The burgeoning sex scandal that has swept up retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, his biographer, Paula Broadwell, and now Petraeus’ successor as the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Allen, is alarming the small cadre of women advisers who enjoy extraordinary access to top generals based on their expertise and scholarship.
Often coming from non-military backgrounds, these women’s work has informed U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than a decade, offering fresh ideas on topics such as local governance, human rights, rule of law and counterinsurgency, with an ability to challenge the commanders from a position of independence.
Now they fear that leaders who have learned to rely on their advice might restrict women from their inner circles to avoid the appearance of impropriety. It was a measure of their concern that none of the women interviewed for this story was willing to attach her name to her remarks.
“One of the things I worry about is that they, in their concern either to protect themselves from this kind of event or from the appearance of something wrong, might think twice about putting a female in that kind of environment again,” said one former adviser to Petraeus and other officers. “And therefore, they’d fall back and be enclosed by the system again.”
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For Petraeus, such women included Kimberly Kagan, a military historian who heads the Institute for the Study of War, and Emma Sky, a British cross-cultural specialist and current fellow at Yale who also advised Gen. Ray Odierno when he was commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.
Other senior commanders also bought into the idea of including outsiders – “free radicals,” as one woman put it – in their brain trusts.
Former Time magazine journalist Sally Donnelly was a special assistant to Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Marine Gen. James Mattis, currently the head of Central Command, the Tampa, Fla.-based military group that Petraeus and Allen also commanded. Sarah Chayes, an Afghanistan specialist and former journalist, also served as a special assistant to Mullen.
Catherine Dale, a national security reform expert with the Congressional Research Service, advised Gen. David Rodriguez, former commander of forces in Afghanistan. Others are involved in the current planning for potential operations in Africa.
The phenomenon – complete with names – was remarkable enough to be noted in an academic journal, Review of International Studies, last year under the headline, “Gendered practices of counterinsurgency.”
“Less commented upon has been the increasingly visible presence of women – white, middle-class, educated women – in the U.S. Department of Defense and in security-related think tanks,” wrote the author, Laleh Khalili. “This rise of a particular category of women, espousing a particular species of feminism, is itself indicative of a kind of femininity which is comfortable with, and in fact positively values, breaking through security spaces coded as masculine.”
Whether or not they agreed with the academic’s take on their small movement, the women conceded that it wasn’t easy to gain acceptance, even after it became de rigueur to have a civilian adviser on a general’s staff.
“You’re female, you’re civilian, and you’ve never served,” one former special adviser to senior officers said. “That’s the troika that could raise suspicions about what value you could possibly add.”
In most cases, several women said, they served as “bridges,” connecting top commanders with issues concerning the civilian populations in their areas of operations, whether Baghdad, Kabul or Washington.
Some said they carried themselves modestly by nature and didn’t think twice about their mostly male environment; others said they took pains to “overcompensate” for their femininity in the battle theater by avoiding a flirtatious tone of voice, dressing unobtrusively and not making too much eye contact.
Among this panel of serious women academics and analysts, there is a special bitterness about Broadwell, whom many accused of relying on sex appeal rather than expertise for entry into the exclusive generals’ club.
They’re also disappointed in Petraeus for giving so much access to a young woman whom others in his circle spotted immediately as ill-equipped to write the definitive biography of a man considered a national hero.
“The crime of it was to give her the inferred expertise of an insider when everyone else had to earn that status,” said one longtime Petraeus adviser. “They weren’t just resentful that she wore tight tops – they were resentful that she was given a status she didn’t deserve.”
The stories abound – Broadwell wore a halter top to meet a senior commander at the Pentagon, she was given research tasks and job interviews for which she wasn’t qualified, she presented herself as a journalist while serving on a panel at the prestigious Aspen Ideas Festival, a gathering of top thinkers from around the globe.
To other women, some of whom tried to mentor her, Broadwell turned on the charm to hide the fact that she was way out of her league.
“She earned something, OK, she went to West Point and she wrote the book, but she didn’t have the level of expertise and judgment and, certainly, integrity, of someone who was given such prominence,” one of the advisers said.
Before the identity of the Florida socialite who’s also embroiled in the scandal was revealed, at least one longtime Petraeus adviser was embarrassed to get emails from colleagues asking whether she was “the other woman” who reportedly received threatening messages from Broadwell.
That, she said, is the risk to other women in the field when one woman squanders her coveted entry into the world of the security establishment’s mightiest decision-makers. Access and trust are key, she said, to making such high-stakes relationships work in order to move policy on urgent security matters.
“It’s so painful to watch because it means that anyone who was seeking to function in a role that requires that kind of relationship got pushed back several yards,” the adviser said, “You’ve basically got a penalty on you because now you have to move back further to make sure no one construes you in that way.”