WASHINGTON — 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."
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 ... 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.
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 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.