Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield (2016)

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The Call to Serve

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Uncle Sam Needs You

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Two years before Ashley White ran off the helicopter in Kandahar, Afghanistan, U.S. Special Operations Commander Eric Olson had an idea.

Working from a second-floor office in the headquarters of the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, Admiral Olson had spent years studying the ever-changing battlefield in what had become the longest war in American history. Twenty-first-century technology, advanced weaponry, and instant communications radically altered the modern battleground, offering fighters more real-time information than ever before. But specific pockets of what Olson called “micro-knowledge”—meaningful, detailed intelligence about a region’s people, culture, language, and social mores—remained out of reach to American forces. He wanted to change that.

Olson was a groundbreaker in his own right. The first Navy SEAL to be appointed a three-star, then a four-star admiral, he was also the first Navy officer to lead the Special Operations Command. It was a position widely considered to be among the most important—and least-known—jobs in America’s fight against terrorism.

SOCOM’s creation in 1987 ended a bruising Washington brawl that pitted special ops supporters in Congress and the special operations community against senior military and civilian Pentagon leaders. The military leadership viewed the command as a needless drain of resources from America’s armed forces, of which special ops formed just a very small part, less than 5 percent of America’s military men and women. As a distinct culture that favors small units over large forces and independent problem solving over the formal, traditional military hierarchy, they were viewed with deep suspicion by much of the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force. America’s first special operations teams were created in World War II for missions that rely on the kind of nimble, secret, surgical actions for which large-scale, conventional forces are ill-suited. Their portfolio was always intended to be utterly different from that of traditional ground forces. In his 1962 speech to West Point’s graduates, President John F. Kennedy reflected on the new geopolitical landscape that gave rise to special operations forces:

This is another type of war, new in its intensity, ancient in its origins—war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins; war by ambush instead of combat; by infiltration instead of aggression, seeking victory by eroding and exhausting the enemy instead of engaging him. It requires—in those situations where we must encounter it—a whole new kind of strategy, a wholly different kind of force, and therefore, a new and wholly different kind of military training.

Over the years, special ops forces were subject to boom-and-bust cycles as conflicts escalated and ended. They played a heroic and prominent role in World War II, when special operations teams parachuted into German strongholds, scaled the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc in Normandy to destroy enemy gun positions, and dropped behind enemy lines to liberate American prisoners of war from a Japanese prisoner of war camp. In Korea special ops units ran raids and ambushes, but soon afterward saw their budgets and their numbers shrink. They once again bulked up to join the fight in Vietnam, running small-unit reconnaissance missions far behind enemy lines and working with and training local South Vietnamese fighters, but by the late 1970s, the force had again been whittled down to near extinction. In the era of Cold War confrontations, their style of fighting was seen as a mismatch against the Soviets, who were rapidly building up conventional forces.

Everything changed in the 1990s with the successful use of special operations forces in Operation Desert Storm and the rise of modern terrorism by non-state actors like Hezbollah and, toward the end of the twentieth century, al-Qaeda. After the attacks of 9/11, the subterfuge, speed, and surprise that were the hallmark of special operations moved its forces front and center in the war against terror. By 2010 SOCOM could draw upon people, technology, dollars, and equipment that its founders wouldn’t have dared imagine twenty years earlier. During that period, in the latter half of the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan, Eric Olson’s Special Operations Command demanded a great deal more of its fighting men and women than ever before.

Olson was the quintessential special ops man. Slight in build and large in presence, he is the model “quiet professional” that Special Operations Forces style themselves after. Those under his command described him as “a cerebral officer,” unusual for his tendency to listen more than he speaks. He had seen plenty of combat in his long career; a highly decorated Navy SEAL, he received a Silver Star for leading a team through Mogadishu’s streets to rescue injured soldiers overcome by Somali fighters in the battle popularly known as “Black Hawk Down.”

From the start of the war, Olson believed that America was never going to kill its way to victory in Afghanistan. “We have to learn to think our way through this fight,” he would say. To do that, “we have to understand it better.” For some time, Olson had been thinking about “the whole yin and yang of modern warfare capabilities.” As he saw it, “concepts that may at first appear to be opposed to each other may in fact be parts of the same whole,” and he had come to believe that the United States was out of balance, too tilted toward the hard side of war and not devoted enough to what he viewed as its softer side: the knowledge-based war.

