Small Wars Journal

‘A Job That Cannot Be Done By Their Brothers’: Developing Local National Female Security Forces

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‘A Job That Cannot Be Done By Their Brothers’: Developing Local National Female Security Forces

Patricia Blocksome


The development of female local national security forces are a useful tool in designing culturally appropriate security operations. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the use of local national female security forces allowed coalition forces to conduct security operations which otherwise could have provoked backlash due to violations of host nation culture norms regarding male-female interactions. This article describes the advantages of creating such forces, and then discusses issues surrounding implementation, recruitment, and training. I argue that developing a comprehensive approach to utilizing female security forces, based on the lessons learned from ad hoc operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, will allow for more effective mission planning in areas where culturally sensitive interactions with local populations are a crucial part of operations.


Afghanistan, 2012

"Before we joined this unit, our operations were done by foreign troops and they did not know our culture. People were critical so we joined to help out," Delawar, a former policewoman in Jowzjan province, said.

"It's unacceptable for us to see male soldiers body-searching females. Men are not allowed to touch females," third-lieutenant Binazir, 24, said. "I'm proud to say that I'm here to serve my country side by side with my brothers. I'm proud that Afghan girls are here and I hope more girls join in order to provide better services for brothers and sisters in the battlefield and save lives."[2]

The need for cultural sensitivity in stability, peacekeeping, counterinsurgency, and foreign internal defense/security force assistance operations is a broadly understood and accepted point. One tactic which has great potential to assist in this area is the role that can be played by female local national security forces. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the use of local national female police and military forces allowed coalition forces to conduct security operations which otherwise could have provoked backlash due to violations of host nation culture norms regarding male-female interactions.[3] [4]

This essay discusses advantages that can be achieved by the use of female local national security forces, issues with implementation, best practices for finding recruits, and force training considerations. In sum, I argue that developing a comprehensive approach to utilizing female security forces, based on the lessons learned from ad hoc operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, will allow for better campaign planning, and as a result better deployment preparation, for missions in areas where culturally sensitive interactions with local populations are a crucial part of operations.

Examples exist of coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan offending local populations by having male military personnel interact with female local nationals in ways that are considered egregious by host nation cultural standards. Night raids upon compounds (and especially the women’s quarters of such compounds) suspected of harboring insurgents or weapons caches “have long stoked anti-Western sentiment in Afghanistan, with many locals seeing them as assaults on their privacy and on women's privacy in particular.”[5] The same aversion to raids existed in Iraq, and both countries also strictly limit interactions between unrelated males and females.[6] [7] [8]

These instances of cultural insensitivity are harmful to perceptions of and support for coalition forces by local populations and also provide an opening for criticism by adversaries and their sympathizers. As another Small Wars Journal author noted, “counterinsurgents need to understand that there are not only good guys and bad guys in the population, but also gradations. Counterinsurgents need to think about how their strategies move people up and down over these gradations.”[9] Strategies in which cultural sensitivities are taken into account avoid provoking backlash or negatively shifting that gradient away from support for coalition force operations.

While adversaries often utilize information operations to broadcast the failures of coalition forces to respect local norms in order to build up popular outrage, they may simultaneously take advantage of those norms for tactical purposes. Not only does this battle for influence allow the enemy to exploit errors, it can also create an oversensitivity by coalition members that creates a safe harbor, or capability to exploit the use of females. It is not uncommon for adversaries to utilize females as combatants (particularly for the delivery of IEDs), transporters of munitions or information, or guardians of weapons caches.[10] [11] In areas where females are not subject to the same security scrutiny as males, males may camouflage themselves by dressing as women.  Such cross-dressing can be particularly useful for bypassing security checkpoints or being permitted to come closer to targeted buildings or individuals.[12]

In Iraq and Afghanistan, coalition forces have responded to this issue in two ways.  First, female coalition force military personnel have been reassigned to outreach groups. The success of Team Lioness led to the more formal groups such as the Female Engagement Teams and Cultural Support Teams in use today.[13] These groups are tasked with interacting with female local nationals encountered on patrols or key leader engagements, accompanying combat raids on houses, and performing policing duties such as body searches at checkpoints. Disadvantages to this approach include the lack of available female military personnel for such duties, and efforts to replace coalition forces from security operations in favor of host nation forces, which typically have few, if any, female personnel.[14]

