Three years ago, the Marine Corps added a new component to its military strategy in Afghanistan – to engage Afghan women, thought to be a key influence on their husbands’ and sons’ willingness to cooperate with the Taliban. As part of this new counterinsurgency effort, dozens of female Marines were deployed to southern Afghanistan to provide outreach to women’s schools and health clinics in the conservative Pashtun tribal belt.
As so-called female engagement teams landed in Helmand province, Mimi Wells was a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism studying broadcast journalism and photography. She’d never before been in a combat situation. Wells was interested, she later told us, by the largely untold story of how American military women would try to influence their Afghan counterparts, living in a world unimaginably different from their own. She would soon discover what a challenge that has been.
On her spring break at Columbia, Wells flew to Camp Lejeune, N.C., and began following a group of outgoing female Marines. She observed and filmed their preparations for war, and then, after graduation in May 2011, underwent her own preparation, including getting intensive Pashtu lessons, obtaining custom-made body armor and undergoing a hostile environment training course for journalists, with support from The Rory Peck Trust.
Wells also contacted the Center for Investigative Reporting, and we agreed to become her primary journalistic sponsor, awarding her a grant from CIR’s Dick Goldensohn Fund to support her journey to Afghanistan. For CIR, too, it was a first – including offering guarantees to evacuate Wells in case of serious injury, a condition demanded by the U.S. military, as well as other grim details involved with covering a war.
We kept in touch with Wells via Skype, so she could give us a running chronicle of the U.S. military’s effort to engage Afghan women.
As she, and we, dealt with the changing fortunes of the war, nothing quite worked out as planned. For starters, Wells ended up nowhere near where she’d thought. Instead of being posted with the Marines in Helmand province, she was embedded with a U.S. Army infantry unit hundreds of miles away at Forward Operating Base Bostick in eastern Afghanistan – a post “so isolated,” she later wrote in The New York Times, “that when the Second Battalion, 27th Infantry arrived here … villagers thought they were Russian soldiers.” Her new embed was in one of the most treacherous parts of Afghanistan, just a few miles from the Pakistan border, where insurgents roam freely in the mountains.
The following episodes chronicle Wells’ journey to document and understand the U.S. Army’s effort to connect with Afghan women as the war rages in one of the most fraught and dangerous parts of Afghanistan.