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A counterinsurgency behind the burka

After a U.S. special operations force secured a compound outside Kandahar recently, Army 1st Lt. Ashley White was sent in to search and interview Afghan women. Just after she arrived, a homemade bomb exploded, killing her and two Army Rangers.

White, 24, was the first female soldier to die in combat while performing a unique new role for the Army. She was part of an elite cultural support team, first sent to Afghanistan in January in an attempt to overcome daunting cultural barriers in the deeply conservative Islamic country.

Women like White perform duties that no man can attempt without gravely offending or enraging Afghans. They frisk and question Afghan women, many of them covered head to toe in burkas. They sometimes find hidden weapons or explosives — and occasionally unmask insurgents dressed as women. Trained in Afghan culture and customs, they build relationships with women while also ferreting out information unavailable to male troops.

Women and children, who make up more than 70% of Afghanistan's population, are hidden and fiercely shielded by men whenever male outsiders — particularly American troops — approach villages. A male soldier attempting to touch, or even speak to, an Afghan woman would trigger deep resentment. The U.S. counterinsurgency effort is predicated on winning the trust and support of ordinary Afghans.

"Women tell us stuff they aren't going to say if there's a male around," said Sgt. Christine Baldwin, who served in Afghanistan from January to August in the first cultural support class of 31 graduates.

Baldwin and her female partner, a captain, helped persuade Afghan elders to permit a rare female-only shura, or meeting, in a village in Kunduz province in northern Afghanistan — but only after searching the women first.

Baldwin and her partner built rapport and trust among local women, making inroads for a Special Forces team that had never previously dealt with women. In one case, Baldwin said, an Afghan woman pointed out an insurgent in the village. Others provided valuable information or insights.

"Without these soldiers, we couldn't interact with more than half the Afghan population," said Lt. Col. Tom Bryant, a spokesman for special operations forces at Ft. Bragg, where the female soldiers are selected and trained.

White, a member of the North Carolina National Guard who volunteered for active duty to try out for the teams, was one of 34 women sent to Afghanistan after graduating with the second cultural support class. Assigned to an Army Ranger unit, she was killed Oct. 22.

"Her efforts highlight both the importance and necessity of women on the battlefield today," the U.S. Army Special Operations Command said in a statement announcing White's death.

Before cultural support teams were created last year, units simply borrowed women from regular units for certain missions. But the ad hoc system sometimes left units — including special operations forces that conduct controversial night raids — unable to deal effectively with Afghan women and children.

Senior commanders belatedly recognized the shortcomings two years ago and began pushing for specially trained female volunteers to accompany special operations forces on missions for "gender appropriate engagement," as the military calls it.

"The need to engage the female population for counterinsurgency in Afghanistan has been underestimated for the better part of 10 years," said Maj. Patrick McCarthy, who runs the assessment process at Ft. Bragg that selects volunteers to train for the teams.

Only half the women who apply are selected during the five-day assessment process, McCarthy said. They must pass a physical training test, then undergo six-week sessions that include "stressors" designed to simulate the demands imposed on special operations forces in war zones.

McCarthy looks for smart, physically fit candidates who can make quick decisions. "They go through some very fast-paced intellectual exercises," he said.

In addition to instruction on Afghan culture and mores, trainees learn greetings and other basic phrases in Dari, Pashto and Uzbek. In all, 82 women graduates have been sent to Afghanistan, and nearly 50 are assigned to special operations units there now. The Army's goal is to keep at least 25 two-woman teams in Afghanistan.

The women do not engage directly in combat, but instead follow special operations units after areas are secured, Bryant said. Altogether, 138 women have died in Afghanistan and Iraq, most of them killed by homemade bombs.

Baldwin, 34, a seven-and-a-half-year Army veteran, said Afghan women were often wary or intimidated when she arrived wearing a helmet and body armor. "It is a scary posture, the way we look to them," she said.

She removes her helmet and covers her hair with a scarf, in deference to Afghan customs. Then she introduces herself as "Christine," and asks women about their children, local schools and clinics, and what they'd like to see improved in their village.

Baldwin hands out a cellphone number for her female Afghan interpreter and asks the women to call with any information they'd like to share. The female soldiers aren't intelligence officers, but they often collect useful information that is passed on to intelligence specialists.

"No matter how good the rapport in an area, male soldiers are still going to miss out on what 50% of the population has to offer," Baldwin said.

Afghan men sometimes feel shame sharing certain information with male soldiers, Baldwin said, but have no such qualms providing the same information to women.

"We're kind of a third gender," she said. "The men don't worry about looking weak in front of us."

Baldwin was on her first tour in Afghanistan last year when the Army asked for volunteers for the new cultural teams. "I knew that was my calling," she said. "I thought it was the coolest thing ever."

White, of Alliance, Ohio, arrived in Afghanistan in August. She was physically fit and "very astute and well-grounded in global affairs," McCarthy said.

A North Carolina National Guard Special Forces sergeant first class who trained White said she was in the top 1% of women he trained. The sergeant asked not to be identified because of security concerns.

"I threw stuff at her that the guys in some of our units go through, and she was able to go above and beyond the standard," the sergeant said.

"This kind of job takes somebody special — and Lt. White really was special," he said. "What she did was groundbreaking."

david.zucchino@latimes.com

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