Defense Secretary Panetta’s announcement that the military is lifting its ban on women in combat (well in reality, ground combat—women are allowed to fly combat planes and helicopters, serve on subs, and command naval assets) is exciting and I believe an inevitable consequence of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. This action overturns a 1994 rule that restricts women from many positions in the infantry and artillery, a rule that was out of sync with the realities of Iraq and Afghanistan where more than 20,000 women have served and 130 have died.
Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated that U.S. servicewomen are critical counterinsurgency assets. It was a slow realization for U.S. forces that local women wield more influence in their homes than people believe to be the case in these “patriarchal” societies, which hindered an effective response to the insurgencies in both countries. According to an Afghan National Army Colonel, rural Pashtun women may rarely be seen by outsiders but are “keen observers and opinion-makers about the goings-on in their village” because they are responsible for managing the household and exchange news with each other at local wells.
The need to leverage the local intelligence of women without breaching cultural norms spurred the US Military to establish Female Engagement Teams (FET). FETs grew out of the “Lioness” program in Iraq, which used female Marines to search Iraqi women at checkpoints. Until 2010, Afghan FETs were ad hoc and overstretched because its members had full-time jobs in addition to FET responsibilities. The deployment of full-time FET teams increased the US Military’s knowledge about its battlespace because they were well received by both Afghan men and women who perceived female soldiers less as combatants and more as partners. The success of FETs convinced the Department of Defense to begin recruiting female soldiers to work closely with Special Forces teams and Ranger Units during raids.
The illustrative example of U.S. servicewomen as intelligence assets should not detract away from the fact that women were also in the thick of ground combat during the counterinsurgency campaigns in both countries. If you don’t believe me, check out the New York Times’ “Women at Arms” series.
Consequently, lifting this ban not only aligns policy with reality, but also creates opportunities for the United States to better achieve its national security goals. First, access to direct combat roles such as infantry is crucial for career advancement in the military. As many national security professionals are drawn directly from the military and frontline combat experience creates professional parity between the sexes, we can expect to see more females in the middle and upper echelons of government agencies, think tanks, and contractors. Having not only more women in leadership roles in the national security field, but also women with combat experience, fosters a corps of respected professionals that bring new perspectives to national security and have the necessary clout to address many of the challenges the current patriarchal structures cannot. For instance, this means the leadership and momentum to address the unacceptable rate of sexual assault in the armed services.
Second, allowing women in direct combat roles fosters important organic capabilities the armed services will need in many of its stability operations. For instance, according to Kristen Cordell’s report “Women in International Peacekeeping,” females improve the capacity for collection and analysis of community-based intelligence (which I highlighted earlier). Further female soldiers, in contrast to their male counterparts, view their human security goals more broadly and pursue activities such as greater community outreach and rehabilitation programs for victims of sexual and gender-based violence. For the United States, this means that its servicewomen with combat roles will command the authority and the respect to implement innovative and necessary means to address challenges such as peacekeeping.
It is important to note that the lifting of this ban means reducing the disparities in expectations for men and women. In principle this is a great thing, but it also means beginning to rethink norms such as the exclusion of women from the selective service. The discussion about gender in national security must be an important component of officially integrating women into direct combat units. Otherwise, we as a country will not appreciate the consequences the removal of this ban will have on our national security apparatus and our society as well as the challenges that remain (e.g. lingering sexist attitudes).
At the end of the day, I am ecstatic that this anachronistic ban is gone. It means that we as a country can properly appreciate and leverage the talents and contributions of our servicewomen in the coming years.