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?”