The question of women’s roles in conflict


Now that the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has opened all military occupations to women in order to take advantage of the skills and perspectives they have to offer, perhaps this move will help it to overcome a bias that continues to handicap its operations: its lack of recognition of the critical contributions of local women in conflict areas. To date, multiple opportunities to defeat insurgents, stabilize communities and promote peace in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and many other countries have been squandered because of the military’s almost exclusive focus on the male half of populations.

As a result of this persistent exclusion in zones of conflict, commanders are effectively precluding themselves from taking advantage of all opportunities to defeat armed groups, mitigate the influence of malign forces, and facilitate peace and stability. Paradoxically, this obliviousness also directly contradicts military leaders’ contemporary emphasis on obtaining in-depth “situational awareness” in order to effectively deal with conflict.

Women play many roles in conflict zones, and the DoD seems to overlook them all. Let’s discuss two of those roles here: women as soldiers and conflict support providers, and women as forces for community stabilization during and after conflict.

Creating effective strategies to defeat any type of enemy requires first and foremost following the timeless admonition “know your enemy.” Who is fighting? What motivates them to fight? To date the DoD has spent little time asking whether the answers to these questions demand we look at women, despite significant evidence showing that women have historically served as insurgents and terrorists in conflicts worldwide. In liberation struggles in Eritrea, South Africa and Nicaragua, for example, women served in guerrilla armies and even gained military command positions. Between 1985 and 2012, female terrorists accounted for a quarter of fatal attacks in Iraq, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Chechnya, Sri Lanka, Morocco and Palestine. And today women continue to engage in violent conflict as evidenced by women serving as combatants in al Shabaab and as suicide bombers for Boko Haram. Being unaware of this fact or choosing to ignore it means that DoD strategies aimed at defeating insurgent and extremist organizations – organizations that rely on women to achieve their strategic and tactical objectives – are doomed to fail since they are only fractional strategies at best.

The spike in suicide bombings carried out by Iraqi women from 2007 to mid-2008 provides a clear (and tragic) example of this. During that 18-month time span, female suicide bombers conducted 35 attacks compared to only a few before 2007. However, because the U.S. military focused primarily on vehicle-born suicide bomb attacks and the men behind the wheel, they didn’t consider that women might also be suicide bombers. Even the tactical advantage of using women in this way was lost on intelligence analysts and military planners. For example, during the surge in Iraq, the U.S. erected massive concrete walls, razor wire fences and numerous checkpoints that turned Iraqi neighborhoods into veritable islands. This was done to severely limit insurgents’ freedom of movement. However, because U.S. forces didn’t suspect Iraqi women of being bombers, female insurgents on suicide bombing missions were allowed to easily pass through these security barricades. As a consequence, DoD was caught flatfooted in the face of escalating terror attacks – and arguably contributed to them because of their gender bias.

And it’s not only female combatants that Defense should be concerned about. Women provide essential auxiliary support to movements bent on destabilization, and to be successful in countering these movements, the DoD must understand and appreciate their role. A contemporary example of this is female members of Daesh. Spreading propaganda, recruiting new members, and serving as “moral police” in the al Khansaa Brigade, these women are considered a critical component in Daesh’s efforts to maintain control of conquered areas and also to expand into new ones. Afghan women also provide vital auxiliary support by feeding insurgents provided with safe harbor in their compounds, storing bomb-making supply kits, and protecting critical information. During a raid on a compound in Kandahar Province in 2011, for example, an American soldier searching Afghan women discovered a hollowed-out Koran tucked into an infant’s swaddling. Inside the Koran were cell phones containing names and numbers of insurgents, hand-written lists of names, and other incriminating documents.