In order to overcome these disadvantages, the second response by coalition forces has been to create ad hoc female local national security force elements, as well as to initiate efforts at integrating female local nationals into the sanctioned policing bodies. In Iraq, a number of ad hoc forces were formed, such as the Daughters of Iraq and the Daughters of Fallujah. In 2008, the Multi-National Force—Iraq North Division trained nearly 60 women for integration into the Kirkuk and Diyala police.[15] In Afghanistan, females have been incorporated into the Afghan Uniformed Police, Afghan Border Police, the Afghan National Army, and Afghan Special Forces.[16] [17] [18]


There are numerous tactical advantages to incorporating female local national security forces. First and foremost, approximately fifty percent of the total population of a state can now be policed effectively with little or no offense to host nation cultural norms. Utilizing female security forces can “provide a complete and thorough search of suspect females with the utmost respect for the individual and local customs without compromising the safety of others.”[19]

While the primary advantage of utilizing female local national security forces is in the tactical ability to increase the effectiveness of security operations while minimizing cultural backlash, the second-order effects of female security forces also offer several advantages. Employing females can lead to greater economic independence for women who might otherwise be unable to support themselves and their children.[20] This economic independence reduces the numbers of women who are destitute, homeless, or refugees/IDPs, which in turn decreases the numbers of people dependent upon foreign support or aid programs.[21]

The benefits of female local national security forces extend to all women in the country. If part of overall coalition force strategy is to encourage the inclusion and direct participation of women in political processes, employing women may be an excellent starting point. Women who are employed in security forces are more likely to be publicly visible as they interact with local women in the course of their duties. This could create a cascading cultural effect wherein women in the public eye are no longer an anomaly but rather an accepted part of public life, at least in specified areas of the public arena, such as on patrol, and at police stations, checkpoints, and military bases. Further, women who are economically independent and publicly visible may be more likely to either be given or demand a place in political processes.[22] [23]

If female security forces are sufficiently widespread across a region, the adversary’s tactical advantage of utilizing females as combatants, transporters, or cache-protectors will decrease. This will limit the tactical maneuverability of adversarial groups, and hopefully provide a corresponding gain to coalition forces. In addition, this may limit the intimidation, abuse, or coercion of women and girls sometimes utilized by adversaries in order to compel females to serve as IED delivery systems.[24] [25]

Employing female security forces across a wide area may also increase the mobility of other women within a country. If a female faces the choice between remaining at home or undertaking a trip which would require that she be confronted or checked by male security forces, remaining at home will probably be the preferred option. However, if females expect to have their privacy and male-female interaction norms respected while traveling, staying home is no longer the only culturally acceptable option. In Iraq, female security personnel were responsible for searching women who came to a Baghdad mosque for a major religious celebration. As one female guard recalled, “A lot of women were happy to see the local women there to protect them. They were hugging and kissing us and giving us Pepsis.”[26]


However, these second-order benefits occur only over the course of a longer time horizon. Female local national forces must first be recruited, trained to a high level of professionalism and effectiveness, and deployed, after which there will be a transition time where local populations become accustomed to female security forces and start to realize the benefits of such a force. Accepting females as economically independent, politically active, and mobile actors in the public sphere will probably be a large transition for some societies, and is a goal best accomplished gradually. As Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin III described it while serving as the Multi-National Force-Iraq commander in 2008, “It’ll be one of these things that will take some time to work through. They’re a little slow in letting women be able to do some jobs. We’ve got to break through some barriers.”[27]

Interestingly, the first and strongest advocates of female security forces are often their male counterparts who work side-by-side and see the immediate benefits of working with female forces.[28] Col. Jalaluddin Yaftaly, Joint Special Unit, Afghan National Army commander, is one of those in favor of such forces: “We were faced with so many problems when we didn’t have female special forces in our units. …Female special forces are quite useful.”[29]

The danger with the creation of female local national security forces lies within this long time horizon. If international support for such forces ends before it becomes politically necessary, militarily expedient, and culturally acceptable for local government to support such initiatives, odds are that the women who were employed will see diminished or disappearing paychecks and employment opportunities. This is what some reports suggest has happened in Iraq.[30] Therefore, effective implementation of a female local national security force should be undertaken as a long-term commitment.