Part of the problem, Olson felt, was that the military’s incentives—its systems, programs, personnel policies, promotion paths—all rewarded hard skills over deep knowledge. He believed that even the most knowledgeable members of the military’s elite special operations teams in Afghanistan—experts who had studied the geography, history, and language of the region and had become comfortable in the environment—even they were missing a huge chunk of intel about the enemy they were fighting and the people they were there to protect. Some of the most crucial information, Olson believed, was hiding within a population to which special ops forces, nearly a decade into the war, had virtually no access: the women.

For centuries Afghan culture has enshrined women as vessels of family honor. In some regions, particularly in the more conservative and rural Pashtun belt, from which most of the Taliban fighters come, women are kept separate from any man unrelated by marriage or blood. Pashtunwali, an unwritten tribal code governing all aspects of community life, delineates the laws and behaviors of the Pashtun people. At the heart of the system is the principle of namus, which defines the relationship between men and women, and establishes the primacy of chastity and sexual integrity of women within a family. Namus commands men to respect—and more fundamentally, to preserve—what it holds to be the honor of Afghan women. An essential part of preserving that honor means keeping women separate from men from the time they near adolescence until their marriage. When a woman does venture out from her family’s walled compound, she must be accompanied by a male family member or a group of other women led by a male chaperone. When in public women wear the chadri, or burqa, which covers their face completely.

While much has changed for the millions of Afghans now living in many of Afghanistan’s increasingly crowded cities, where girls go to school and women work outside the home, in the most remote reaches of rural provinces where the Americans have been fighting their toughest battles, women’s lives often look very different.

The ancient practice of purdah, or the seclusion of women from public view, makes women in these regions nearly invisible to the foreign men fighting in their country. And it means that foreign troops cause a serious affront to Afghan families when a male soldier even catches sight of a woman’s face. Searching a woman is an even graver offense. By engaging with Afghan women the male soldiers are disrespecting them as well as the men in their family charged with protecting them. The act violates a code of honor that lies at the very foundation of their society.

This form of cultural trespass was also in direct opposition to counterinsurgency, a newly revived military doctrine based on a commitment to protect the local population while stopping insurgents and helping build a government that could provide basic services to its people. Fresh from its prominent role in the Iraq troop surge of 2007, counterinsurgency was at the center of the 2009 addition of thirty thousand U.S. forces into Afghanistan. In counterinsurgency theory the “population is the prize.” Winning hearts and minds and protecting civilians now played a key role in America’s military strategy, but both would be undermined if American men searched Afghan women.

And there was another important cultural reality in play. In a communal society such as Afghanistan, in which family is central, the role of women is critical. Afghan women saw, overheard, and understood much of what was happening in the households they ran, and they exchanged information with one another every day. In rural Afghanistan, information travels faster via the network of extended families than it does via instant messaging in most other parts of the world, and the women often have an idea of what their sons, husbands, brothers, and in-laws are up to.

What Admiral Olson was coming to understand was that from a strategic point of view, not having access to Afghan women meant that U.S. soldiers were entirely blind to half the country’s population, and all the information and social influence it held. Even more: whatever may have been hidden in the women’s quarters—everything from enemy combatants to weapons and nuggets of critical intelligence—would remain unfound. This reality signaled a dangerous security gap, for no soldier had ever truly cleared a house when even a single room went unchecked. The only question that remained was: could the military actually do anything about it?

In Iraq, a similar question had been asked and answered years earlier with the creation of the “Lioness” program within the Marine Corps. In 2003 and 2004, as the budding insurgency grew bolder in the city of Ramadi, commanders gathered an ad hoc group of twenty female soldiers and female Marines—most of them drivers or mechanics certified on the .50-caliber machine gun—to join male Marines and Army soldiers on raids, security patrols, and at the increasing number of security checkpoints designed to stop suicide bombers. Much of the Lionesses’ work consisted of searching Iraqi women for hidden weapons and explosives vests, and confirming they were indeed women, not men who had disguised themselves beneath the veil.