Ironically, on a doctrinal level, Defense acknowledges that auxiliary support is important to insurgencies. According to the U.S. Army publication, A Leader’s Handbook to Unconventional Warfare, it’s one of the “three components common to insurgencies” – the others being the guerillas and the underground. While each component is vital to an insurgency’s survival, the Handbook highlights the pivotal role of the auxiliary noting that it “can be likened to embryonic fluid that forms a protective layer keeping the underground and guerilla force alive.” DoD also identifies the critical role that women play in the auxiliary and, moreover, recognizes that women tend to be less scrutinized by counterinsurgent forces. Nevertheless, Defense still hasn’t incorporated this knowledge into its intelligence analysis and operations planning cycles in any meaningful way. Instead, these activities remain male focused instead of gender neutral. If DoD put its doctrine into practice during conflicts, it would implement a gender-neutral approach. This would require collecting information about women’s activities in support of insurgents and incorporating this intelligence into its analysis and operational plans. The end result would be a military that truly knows its enemy, and can therefore more effectively confront it.

In addition to being fighters and providing key support for fighters, women are also indispensable to their community’s stability. When trying to stop violent conflict and stabilize areas by supporting peacebuilding efforts, military commanders would benefit greatly from following the lead of local women who are generally at the forefront of mitigating conflict. Women from the Solomon Islands, for example, played a key role in bringing an end to internecine violence that consumed the country in the late 1990s by bridging the divide between the two primary militant groups through on-going dialogue and peace initiatives. Their efforts laid the foundation for Townsville Peace Agreement that eventually brought an end to the conflict. The Kosovo Women’s Network (KWN) also played a key role in fostering peace and stability during that country’s conflict. Comprised of sixty eight women’s organizations of diverse ethnicities and geographic regions, the KWN was renowned for its outreach to “enemy” communities. Kosovar Albanian KWN members regularly traveled to Serbian enclaves in Kosovo to deliver humanitarian assistance and communicate with Serbian women thereby directly contributing to the stability and peace of local communities.

In 2011, Leymah Gbowee was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize after leading a women’s peace movement Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace that helped bring an end to the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003. Women in Northern Ireland were fundamental to bringing an end to the violent conflict known as “the Troubles.” Mairead Maguire and Betty Williams were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 for their reconciliation work founding the Peace People movement that evolved into a new political party called the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (NIWC). The NIWC was elected to the multiparty talks that eventually led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

If you want peace and stability, you must first understand by whose hand it is best likely to be achieved – women.

And yet, women have been and continue to be left out of peace negotiations. The case of Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) reveals the dismal consequences of failing to include women in peace talks. Not a single woman participated in the negotiations preceding the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995. Consequently, their wartime experience of providing much needed stability through a variety of activities – engaging in cross-community dialogue, providing assistance to thousands of internally displaced people, and keeping factories running by braving snipers and shelling to work in them – wasn’t considered when plans were drawn up establishing the political system for post-conflict BiH. In their article, “If women are left out of peace talks,” authors Mlinarević, Isaković and Rees point out that “many of the problems that arose after the war could have been avoided had there been more serious political engagement – involving women’s civil society representatives and gender-competent advisors – during the peace talks.” For one, Bosnian women would have demanded a political system that embraced diversity just as they had struggled to hold together their culturally diverse communities during the war knowing that unity and strength would result. Instead, the all-men peace negotiations served to entrench ethno-nationalistic and neoliberal positions that continue to plague the country today. Indeed, 20 years later, Bosnia remains rigidly divided along ethnic lines and, according to Marko Attila Hoare, a British historian and author of several books on Bosnia, “condemned to permanent dysfunction.”

Today, Syrian women peace advocates continue to be excluded from the Syrian peace talks and their demands to take part ignored: the lessons from Bosnia have not been learned.

In sum, the DoD has paid scant attention to local women in conflict as either aggressors, crucial fighting support, or powerful peace builders – and this has been to the detriment of U.S. national security as well as global security. Now that the DoD has officially acknowledged female soldiers’ diverse and valuable abilities by eliminating the combat exclusion rule, it’s time to acknowledge the pivotal roles and agency of local women living in the conflict zones in which our troops are deployed. It’s the next logical step if the DoD is serious about defeating extremism and promoting peace and stability.

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