Wednesday, March 10, 2010

This past weekend the New York Times published an article entitled "Letting Women Reach Women in Afghan War." The following is my take on this evolution in the practice of counterinsurgency.

First of all, let me state that I think this is a really novel idea that has a decent chance of yielding good intel. Its definitely a sign that General McCrystal is doing his best to implement COIN doctrine and give it his own special twist.

What can be gained specifically from talking to the women in Afghan society is a sense of what the practical needs of the people really are. As the family caretakers, women are much more likely to discuss practical issues such as food or water shortages or lack of access to medicine or winter clothing. From interviews I have read with Afghani men and tribal elders, they tend to focus on the bigger issues like "why are you occupying so many houses in our town, how long are you staying, are you going to destroy our poppy crop? etc."

Acquiring this type of knowledge can allow the marines embedded in these villages to take small steps towards improving the quality of life for these villages. The article in the New York Times claims that this data is to be uploaded into a database in order to help guide military planners and aid workers. This will only be helpful if the database exists on the unclassified level. Too often the military feels the need to classify such information thus preventing many of the NGO's working in Afghanistan from gaining a better perspective of the needs on the ground. A similar flaw can be found with Human Terrain Teams currently operating in Afghanistan. These teams are made up of many academics who do not wish to share their data with anyone but their direct superiors as they are hoping to one day publish it on their own.

Talking to women in their homes has the added advantage of removing a lot of the posturing that we see in more public Shura meetings with men in rural villages. In these meetings a lot of the Afghan males feel the need to act hostile towards American forces, due to the fact that there are representatives from the Taliban sitting in the circle with them.

I see one major flaw in this plan. It is fantastic that any group of marines is being given specialized training in counterinsurgency, let alone an all female unit that will be operating outside the wire interacting with Pashtun women. However, the plan rests entirely on whether or not husbands of Pashtun women allow them access to their homes in the first place. While the husbands may actually be ok with an American woman entering their home, how are they going to feel about the male translator who is accompanying her?? The piece to this story that is clearly lacking is that as far as I can tell these female marines are not learning Pashtu, and as long as I have been studying Afghanistan I have never heard of the military employing female translators in Afghanistan.

A colleague of mine named Emily Keane who has spent time as an aid worker in Afghanistan informs me that there are in fact female translators offering their services in Afghanistan who have in fact been of vital help to many NGO's especially in the area of family planning and reproductive health services. However, it is unlikely that the number of female translators needed exist outside of Kabul and it is equally unlikely that the female translators that are known to exist in Kabul would be willing to leave their families and travel with American military units into combat zones.

To conclude, I think this is a fantastic step in the right direction and is a sign that the US military is giving a lot of thought as to the best way to adapt counterinsurgency practices to needs on the ground.

And thats my fifty cents (inflation...)


Jeremy said...

I have been informed by a friend of mine who recently got back from serving with the Navy in Afghanistan and I am told that there are actually female translators working with the U.S. military. There are mostly expat Afghans who have come back as contractors for the U.S. military. So it appears that there will be female Pashtu speakers accompanying these specially trained female marines.

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