A similar story played out later in Afghanistan, and once again it was the Marines out in front. It was early 2009, and a unit was planning an operation in Farah Province to capture the men responsible for planting improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that had killed several fellow Marines.

One of the planners was Lieutenant Matt Pottinger, a Marine who traveled an unlikely path to Afghanistan. Before arriving there, Pottinger spent five years covering China for the Wall Street Journal’s Beijing bureau, where his aggressive reporting got him detained for a piece about political corruption. He watched from Beijing with growing concern as his Journal colleague Daniel Pearl was abducted and killed by al-Qaeda and the war in Iraq descended into chaos. Then, in 2004, the Journal sent him to cover the Asian tsunami that killed a quarter of a million people. The only first responders who impressed him on a personal and professional level were the U.S. Marines and sailors who landed there en route from Iraq. While local and international charities fumbled in disorganized chaos, the servicemen and women methodically tackled problems and found ways around the countless obstacles to get actual relief to the people in need. Witnessing them in action profoundly affected Pottinger, and he thought if he were ever going to serve his country, he should do it now, with this caliber of people, at this time of severe national crisis. So in 2005, at the age of thirty-two, he entered Marines’ Officer Candidates School. A year and a half later he deployed to Iraq.

By the time Matt Pottinger reached Farah Province, the battlefield acumen of a trained Marine and Iraq veteran now complemented a reporter’s instincts for navigating the cultural fault lines that shape the country. He soon realized that, given Afghanistan’s social customs and traditions, it would be nearly impossible for the military to raid homes filled with women without alienating everyone in the village. After months of study he reached a surprising conclusion: in order to achieve success, the missions needed women.

It was a counterintuitive idea, one Pottinger himself initially mistrusted, so with the help of a satellite phone he tracked down a few U.S.-based Afghanistan experts, including Sarah Chayes, an American journalist who had lived on her own in Kandahar for several years. Chayes confirmed what Pottinger had hypothesized: having U.S. female soldiers on hand would not ratchet up tensions with Afghan men, but instead was likely to defuse them and make the whole operation run more smoothly. And if the experts were right, far from violating social codes, it would, on the contrary, help build trust. With his commander’s approval, Pottinger assembled a group of seven female Marines and one female interpreter, and over a period of several days led impromptu lessons on Afghan culture, proper search techniques, and how to conduct tactical questioning.

The experiment worked. With the help of local village women who had been questioned by members of the female engagement team—soon to be known by the acronym FET, coined by Pottinger and logistics officer Lieutenant Johannah Shaffer—the Marines located the insurgents responsible for killing their brothers-in-arms. As significant: village elders expressed approval that neither Afghan nor American men had interacted with their women. Having the female Marines on-site had proven to be a boon both culturally and tactically.

This point was driven home during a failed mission a few months later in southern Helmand Province that became notorious when male insurgents literally, and brazenly, walked past a team of Marines who had cordoned off their compound. They simply donned burqas and filed right by the Marines, who had called for the women to leave the compound so they would be protected from the fighting that would inevitably follow. Only later did the Marines realize what had happened.

Word of Pottinger’s work spread. And soon former Marine 1st Lt. Claire Russo, who was determined to formalize for the Army the kind of female engagement teams Pottinger was developing for the Marines, reached out to him for advice. Russo arrived in Afghanistan in 2009, the same year as Pottinger, as part of a civilian team created to help the Army better understand the cultural terrain. The C-130 transport plane had no sooner dropped her off in eastern Afghanistan than the colonel in charge of the region enlisted Russo for a very specific mission—one for which this female former Marine was particularly well suited.

The Army colonel had been hearing from battalions and companies across the region that certain units were using ad hoc, informal teams of women soldiers to help achieve their missions. He wanted to understand what female soldiers were being asked to do, why commanders thought they were uniquely suited to these assignments, and whether it was legal, given the military’s official ban on women in ground combat. Russo’s task was to investigate and to come back with answers.

