Now, US uses ponytail to win Afghan war

Its part of Gen McChrystals campaign for Afghan hearts and minds

And one more thing: “If you have a ponytail,” said Marina Kielpinski, the instructor, “let it go out the back of your helmet so people can see you’re a woman.”

These are not your mother’s Marines in the rugged California chaparral of Camp Pendleton, where 40 young women are preparing to deploy to Afghanistan in one of the more forward-leaning experiments of the US military.

Next month they will begin work as members of the first full-time ‘female engagement teams,’ the military’s name for four- and five-member units that will accompany men on patrols in Helmand province to try to win over the rural Afghan women who are culturally off-limits to outside men. The teams, which are to meet with the Afghan women in their homes, assess their need for aid and gather intelligence, are part of Gen Stanley A McChrystal’s campaign for Afghan hearts and minds. His officers say that you cannot gain the trust of the Afghan population if you only talk to half of it.

As envisioned, the teams will work like US politicians who campaign door to door and learn what voters care about. A team is to arrive in a village, seek permission from the male elder to speak with the women, settle into a compound, hand out school supplies and medicine, drink tea, make conversation and, ideally, get information about the village, local grievances and the Taliban.

Whatever the outcome, the teams reflect how much the military has adapted over nine years of war, not only in the way it fights but to the shifting gender roles within its ranks. Women make up only six per cent of the Marine Corps, which cultivates an image as the most testosterone-fuelled service, and they are still officially barred from combat branches like the infantry.

Ready for combat too

But in a bureaucratic sleight of hand, used by both the Army and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan when women have been needed for critical jobs like bomb disposal or intelligence, the female engagement teams are to be ‘attached’ to all-male infantry units within the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force — a source of pride and excitement for them. The women said they were not looking for combat and would work in areas largely cleared of militants. But in a war with no front lines, and to be prepared for ambushes and snipers, they have taken an extended combat-training refresher course.

On patrols, the women will carry M-4 rifles, which are shorter and more maneuverable than the military's standard M-16s, but once inside an Afghan compound, and with Marine guards posted outside, they have been instructed, assuming they feel safe, to remove their rifles and take off their intimidating ‘battle rattle’ of helmets and body armour.

They have also been told to be sensitive to local custom and to wear head scarves under their helmets or, if that is too hot and unwieldy, to keep the scarves around their necks and use them to cover their heads once their helmets are off inside.

Marines who have worked with the ad hoc teams in Afghanistan said that rural Afghan women, rarely seen by outsiders, had more influence in their villages than male commanders might think, and that the Afghan women’s good will could make Afghans, both men and women, less suspicious of US troops.

Capt Matt Pottinger, an intelligence officer based in Kabul, who helped create and train the first engagement team in Afghanistan, recently wrote that when one of the teams visited a village in southern Afghanistan, a gray-bearded man opened his home to the women by saying, “Your men come to fight, but we know the women are here to help.”

Rural Afghan women, who meet at wells and pass news about the village, are often repositories of information about a district’s social fabric, power brokers and militants, all crucial data for US forces. On some occasions, Pottinger said in an e-mail message, women have provided information about specific insurgents and the makers of bombs.

Kielpinski, the instructor, told the Marines, “If the population has told you that their biggest problem is irrigation and your unit does something about it, that’s a huge success.”

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