Afghanistan September 2011

Enlisting Allah

To thwart the Taliban, marines in Helmand province are teaching the locals to read the Koran.
Sebastiano Tomada Piccolomini

Soon after he deployed to southern Afghanistan this spring, Lieutenant Commander Nathan Solomon, a Navy chaplain, learned of a disconcerting and persistent belief among the locals in northern Marja: the Afghan soldiers stationed there weren’t Muslim. The Taliban had convinced many in this stretch of Helmand province that the Afghan soldiers—most of whom were from northern and eastern Afghanistan and spoke Dari instead of Pashto, the local language—were nearly as foreign as the U.S. marines patrolling alongside them.

Solomon and his Afghan liaison, Abdul Khabir, a mullah and an army captain, suggested that installing audio speakers at the joint patrol bases to announce the five-times-daily Muslim call to prayer might help. The first speakers brought quick results. “We didn’t know they pray like we do,” one man told a joint patrol of marines and Afghan soldiers. “It makes us trust them more, knowing we all share the same faith.”

A chaplain since 1999, Solomon had arrived for his first Afghanistan deployment ready to deliver sermons, lead Bible studies, and offer counsel about marital problems, fear, and the sharp grief of losing friends. He has performed those staples of military chaplaincy, but he and his colleagues have also increasingly found themselves in the unexpected role of counterinsurgent.

This is tricky territory for chaplains, whose job is to facilitate religious expression, but not, as noncombatants, to participate in the prosecution of war. That’s an easy distinction on a battlefield: say prayers with the troops; don’t fight beside them. But what about when interpretations of religion can either feed violence or quell it?

For years, America viewed religion in Afghanistan as a minefield. Worried that the war on terror would be seen as a crusade against Islam, the U.S. military mostly tried not to cause offense, and instead focused on killing insurgents and building up the local government, economy, and security forces. But the Taliban has long wielded religion as a weapon, presenting the Talibs as true believers, and coalition forces and their Afghan allies as infidels and apostates. Though the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency manual makes slight mention of religion, the few references neatly summarize Taliban efforts:

Islamic extremists use perceived threats to their religion by outsiders to mobilize support for their insurgency and justify terrorist tactics … Effective insurgent propaganda can also turn an artificial problem into a real one.

In their patch of Helmand, Solomon and his Afghan and American colleagues started meeting this spring to brainstorm ways to counter the Taliban’s message.

“The Taliban are Muslim too, but they do bad things against Islam,” Khabir’s assistant, Sergeant Muhammad Nabi, another mullah, told 20 American and Afghan soldiers and religious advisers crowded into a tent in May. “Islam doesn’t say ‘Kill the people, bury IEDs in the road, and ambush the Afghan army.’ Islam doesn’t say ‘Do suicide attacks against other Muslims.’ We have to talk to those who have dark ideas.”

The relative lack of education in rural Afghanistan complicates this challenge. Many of the area’s mullahs, the equivalent of small-town preachers, can’t read and write in Pashto, never mind Arabic, the language of the Koran. That makes it hard for them to deeply understand the Koran and the tenets of Islam, and easy for the Taliban to spread its version of both the duties of good Muslims and the motivations of the Afghan and coalition security forces.

Presented by

Brian Mockenhaupt is a writer and a former infantryman.

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