 To improve training, FETs should be given more repetition and practice with scenarios.
It is clear that the original purpose of a FET, to provide access to half the Afghan population, is justified and necessary. Female Marines are in a unique position to be able to connect with Afghan men and women to conduct civil military operations. However, lack of clarity about the FET mission and scope, glaring structural weaknesses, and inadequate training limit the ability of FETs to be as effective as possible in engaging the Afghan population and reporting tangible information on their areas of operation to their commanders. The Marine Corps was innovative and forward-thinking in designing the first FET, but for the program to be successful, it must adapt to overcome its weaknesses.
1. MSgt. Julia L. Watson interview, 9 May 2010.
3. Capt. Matt Pottinger phone interview, 8 June 2010.
5. Mariam Mansury interview, 4 May 2010.
6. Capt. Matt Pottinger and Hali Jilani (2009). Female Engagement Teams - Findings and Recommendations. (1000 FET 30 SEP 09, submitted to Col. Edward Yarnell, Task Force Leatherneck). Arlington, VA: Department of Defense.
9. Watson interview.
10. Lt. Col. Valerie Jackson interview, 22 April 2010.
11. Watson/Jackson interview.
12. Pottinger interview.
13. Watson/Jackson interview.
14. Watson interview.
16. Pottinger interview.
Capt Matt Pottinger and Hali Jilani (2009). Female Engagement Teams - Findings and Recommendations. (1000 FET 30 SEP 09, submitted to Col Edward Yarnell, Task Force Leatherneck). Arlington, VA: Department of Defense.
Capt. Matt Pottinger, Hali Jilani, and Clare Russo (2010). "Half-Hearted: Trying to Win Afghanistan without Afghan Women," Small Wars Journal. Retrieved from: http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/2010/02/trying-to-win-afghanistan-with/
MSgt. Julia L. Watson (2010). MEB-A Female Engagement Team Program After Action Report. (Submitted to Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, 2d Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan, Commanding General). Arlington, VA: Department of Defense.
Last Reviewed: May 18, 2012