The Failure of Female Engagement Teams in Afghanistan

March 19, 2014

Female Engagement Teams in Afghanistan were easily manipulated by the locals and proved to be largely ineffective in their intended counter-insurgency role. 

This is the finding of a study carried out by Sippi Azarbaijani-Moghaddam who acted as an advisor to UK commanders in Afghanistan and presented her findings in a public lecture at SPP as part of the Center for Conflict, Negotiation and Recovery's recent series of lectures from women who have been working in conflict and post-conflict situations. 

A sociologist and specialist in gender and social difference, with expertise on protection and participation specifically in Muslim contexts, Azarbaijani-Moghaddam spent 18 years in Afghanistan from 1995 to 2013. During this time she conducted in-depth qualitative and survey style quantitative data collection with thousands of women and men in all sorts of places, all over Afghanistan - giving her a great deal of insight in to enagaging with Afghan women. 

"Women’s groups and gender issues in general were given a polite nod from time to time," Azarbaijani-Moghaddam explained, "but addressing them seriously would have meant entering human rights territory, which ISAF did not wish to do. In 2009, however, ISAF took a radically new approach when it started setting up FETs; small teams of women soldiers tasked with engaging the female part of the Afghan population. Talented and resourceful young female soldiers were put on the ground in Afghanistan to engage influential Afghan women who were supposed to turn the counter-insurgency tide by creating a groundswell of support for ISAF and the Afghan government." 

The findings of Azarbaijani-Moghaddam's study strongly suggest that the FET program was largely unsuccessful: "From the start I had closely examined the assumptions on which the concept of FETs was based and the lack of real outcomes between 2010 and 2012 as FETs struggled to engage women. I looked at how promoters of the programme continued citing FET achievements, without any indicators to evaluate or measure progress or success. Also I was painfully aware that while the military pursued results with FET following the new counter-insurgency orthodoxy, they largely ignored decades of accumulated knowledge and institutional memory on women and gender programming available in the aid community.

Azarbaijani-Moghaddam found that the FETs were easily manipulated by Afghans with experience of three decades of relief and development interventions prior to the arrival of all these well-intentioned young military personnel in their area. There was, in fact, very little understanding within the military regarding the role of women, potential and actual, both within the insurgency in Afghanistan and in support of it.

Download Azarbaijani-Moghaddam's study here. 

You can listen to Azarbaijani-Moghaddam's lecture in full below: