WASHINGTON — Army 1st Lt. Ashley White died on the front lines in southern Afghanistan last weekend, the first casualty in what the Army says is a new and vital wartime attempt to gain the trust of Afghan women.
White, a member of the N.C. National Guard who lived in Raeford, was among female soldiers working with special operations teams to do things that would be awkward or impossible for their male teammates: frisking burqa-clad women, for example.
Her death, in a bomb explosion in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar, underscores the risks of placing women with elite U.S. special operations teams working in remote villages.
Military leaders and other female soldiers in the program say its rewards are great, even as it fuels debate over the roles of women in combat.
"We could do things that the males cannot do, and they are starting to realize that," says Sgt. Christine Baldwin, who like White was in one of the first groups of women deployed to Afghanistan this year as specially trained "cultural support" troops.
Male soldiers often cannot even speak to an Afghan woman because of the strict cultural norms that separate the sexes and the tradition of women remaining behind closed doors most of the time.
Forcing the issue has yielded only resentment, military officials say, and has jeopardized the trust and cooperation of villagers. From the start of the war 10 years ago, Afghans have especially resented the practice of "night raids" in which male foreign soldiers enter and search homes, the traditional sanctum of women.
"We could search the female, find out the other half of the information," Baldwin said in an interview. "If you're missing half of the lay of the land, how effective are you in engaging the populace?"
Reaching other Afghans
Frustrated U.S. commanders realized two years ago that as they tried to apply the principles of counterinsurgency - protect civilians and enlist them to reject insurgents and provide intelligence - they weren't reaching the majority of the Afghan population.
Now, the first female soldiers are serving in commando units. They are trained to ferret out critical information not available to their male team members, to identify insurgents disguised as women and figure out when Afghan women are being used to hide weapons.
U.S. women have been on the front lines in Afghanistan since the war began, and over time they have been used to reach out to the Afghan population through health care initiatives and other programs. They have traveled with Army soldiers and Marines throughout the warfront, often to assist in development projects or as part of psychological operations - what are now called MISO, or military information support operations.
But as elite special operations teams fanned out across the country doing counterinsurgency "stability operations" in the small villages, they complained to their superiors that they weren't reaching the women and children who make up as much as 71 percent of the population.
"We waited too long to get to this," says Command Sgt. Maj. Ledford Stigall. "We had a lot of people focused on the kill and capture, and it really took someone to say, hey it's not about kill, capture, it's about developing a country that can take care of itself."
"Women have a voice," he said. "They can influence the men in their society."
Women tested, trained
In 2009, under pressure from Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Gen. David Petraeus, the Army began to develop Cultural Support Teams.
Last November, the first group of women went through a grueling five-day assessment that tested their physical and military skills, their problem-solving and writing abilities and their psychological and mental fitness. Those who passed moved on to a six-week training program.
And in January, the first group of 28 women deployed to Afghanistan with Army Rangers and Special Forces teams. Their role was to go out on patrols and into the villages with the special operators to help build relations with the communities by engaging with Afghan women.
"Any day that they're walking into a village and engaging with the population they are at the same risk as those Special Forces, SEALs, or special operators they're detailed to. So I would say it is not for the weak-kneed," said Michael Lumpkin, the principal deputy assistant defense secretary for special operations. "These women are on the front lines in very austere locations."