An additional consideration for operations planners is how to implement female local national security forces without exacerbating tensions over cultural norms for female behavior. In examining the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan, several guidelines for female security forces appear. First, women may need to work in groups, and they may need transport or escort services to and from their place of employment (as there may be norms against women traveling or working alone).[31] Second, women should be allowed to alter security uniforms to conform to cultural norms for female dress, with items such as hijabs considered a permissible addition to the required uniform.[32] [33] Third, separate, female-only facilities such as changing rooms, toilets, and checkpoint areas are a necessity in order to protect the privacy norms of both female security personnel and the women they interact with.[34] [35] Finally, providing weapons training and arms to women may need to be handled carefully.  Some female security forces operated unarmed, in other circumstances women received weapons during initial training, and some forces originally operated unarmed but later tried to transition into an armed force.[36] [37]

Recruitment and Training

The women who volunteer for local national security forces may face societal disapproval since they are taking on culturally nontraditional roles. A report from Afghanistan noted that “Recruitment is especially tricky. Women are put off by the prospect of social rejection and disapproval from their families.”[38] Recruits may also face resistance from adversary groups; as with their male counterparts, joining national security forces may put female volunteers at risk for retaliatory attacks by adversaries who seek to intimidate potential recruits against joining. [39] One example of the difficulties facing female recruits is exemplified by the story of Zainab, an ANA cadet at the Officer Candidate School in Kabul Military Training Center.  Though she had the support of her family, her fiancé threatened to kill her and accused her of “sleeping among American men.”[40] Another example is that of Bibi Anwara, a policewoman in Zabul Province. Bibi’s husband divorced her when he discovered that she had joined the police force. She told him she had quit the force, remarried him, and then continued—without telling him—to work for the police.[41]

Certain groups of women may be more open to security force personnel employment: 1) women who have lost family members to violence and who are highly motivated to stop such violence; 2) women who would otherwise be destitute – typically those without family support (especially war widows); 3) women whose families/peer groups support such employment, and, more broadly, the efforts of coalition forces as a whole; and 4) women with higher social standing who are unafraid to go against common gender role norms.[42] [43] [44] The age of recruits may also matter; in Afghanistan, younger women appear to be more interested in joining security forces.[45]

One way to make the recruitment process easier is to ensure that coalition force trainers charged with training female local nationals are themselves female. When coalition force trainers are male, cultural norms of male-female interaction may make some recruits uncomfortable with the training process, limiting the number of women willing to be trained. Utilizing female trainers may also lead to less general societal disapproval of female recruits, and ease the transition process by which female security forces become publicly acceptable.[46]

This is not to say that male trainers cannot train female personnel, as workarounds are available. In Iraq, for instance, male Iraqi Army officers working with female trainees utilized sticks in order to correct recruit’s movements while not violating cultural constraints that required no physical contact occur between unrelated males and females.[47] Yet, due to the cultural elements that led to the creation of female local national security forces in the first place, female trainers are probably the best option, offering fewer handicaps during the training process.[48]

In the US military, female troops are present in some occupational specialties that may be involved in training efforts, such as the military police, but they are not currently allowed to undertake special forces occupational specialties that would allow them a broader range of foreign internal defense/security force assistance roles. This may be an area where expansion of the occupational roles open to females in the US military would directly benefit overseas military operations. However, regardless of what military occupations are tasked with this job, ultimately there should be a greater focus on recruiting, training, and supporting female military personnel for this critical training task.


Undoubtedly, female security forces are not a panacea, and may not be useful in every stabilization, peacekeeping, counterinsurgency, and foreign internal defense/security force assistance operation. However, in countries where strong norms on the differentiation and privacy of females exist, the creation of female policing or military units is likely to prove an effective tool for such operations. The use and training of female local national security forces should be the subject of further discussion and development so that the lessons learned from Iraqi and Afghan implementations can be carried forward. 

In certain cultural contexts, female security forces may offer significant tactical advantages for vital security operations that require contact with local national females. In such contexts they offer a unique advantage. As one Iraqi official noted in 2011, “They are doing a job that cannot be done by their brothers in security.”[49]


[1] The author would like to thank COL Kevin Brown, US Army (Ret.), and PSG Sumalee Bustamante, US Army (Ret.), both of whom were involved with training female police officers in Iraq in 2008, for graciously giving of their time and wisdom to offer advice on drafts of this article.  Any errors or omissions are the author’s own.  This paper reflects the author’s personal judgments and does not represent the views of the United States Government or the Department of Defense.

[2] Harooni, Mirwais. 2012. “Elite female night raiders break down barriers in Afghanistan.” Reuters. April 11.

[3] Reuters. 2004. “US troops kill four Iraqis.” Times of Malta. Jan. 14.

[4] King, Laura. 2011. “Karzai, NATO once again clash over deadly night raids.” Los Angeles Times. Dec. 19.

[5] Harooni, 2012.

[6] Faiez, Rahim. 2013. “Afghanistan’s Female Special Forces Break New Ground in Ultraconservative Country.” Huffington Post. Feb. 14.

