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, like other female soldiers working with special operations teams, was brought in to do things that would be awkward or impossible for her mail 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 among 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?"
That question was eight years in the making. It arose from the frustration of U.S. commanders who 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."
In 2009, under pressure from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and Gen. David Petraeus, then the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, 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 that 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.
They went in two-woman teams as part of larger special operations units — usually numbering about a dozen. And they were designed to go out on patrols and into the villages with the special operators to help build relations with the communities by engaging with the Afghan women.
In the process, they could also glean valuable intelligence about the people in the region, information they might not be able to get from the men.
Capt. Adrienne Bryant was in the first group that deployed.
Down in Helmand Province with a team of Marine special operations forces, Bryant said, the initial response from the population was tepid.
But on her first patrol, the team introduced her and her CST teammate to a village elder.
"He had been constantly abused by the Taliban, had been kidnapped and returned and he didn't want to work with coalition forces anymore because of the fear the Taliban was going to retaliate," said Bryant, in an interview.
Bryant and her teammate talked to him about what they could do for the women of his village, including the medical assistance and the skills training — like sewing — they could bring. And he was interested.
"Helmand was a pretty conservative area, women aren't really seen out much, they don't shop. So we had to disguise our sewing program, we ran it in conjunction with our clinic," said Bryant, who is from Virginia. "In case the women were being scrutinized because they were coming to learn a skill from us, they had cover by coming on clinic days."
Baldwin, of San Diego, was sent up north with an Army special operations team in Kunduz Province. The women they encountered were hesitant at first.
"We'd go out on patrol and be all kitted up and they were almost fearful, but once we took off that helmet, and put on the scarf, they would recognize that it was a female and the fear would be gone," she said.
Both Baldwin and Bryant said the Afghan women and children at their meetings grew from a few to dozens. Neither said they ever felt they were in immediate danger during their eight-month deployment, although they knew what was possible.
"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."
White, 24, from Alliance, Ohio, was among the 34 CST members to go to Afghanistan in the second group, and she was assigned to a Ranger unit. The Ohio native and two Rangers were killed when their assault force triggered a roadside bomb. In a press release Monday, U.S. Army Special Operations Command said White "played a crucial role as a member of a special operations strike force. Her efforts highlight both the importance and necessity of women on the battlefield today."
Pentagon leaders know that the CSTs draw attention again to the ongoing debate over women on the battlefield, even though these are not technically combat roles.
The women in the CSTs, said Stigall, have proven to be critical assets.
"They were able to get (Afghan) women to talk about issues the men were too proud to talk about," said Stigall, who worked with the first group of teams in Afghanistan earlier this year. "The women were able to get a pulse on the community that we couldn't get from the men."
And, he acknowledged, there were instances where the CST women were able to identify a man dressed in women's clothing, or a woman carrying a weapon, and alert their male team members.
Lumpkin said that so far commanders agree the program has been a success. The third group of women is about to begin training, and the tentative plan is to have 25 permanent Army CST teams by 2016.
"When 71 percent of the population are women and children, you have to have buy-in from a greater number of people in the villages to really connect with them, and to understand really what's going on. Because of that female-to-female connection, that can be achieved," said Lumpkin.
He added, "We're coming late to the table, but we've recognized the value (of the program) and I think this will transcend beyond Afghanistan ... I don't see them going away any time soon."