Russo’s fact-finding mission took her to bases all around eastern Afghanistan, where she surveyed Army units from Provincial Reconstruction Teams to infantry units. She found they all were using women in different ways: some started livelihood projects for local Afghan women while others had women soldiers “going outside the wire” to learn what was happening in their community.

But what alarmed Russo was the clear lack of tactical training the female soldiers received. These women, mostly medics, sometimes civil affairs officers, were now operating in close quarters in areas heavy with insurgents and other enemies in the middle of a war zone. Competent at their jobs and brave though they were, basically they all were improvising. It was clear to Russo that there was a need for female engagement among Army units, and commanders told her they were getting valuable intel and a stronger understanding of local dynamics from the teams of soldiers. But there was still a persistent belief among some senior Army leaders that women in Afghanistan had no power or influence. Russo’s direct observations had led to the opposite conclusion: Afghan women sat at the center of a complex web of family relationships and had a significant effect on the population.

Buoyed by this conviction, and encouraged by senior Army officers who wanted this capability in their units, Russo was determined to press the case. She had always been nearly impossible to deter once she put her mind to something, and personal tragedy had only hardened her resolve. In 2004, Russo was a newly minted intel officer who had fulfilled her childhood dream of becoming a Marine, which had been sparked by the movie A Few Good Men. A few months into her first assignment, a fellow Marine raped her at a Marine Corps ball. She reported the assault, but the Marine Corps refused to press charges. Eventually, with the help of a Navy criminal investigator, Russo’s case landed on the desk of the San Diego district attorney, whose investigation revealed that her accused had done the same thing to another servicewoman. For her refusal to be silenced, Russo eventually received a “Citizen of Courage” award from the San Diego district attorney.

Now in Afghanistan five years later, working as a civilian for the Army and still passionate about serving, Russo was searching for someone with experience in building these all-female teams—and Pottinger’s name immediately came up. Borrowing some of Pottinger’s FET materials after tracking him down in Kabul, Russo began the process of training Army FETs for a commander in northeast Afghanistan.

Later, with a trove of knowledge they had gathered about women and both the cultural and actual battlefields, Pottinger, Russo, and an influential Afghan-American cultural advisor named Hali Jilani teamed up to publicly address the persistent myths surrounding the FETs. The title of the report, published in 2010 in a military journal, spoke for itself: “Half-Hearted: Trying to Win Afghanistan without Afghan Women.”

The article began by explaining that Afghan men tend to see foreign women as a third gender: not threatening, like American men or subject to the cultural restrictions of Afghan women, but a third group with whom they could interact in a respectful and forthright manner. Noting that “our reluctance to employ all but a few allied servicewomen in tactical counterinsurgency operations mirror-images the Taliban,” the authors pointed out that in 2009 “so few U.S. servicewomen had meaningful contact with Afghan women that, statistically speaking, they literally had a higher chance of getting pregnant than of meeting an Afghan woman outside the wire.”

“Who,” they asked in conclusion, “is shielding their women from Afghan society more: Pashtun men or U.S. commanders?”

At around the same time, back in Tampa, Admiral Olson was working on his own concept of the all-female teams. Though he found the Marines’ FET model interesting, he believed it was too structured for special operations. While movies portray these men as Olympian athletes and tactical geniuses, Olson often described the best of the SEALs and other special operations teams—including the Army Special Forces and the 75th Ranger Regiment, Navy SEALs, Air Force and Marine special operations forces—in much more earthbound language: “physically fit problem solvers.”

Olson knew that any proposal to put women in direct combat zones would guarantee heavy resistance from within the military. Although special operations had long deployed women to hostile zones in a number of roles, including psychological operations and intelligence, the direct ground combat exclusion prohibition—the official ban, formalized in a 1994 memo, that prohibits women from serving on the front lines—was, for Olson, the “bridge that we had to cross.” And it was clear that the time to cross it was now.

Since 1948 women’s military service had been governed by the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act. Among other limits, women were barred from serving aboard any navy ship other than hospitals and transports and from aircraft that could have a combat mission. No mention was made back then of women in ground combat. By the 1980s things were slowly changing: women formed part of non-combat air crews and served aboard some Navy ships. More roles opened up after more than 40,000 servicewomen deployed in 1990 and 1991 as part of Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. By the mid-1990s women could serve in aviation and naval combat. But assignment to units “whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground” remained off-limits for women.

