Counterinsurgency and Gender: The Case of the Female Engagement Teams

Since early 2009 teams of female U.S. Marines, known as Female Engagement Teams (FETs), have been deployed in Afghanistan as part of the U.S. counterinsurgency (COIN) effort.[1] Initially, they were drawn from troops already on the ground and received little training, but in April 2010 the first forty Marines selected and trained specifically to work as FETs deployed to Helmand province in Southern Afghanistan. Their mission? To engage Afghan women, the “other half” of the population whose hearts and minds need to be won over to ensure the success of the COIN campaign. COIN, a traditional mainstay of colonial rule, was resurrected as an appropriate strategy. General David Petraeus, who had success with population-centric warfare in Iraq, also led its adoption in Afghanistan under General Stanley McChrystal in 2009.

COIN aims to build confidence in the Afghan government and its allies, that is “to win the hearts and minds” of the population, and thus weaken the insurgency in Afghanistan which relies on support for the fighters from the population. Reaching Afghan women, and tapping into their knowledge of the local customs and developments, should have been central to U.S. and allied efforts in Afghanistan from the beginning of the U.S. engagement in 2001, but it took until 2009 (and the formal adoption of COIN) before anyone began directly engaging Afghan women (c.f. Jones 2010). And – it took a while longer for the military to become supportive of the idea. At this point, it is not only the U.S. Marines who are deploying FETs, but allies (like the British) and other military branches (like the U.S. army) have also officially begun developing such teams. Indeed, “coalition forces have formed informal female engagement teams (FETs), mainly from tactical and provincial reconstruction teams, civil affairs forces, and agribusiness development teams” for the past decade, Holliday (2012) points out. “However, U.S. Army efforts remain ad hoc and disorganized, and training and employment are not standardized.”[2]

Holliday (2012) is not alone in pointing out the FETs’ lack of training and coordination of efforts, not only between different teams (especially during transfer of authority), but also with the larger units of which the FETs are part. As Watson (2011) laments, “the Marine Corps needs to take a progressive role in the training and employment of increasing female engagement efforts in Afghanistan before harm comes of our actions.”  The ad-hoc nature of much of the training, and the lack of integration of the efforts by FETs can backfire and undermine the overall mission: When FETs are in conversation with women in a particular area and promise follow-up on one or another issue, but are unable to deliver because their efforts are not considered important enough, this is likely to lead to further mistrust, and undermine the overall effort to shift support from the insurgency to coalition forces. Engagement, then, creates expectations upon which the U.S. and her allies must deliver.

Questions of operational effectiveness aside, as outlined in our recent piece on “The Gendering of Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan” (McBride & Wibben 2012), the adoption of COIN and the deployment of FETs serve an interesting signaling function in the overall “War on Terror.” As many feminist scholars have pointed out (e.g. Bhattacharyya, Hunt, Nayak, Shepherd, Wibben, Young), one narrative of the War on Terror frames it as a “feminist war” – fought in support of women’s rights in countries with less than stellar human rights records. As such, the deployment of FETs can be read as further evidence of the “feminist war” narrative. Here the woman soldier deployed in Afghanistan, especially to engage the population, delivers the feminist promise: She signals loudly that the occupation of Afghanistan is fundamentally emancipatory – the U.S. and her allies have good intentions in their civilizing mission. This presentation of the intervention as moral and virtuous is achieved via a familiar binary framing making “symbolic use of women as markers of cultural, religious and national difference,” as Nira Yuval-Davis (2001) writes. Here, U.S. women (deployed in FETs) serve as “a device for ranking the men of the ‘other’ community as inferior according to their deviation from a putatively normal Western standard” (ibid, cf. Khalid).

The feminist narrative not only helped justify invasion of Afghanistan from the very start, as in Laura Bush’s Thanksgiving Day address in 2001, but it has also become the marker of U.S. success.  Now that the United States has dismissed the idea of “defeating” the Taliban and is in conference with them to prepare for official withdrawal, Hillary Clinton has announced that safeguarding women’s rights is “nonnegotiable”.[3]  Being able to point to a formal recognition of women’s rights will thereby allow the U.S. withdrawal to be considered a victory.  Of course, whether official documents have much to do with practice in Afghanistan is highly questionable.  Afghanistan has had multiple experiments in constitution making, but very little experience implementing them.  There is a stark distinction between rights in theory and rights in practice in the country (Thier 2006/07).

