NATO Forces

Of Course The CSTs Were Women

We needed CSTs. Because they were women. Women who could fight.

Ladies, more than one of you does more pull ups before breakfast than I’ll do in my lifetime. You run marathons in the time it takes me to do a blog post. You squat the kind of weight I dream about.

You could outshoot me, outruck me, and leave me in the dust on a land nav course. You’re a born warrior. RLTW from the cradle. Amazonia incarnate.

And you’d absolutely suck as a CST.

Some of them are women

The CSTs (Cultural Support Teams) were part of Adm. Eric Olson’s realization that some Afghans were women. And that after nearly 10 years of not being able to talk to female Afghans, that something should be done. So Olson, in coordination with other men in the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM), put together a plan.

That plan was the CSTs, whose primary role was to engage Afghan women while special operations forces (SOF) did the manly work. Like kicking in doors, running dogs through Afghan homes, and killing the occasional military-aged male (MAM).

The teams first deployed to Afghanistan in 2011, and worked with two groups within SOCOM: the Rangers, and the Special Forces. The most information we have on the program comes from Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s book, Ashley’s War, which details the life (and death) Lt. Ashley White, a CST killed in action in Kandahar.

I’ve reviewed Lemmon’s book both on the blog and over at the Afghan Analysts Network. Suffice to say I wasn’t the book’s intended audience. And the fact that Lemmon didn’t cover any of the work done by CSTs with the SF is a glaring omission.

The main thrust of the book is that women could and should serve in special operations. While it’s true that women can’t yet serve as Rangers or Green Berets, that’s changing thanks to a 2013 directive from then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

Panetta told the armed services that by 2016 all positions should be open to women. Or they’d need to provide strong justification for a waiver of that requirement. If that exception were approved, the position would be closed.

The CST program predates that directive, as did the Marines attempt to integrate their Infantry Officer’s Course (IOC). In September of 2012, the USMC allowed the first female volunteers to attend the course. The voluntary portion of that experiment closed in April.

None of the women who entered the IOC completed the course.

The Army’s currently trying something similar, as two women are in Florida in the final phase of Ranger School. If either of them passes, they’ll be Ranger qualified. That’s a first, and an overdue one.

What’s not in doubt is whether women can do jobs held by men. What is still in doubt is what jobs will remain closed in 2016. The CSTs went a long way toward breaking that barrier down, but there are those still unhappy with the conclusions drawn, even by the program’s architect.

This week, Megan H. MacKenzie wrote in Foreign Affairs about what she heard at the Aspen Security Forum, both from Olson and former CSTs. She was amazed by the women, disappointed by Olson.

According to Olson, “The first thing they did when they fast roped out of the first helicopter, was to take their helmet off, let their hair down, and corral the women and children.” Mackenzie took exception to that characterization, saying that, “To claim that women fast roped out of helicopters only to let their hair down is akin to arguing that women took part in night raids so that they could help tuck Afghan children into their beds.”

What Olson gets right and MacKenzie gets wrong is that the CSTs were about the Afghans, not the Americans. The Afghans are the ones with the social hang ups about foreign men talking to their women. To get past that barrier, the US needed women of their own.

Which brings me back to G.I. Jane being a shitty candidate for a CST.

If you read the second paragraph and recognized yourself, we need you leading troops into harm’s way. We need you as a Ranger. As a SEAL. As a Raider (the Marines, not the football team). But for the CSTs, it means a different sent of skills. Because being a CST isn’t just about shooting bad guys in the face.

Of course they were women

The CSTs went along on night raids because they were women.

Who could keep up with the Rangers.

While CST training was abbreviated, that didn’t mean that it wasn’t grueling. Or that these women didn’t have to prove that they were physically and mentally capable of working alongside their male counterparts.

Because of the cultural barrier, the only ones who could do this job were women. This wasn’t about clearing rooms and killing bad guys. That’s direct action, and the CSTs were an additional combat enabler. Who were there because of their gender.

We needed women who could fight

We needed women, SOF needed them to be able to fight. The CSTs were combat enablers, with a specific role. I’m not going to expect my JTAC to be an infantryman, but he damn well needs to keep up.

If I need him (or her) to help out with shooting back at the bad guys, I need to know they’re capable of doing that. But I have my JTAC, and my CST for a specific reason, a specific skill they bring to the table.

While I should be able to do some of the same tasks my enablers can do, they’ve been trained to do that job. Which is why I have them. And this job meant that I would need women. Women to deal with Afghan women and children.

Squats are not a skill

The CSTs were trained (albeit too briefly) in how to deal with women and children during a raid. They were there not just to calm them down, but gather intelligence the Rangers could act on. Which they reportedly did on more than one occasion.

MacKenzie’s underlying premise is that by focusing on that aspect of their work in Afghanistan, that it diminishes their efforts. That by just being there with the Rangers, engaged in firefights (according to her reports from the conference), that they were proving that they were ready to do the Rangers’ job.

I know they could. But that’s not the point of the CSTs. While they helped make the case for women being in combat arms, their primary mission was not to close with and destroy the enemy.

Even though former CST Captain Meredeth Mathis said, “I feel like I’ve seen as much, if not more, combat than a lot of infantry soldiers,” that’s a function of who she was with, and not a commentary on her ability to serve as a Ranger. It’s true that Rangers see more firefights than a lot of other infantry units. Because that’s what Rangers do.

Let me get my shades

Sometime in Freedom’s Sentinel X, there will be a Ranger raid on a compound in Ghazni. They will air assault in, set up a cordon, and while they’re kicking in doors, one or more of the Rangers on the breach team will be a woman. That day is coming.

Right beside that Ranger will be a CST: better trained than her predecessors, probably even Ranger-qualified, maybe even part of the Regiment. But her job will still be to operate as a CST.

Because the Afghans aren’t going to change anytime soon. The men on the raid still won’t be able to talk to the women. And if the Army does it right, just because the breacher happens to be a woman, she’s not going to get stuck being the CST.

Additional duties as assigned

My fear is that programs like the CST would be defunded and absorbed as some kind of supplementary task. It’s the standard additional duty for holders of XX chromosomes in combat zones and development work alike: you’ve got the right parts, so you’re now the gender adviser.

That’s a skill set we’re going to need since it looks like we’ll be doing some kind of intervention/COINerific fight somewhere in the world for the foreseeable future. With the continued deployment of special operations troops into more countries with similar gender challenges, it’s likely we may need the CSTs more than ever.

What the CSTs did was bring some needed humanity to some terrifying nights for some innocent women and children. By doing so they made it safer for their Ranger counterparts, and were still able to help defend the unit when attacked. They were there because they were women. They should stay because they are needed.


Also published on Medium.