Around headquarters Olson began to raise the issue of getting women into battle roles to support special operations teams, and again and again he met with the same, unenthusiastic reception. Olson understood the limits of his power, for while the role of SOCOM commander carried a great deal of clout, in actual fact he was a “force provider,” not the commander of all Special Operations Forces operating around the world. This made him effectively the CEO of Special Operations Inc. with a mission to provide a product—readiness, options, and capabilities—that commanders on the ground could choose to use. Or not. Olson couldn’t make commanders use these teams; he could only imagine and then develop the ideas so they would be there if and when they were wanted.

Officials around SOCOM listened politely enough to Olson’s idea, then they slow-rolled him. Most gave him the clear impression they couldn’t wait for his time as commander to end so he could take his idea about these new all-female teams with him. It was the same thing that had happened in the Pentagon twenty years earlier, when Congress demanded the creation of SOCOM.

A few months later, however, the landscape changed. By April 2010, a new wave of U.S. troops was entering Afghanistan as part of a force surge announced the previous December, and the fight against the insurgency was accelerating. Olson’s idea was about to get a second chance, and from a most unlikely source, a group of the Army’s most grizzled infantry fighters: the U.S. Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, the night-raiding special operations ground-pounders whose history dates back to colonial times.

In April 2010 Admiral William McRaven, the highly regarded head of the Joint Special Operations Command, submitted a formal request to Olson at SOCOM that women soldiers be made available to join the Rangers on missions. It was based on a radical premise from a forward-thinking leader: that women enablers could make Ranger missions more successful. The idea was that the best female soldiers in the Army would join the 75th Ranger Regiment’s elite strike forces as they went out on nightly direct action raids to get terrorists and insurgents.

JSOC, McRaven’s command, came to life in the early 1980s following the humiliation of the failed attempt to free American hostages in Iran. In the aftermath of the disastrous aborted mission that ended with eight American servicemen dead, the Pentagon created a commission to figure out how so much had gone so wrong. One of the panel’s recommendations was the creation of a “joint” command that would create a cohesive team of special operators from the toughest units in the service: Navy SEALs, the Air Force’s special operations pilots, Army’s Delta Force and Green Berets, and, eventually, the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment.

In 2003 General Stanley McChrystal took command of JSOC and over five years oversaw its evolution into a speed-sensitive, data-driven, high-value targeting machine. Insurgents would be targeted, then targeted again, until they were captured. Each raid yielded new information that produced the next set of targets. The results were astounding. Raids on terrorist homes, weapons depots, and safe houses that had taken days to plan in 2003 required, by 2010, mere minutes. In August 2004, JSOC had overseen 18 night raids in Iraq over the course of a single month. By August 2006, it was 300.

McChrystal uses a civilian analogy to describe the JSOC evolution from specialized force into an organization directed and shaped by the power of its network: “We started the war as the greatest booksellers in the world and ended as Amazon.com.” America’s premier raid force had morphed into a ferociously organized, streamlined organization powered by data from across the United States government and had fought to become as adaptable as its formidable enemy, the al-Qaeda network.

Responsibility for the tactics and planning of missions moved downward to ground-level commanders as the pace of raids surged. No longer could Delta, Green Berets, and SEALs—the most “special” guys of special ops—handle all the workload. As McChrystal put it in 2014, “when we started going at a faster and faster pace, it just wasn’t sustainable to have some guys that weren’t hitting targets, so suddenly they said, ‘Rangers, you take this target, Army Special Forces, you take that target,’ which caused everybody to be hitting targets on their own.”

Rangers, who began the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as the “little brothers” of special ops—the typically younger guys who supported more seasoned, elite units on big operations—now became central to their success. The Rangers matured in their assignments; their competence, sophistication, and confidence grew in turn.