How does this relate to the gendering of COIN and its particular actualization in the deployment of FETs? We would argue that it supports the points raised in our recent piece on the gendering of COIN in Afghanistan, most importantly those relating to the instrumentality of the endeavor and the lack of careful planning in the implementation of COIN. At the same time, however, these accounts show that what happens on the ground more often than not exceeds the intentions of those in charge in unexpected ways. Women soldiers serving on FETs are showing that the imagination of policy-makers as well as IR scholars lags far behind realities on the ground. As such, FETs are showing that it is not so much a matter of whether women can serve in combat – it is a matter of whether their service will get recognized as such.


Dr. Annick T.R. Wibben is Associate Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco. She received her Ph.D. in International Politics from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, UK in 2002. She teaches International Politics and specializes in critical security studies, theories of international relations, and feminist international relations. Her Feminist Security Studies: A Narrative Approach was published by Routledge in 2011. Other recent publications include an article on “Feminist Politics in Feminist Security Studies” in Politics & Gender.

Dr. Keally McBride is Associate Professor of Politics and Chair of International Studies at the University of San Francisco.  She is author of several books, most recently with Margaret Kohn, Political Theories of Decolonization:  Postcolonialism and the Problem of Foundations (Oxford University Press, 2011).  She is currently doing research on 19th century British legal administration in their colonies, and the legacies it left behind in contemporary international law.  She can be e-mailed at

For more on this topic see McBride’s and Wibben’s article, “The Gendering of Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan,” in the Summer 2012 edition of Humanity.

[1] Their inspiration were all-female teams of the Lioness Program in Iraq as well as another Marine Corps effort, the Iraqi Women’s Engagement Program (Watson 2011).

[2] Since January 2011,the U.S. Army has been training female soldiers for “Cultural Support Teams” (CSTs), which work with special operations teams.

[3] This has now also become a measure of her legacy as secretary of state (see e.g.


Bhattacharyya, Gargi (2008) Dangerous brown men: Exploiting sex, violence, and feminism in the war on terror. London: Zed Books.

Laura Bush, ‘‘Radio Address by Laura Bush to the Nation,’’ Available at`ews/releases/2001/11/20011117.html

Jones, Ann (15 November 2010) “Woman to Woman in Afghanistan” The Nation pp. 11-15.

Holliday, Janet R. (2012) “Female engagement teams: The need to standardize training and employment” Military Review, 92 (2): 90-94.

Hunt, Krista (2006) “’Embedded feminism’ and the war on terror”, in: Hunt & Rygiel (eds) Engendering the war on terror: War stories and camouflaged politics, Aldershot: Ashgate, 51-71.

Khalid, Maryam (2011)  “Gender, orientalism and representations of the ‘Other’ in the War on Terror’, Global Change, Peace and Security, 23 (1): 15‐29.

McBride, Keally & Annick T.R. Wibben (2012) “The gendering of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan” Humanity 3(2): 199-215.

Nayak, Meghana (2006) ‘‘Orientalism and ‘saving’ U.S. state identity after 9/11,” International Feminist Journal of Politics 8(1): 42-61.

Shepherd, Laura (2006) ‘‘Veiled references: Constructions of gender in the Bush administration discourse on the attacks on Afghanistan post-9/11,’’ International Feminist Journal of Politics 8(1): 19-41.

Thier, J. Alexander  (2006/07) “The making of a constitution in Afghanistan.”  New York Law School Law Review, 51: 558-579.

Watson, Julia (2011) “Female engagement teams: The case for more female civil affairs marines” Marine Corps Gazette, online. Available at

Wibben, Annick T.R. (2011) Feminist security studies: A narrative approach, London: Routledge.

Young, Iris M. (2003) “Feminist reactions to the contemporary security regime”, Hypatia, 18(1), 223-31.

Yuval-Davis, Nira (2001) “The binary war”, openDemocracy, online. Available at

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