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.
“We have to explain that the Marines are our partners,” Khabir told me during a break in the meeting, as soldiers drank Gatorade and energy drinks and picked at trays of cookies and raspberry-jelly-filled doughnuts. “We work together, and it’s not against our religion.”
Khabir graduated from law school in Kabul, then studied at an Afghan military school for religious and cultural advisers. Last year he started working in northern Marja, a few months after the Marines made their initial push into the longtime insurgent stronghold. Along with setting up mosques at army outposts, he teaches Afghan soldiers to read and write and gives lessons on the Koran. “We have to train our soldiers and officers. They have to believe,” he said. “If we cannot change ourselves, how can we change others?”
Khabir and Solomon started similar Koran lessons for local citizens, delivered weekly by Sergeant Nabi via radio, and they invited area elders and mullahs for a shura, or meeting, where speakers from influential tribes told the 238 men who showed up that the Taliban has perverted Islam, and that as leaders they have a responsibility to help their people understand Islam’s true nature.
In May, the Marines sent 15 elders and politicians from Marja district to Amman, Jordan, on a trip called Voices of Religious Tolerance. For a week they toured mosques, parks, and shopping malls—middle ground between the severe lifestyle demanded by the Taliban and a Western culture many Afghans see as too secular and lenient. Afterward, Solomon and Khabir set up another shura between two dozen mullahs from northern Marja and the three local trip participants, who told the mullahs what they’d seen in Jordan. “They have a mosque across the street from a church, and it is no problem,” Hajji Gul Mulwah said. “Amazing.”
Mulwah said he felt chastened and embarrassed that Afghanistan can’t solve its own problems and be a prosperous Muslim nation. For an hour, the men at the meeting debated the source of the country’s ills—corruption, poverty, meddling by neighbors—and then the Afghan army colonel responsible for the area issued a challenge: Take a risk, he said, and partner with the government. A few who had been on the fence said they were ready. “We should take charge of our own land and protect people ourselves,” a mullah named Fakir said. “It is shameful that they had to send Marines to do what we should be doing ourselves.” And with that, Solomon the noncombatant, who sat quietly throughout the discussion, had perhaps shaped the battlefield as powerfully as any bullet fired or bomb dropped across Afghanistan that day.