[7] Quinn, Patrick. 2002. “U.S. forces in Afghanistan step on cultural land mines.” Deseret News/Associated Press. June 25/26.,3209710

[8] Hendawi, Hamza. 2004. “Iraqis see U.S. military’s ignorance of local customs, traditions at the heart of occupation woes.” Associated Press. May 21.

[9] Manea, Octavian. 2013. “Breaking Down “Hearts and Minds”: The Power of Individual Causal Mechanisms in an Insurgency.” Small Wars Journal. 9(4).

[10] Ali, Farhana. 2008. “Dressed to Kill: Why the Number of Female Suicide Bombers is Rising in Iraq.” RAND Corporation.

[11] Cocks, Tim. 2008. “Iraqi girl aborts suicide bombing and surrenders.” Reuters. Aug. 25.

[12] Watson, Leon. 2012. “Dragged off by the police: Afghan insurgents try to evade capture by disguising themselves as women.” Daily Mail Online. Nov. 20.

[13] Bumiller, Elisabeth. 2010. “Letting Women Reach Women in Afghan War.” Mar. 6.

[14] In the U.S. military, women comprise only 14% of enlisted and 16% of commissioned officers on active duty:  Patten, Eileen and Parker, Kim. 2011. “Women in the U.S. Military: Growing Share, Distinctive Profile.” Pew Research Social and Demographic Trends. Dec. 22.  In Afghanistan, there are only 379 females present in the Afghan National Army and 1,455 females in the country’s police forces: Jones, Susan. 2013. “Female Recruitment Still Far Short of Goal for Afghan National Security Forces.” CNS News. April 30.

[15] Personal correspondence with COL Kevin Brown, US Army (Ret.), 4 May 2013.

[16] Brown, John. 2013. “Female Afghan police make their mark.” Afghanistan International Security Assistance Force News. Feb. 4.

[17] Jones, 2013.

[18] Faiez, 2013.

[19] Starz, Mike. 2008. “Soldiers create ‘Daughters of Iraq’ program.” United States Central Command News. April 22.

[20] Nelson, Margaret. 2008. “Kirkuk Police Academy trains women in Northeastern Iraq.” United States Army News. Aug. 18.

[21] Zavis, Alexandra. 2008. “Daughters of Iraq: Women take on a security role.” Los Angeles Times. June 4.,0,7497772.story?page=1

[22] Jones, 2013.

[23] Gutcher, Lianne. 2011. “Fighting is cultural, criminal for Afghan policewomen.” USA Today. Sept. 19.

[24] Cocks, 2008.

[25] Hurst, Steven. 2008. “Baghdad bombers described as mentally disabled.” Seattle Times. Feb. 2.

[26] Zavis, 2008.

[27] Zavis, 2008.

[28] Harooni, 2012.

[29] Faiez, 2013.

[30] Healy, Jack. 2011. “Iraqi Women Work to Halt Bombers, but Paycheck Is Elusive.” New York Times. Feb. 27.

[31] Zavis, 2008.

[32] Faiez, 2013.

[33] Chowdhry, 2011(a). “Female Cades Signal Slow Change in Afghan Police Force.” New York Times. Nov. 16.

[34] Graham-Harrison, Emma. 2013. “Afghanistan’s female police officers fight for women-only toilets.” The Guardian. April 24.

[35] Chowdhry, 2011(a).

[36] McClary, Ruth. 2009. “Training the ‘Daughters of Iraq’.” United States Army News. June 24.; Healy, 2011;

[37] Zavis, 2008.

[38] Harooni, 2012.

[39] Healy, 2011.

[40] Chowdhry, Aisha. 2011(b). “Battles Begin Early for Female Recruits in Afghan Army.” New York Times. Nov. 17.

[41] Gutcher, 2011.

[42] Starz, Mike. 2008. “Soldiers Help Create ‘Daughters of Iraq’ Program.” American Foreign Press Service, U.S. Department of Defense. April 18.; Zavis, 2008; McClary, 2009.

[43] Chowdhry, 2011(b).

[44] Nelson, 2008.

[45] Jones, 2013

[46] Chowdhry, 2011(a).

[47] Nelson, 2008.

[48] Jones, 2013.

[49] Healy, 2011.


About the Author(s)

Patricia Blocksome is a Ph.D. Candidate in Security Studies at Kansas State University.  Her research interests lie within the field of sub-state politicized violence, focusing on the causes and evolution of use of violence by non-state actors. She is an associate of the ADT Project, which conducts research on more effective strategies for military-led stability and development missions. As the 2012 Scholar of the Arthur D. Simons Center for Interagency Cooperation, she studied the effects of internal security forces and security force assistance on sub-state violence.