McRaven succeeded McChrystal at JSOC in June 2008, and he built on the ever-increasing agility and nonstop operational tempo his predecessor and mentor had instituted. But like Admiral Olson, Admiral McRaven, the author of Spec Ops, a book filled with case studies in special operations warfare, felt certain they weren’t getting the whole job done if half the population remained out of reach.

For his part McChrystal, now in charge of the whole American war effort in Afghanistan, still felt stung by a review years earlier of an operation that had cost hearts, minds, and allies. His men had raided a compound and followed what they thought were strict, careful, and culturally sensitive procedures: they hadn’t searched the women and instead had ushered them into a different part of the compound before moving through the house searching everything—including the women’s quarters. “We got the feedback later that said ‘you dishonored the women,’” McChrystal remembers. “How?” he and his men had asked. They had never even come close to them. The answer that came back stunned McChrystal: It doesn’t matter, he was told. You went through their things and you touched their clothing.

“That was the level of ignorance we still had. And this was pretty late in the war,” McChrystal observes today, noting that while U.S. forces increasingly understood the broad outlines of Afghan culture, the nuances often remained out of reach.

By 2010, the fight in Afghanistan was going badly enough that all anyone wanted was a solution that worked. For the past decade women had been serving in combat, McChrystal notes—regardless of official policy—as intel analysts, combat pilots, and in Delta Force. Women had won Purple Hearts and Bronze Star Medals for Valor, and had been killed and grievously wounded alongside their male colleagues. McRaven was a practical problem-solver. What would have been unthinkable just five years earlier because of preconceptions about American servicewomen in combat as well as ignorance about the role of women in Afghan culture now became unavoidable. McRaven made a decision: female soldiers would now officially accompany the Rangers on target. Ideology be damned.

That it was the “knuckle-dragging” Rangers who first asked for the female “enablers” held irony for many. (McChrystal notes that the old joke was that the n in Rangers stood for “knowledge.”) These were not touchy-feely men; they were the “blunt instrument” of special operations, guys whose idea of fun was guzzling a Rip It energy drink, working out for two hours, and then getting into a gunfight against bad guys. Nor did they bother with building foreign forces or forging relationships with locals, which was the specialty of the storied Green Berets. The Rangers had a pure and easily quantifiable mandate: you either got the insurgent you wanted or you didn’t. And by now McRaven was ready to employ any smart strategy that would make his men and their mission more effective.

So when McRaven’s official Request for Forces landed on his desk, Olson viewed it as an immediate call to action. This was no longer about his ideas of the “yin and yang of warfare,” Olson told the men who worked for him: this was a hard requirement from a JSOC commander in the field. And everyone knew that what JSOC requested, JSOC received. Olson immediately began putting the wheels in motion, beginning with a request to the Army Special Operations Command to start training the new teams of female soldiers at its Fort Bragg headquarters. Olson divided the teams into two groups: the “direct action” side would go with counterterrorism-focused units, alongside the Rangers. The second group would accompany the more “indirect action” teams out in the hinterland where Green Berets forged relationships with local people and their leaders. These women would be part of VSOs, or Village Stability Operations.

In the meantime, Olson consulted his lawyers about the ban on women in ground combat and learned that as long as he “attached” rather than “assigned” women to these special operations units, he could put them almost anywhere. Including on missions with Rangers.

Finally there was the issue of the team’s name. Everyone agreed that the word female should be avoided, since that would make acceptance all the harder among the all-male units. Since the concept of teamwork was so fundamental to special operations and its distinctive sense of community, they all agreed that it should be a “team.” Another carefully selected word would help blunt the argument of those who thought the program was just a backdoor way for women to become frontline operators: support. Finally, they needed a term that would express the idea that these American female soldiers would make inroads into Afghanistan’s social fabric to reach places and people that men couldn’t: cultural.

The Cultural Support Teams were born.

And so it was that from Olson’s kernel of an idea about what female service members could do that men could not; from McChrystal’s desire to win and his experience on the ground; and from McRaven’s request for women to support his men, there grew a series of conversations that matured into plans that took unexpected twists and eventually produced a program that led Second Lieutenant Ashley White and her female comrades onto the battlefield in Kandahar, Afghanistan, late one night in August 2011.