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The Gendering of Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan
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The Gendering of Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan

In February 2009, a team of women Marines first set out to meet with Afghan women in Farah province to find out what their concerns and needs might be. A number of so-called female engagement teams (FETs), haphazardly drawn together from those few women Marines already in Afghanistan (and generally assigned to other jobs which they continued to carry out), started operating in Afghanistan in subsequent months. The teams were poorly trained but highly motivated and were attached to male units mainly in the southern and eastern provinces that are known to be particularly dangerous. They began conversations with Afghan women wherever possible but were rarely part of any coordinated effort. They were often confronted with problems they had no capability to address and repeatedly failed to deliver on promises made to residents, as their mission was not the primary concern of military commanders. It was not until March 2010 that forty Marine Corps women formally began to train for duty on FETs and subsequently deployed to Helmand province in April 2010.1

The effort to deploy FETs is a recent consequence of the adoption of counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine in Afghanistan.2 David Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq in 2003-4, resurrected COIN, a traditional mainstay of colonial war fighting, as an appropriate strategy. His success with the population-centric strategy in Mosul no doubt influenced his subsequent career, including a brief stop to supervise operations of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan 2010-11, as well as the later adoption of COIN, and not just in Iraq.3 The 2006 U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (FM 3-24) outlines the key concepts of COIN doctrine. FM 3-24 repeatedly points out the limits of standard military strategy and seeks to mitigate the often unintended consequences of military force by proposing a broader strategy of development and reconstruction. Unlike pure counterterrorist warfare, the aim of which is to kill as many insurgents as possible, counterinsurgency aims to build confidence and win the hearts and minds of the population, whose support is crucial to the continuation of the insurgency the United States is trying to stop.

As Laleh Khalili points out, "This coding of counterinsurgency as the civilianised option which aims at winning the hearts and minds of civilian populations and persuading them to support the counterinsurgents has a particular gendered character."4 Where traditional warfare—and especially tactics often associated with counterterrorism efforts—is coded as hypermasculine, counterinsurgency is presented as the gentler, feminine option. "Since the focus of the counterinsurgency is the transformation of civilian allegiances and remaking of their social world," a further feminization is underway: "In the binary categorization of war which forms the basis [End Page 199] of mainstream discourses about war, civilian (feminine) is the opposite of combatant (masculine)."5

In this essay, we argue that looking at the gendering of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan provides insight into the assumptions, strategies, and anxieties about the U.S. involvement in this particular war. We see in the gendering of counterinsurgency, exemplified most strikingly in the deployment of FETs, an attempt to reframe the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan as a humanitarian, even progressive, mission. Gendering counterinsurgency efforts as a gentler (feminine) option helps to sell the current campaign to a war-weary audience in the United States (and allied countries). It is also a way of marking U.S. civilizational superiority—and the attention lavished upon FETs deployed in Afghanistan is a significant aspect of this gendered narrative.6 Besides exploring how the operational objectives of the deployment of FETs are gendered, we pay particular attention to the signaling function of their deployment directed toward audiences in Afghanistan as well as citizens of the United States and its allies. Finally, we examine what the experience of women in female engagement teams reveals about how much U.S. military cultures are—or are not—changing. Budget pressures, war fatigue, and rapidly shifting geopolitical realities have required that the Pentagon cultivate a dynamic image of military deployments at home and abroad. Technological...