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Alexs Thompson
Religious Leader Engagement in Southern Afghanistan

Interaction with religious leaders and institutions in Afghanistan has been inconsistently addressed by foreign military, diplomatic, and development officials. Recent efforts to correct that trend in southern Afghanistan make it clear that a sustained, consistent, well-thought-out religious leader engagement program supports and advances the traditional components of counterinsurgency (security, development, and governance). Systematic engagement of religious leaders at the provincial, district, village, and farm levels created another line of communication whereby the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) promoted its mission of stability and Afghans voiced their needs and commitment to a stable future.

One of the most pressing observations made about U.S. military efforts in the 21st century has been the need to leverage culturally specific factors in support of counterinsurgency (COIN) efforts. One of the most important—and underemphasized—aspects of Afghan society is the importance of religious leaders in countering anti-Afghan rhetoric.1 This article examines the role of religious leaders and institutions in Afghan society and identifies them as a crucial dimension to stability operations in Afghanistan. It is argued that religious leader engagement is a core factor for expressing U.S. objectives, mitigating the effects of kinetic operations, and legitimating the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) through specifically Afghan modes of discourse and participation. The observations and conclusions presented are informed by the author's personal experiences in Afghanistan and his interviews with others who have implemented religious leader engagement programs in southern Afghanistan. Religious leaders, and especially those at the district and village level who are regarded as representatives of their communities, are powerbrokers whose position and authority situate them as key partners for stability and who should not be ignored by the United States or ISAF.

Roles of Religious Leaders

Religious leaders and institutions play a significant role in how the legitimate GIRoA describes itself; the same is true for the enemies of Afghanistan.2 The primary question, then, is not whether religious leaders will continue to play a significant role in the future of Afghanistan, but rather how those leaders and the institutions they represent can be fully integrated into stable, effective political processes. The highest priority is not simply to provide counter "-religious" ideology, but to counter specifically "violent" religious ideology that quells the voice and will of the Afghan people.3 Undermining the impact of violent religious rhetoric, however, is primarily the responsibility of Afghans; they should encourage, publicize, and sustain the incorporation of religious language, individuals, and institutions in their own vision of the future. One of the ways that the U.S. Government/ISAF can support Afghans in this endeavor is to promote sustained programs of religious leader engagement.

As a starting point for engaging religious leaders, it is prudent to envision a future Afghanistan where religious institutions and leaders are promoted as essential aspects of the social fabric—not eliminated or begrudgingly accepted. Even those religious leaders who currently support the enemies of Afghanistan find themselves seeking reconciliation with GIRoA from time to time, and pursue full participation in the political process.4 If religious leaders will be prominent in Afghanistan's future, it behooves the U.S. Government and ISAF to identify religious leaders who are amenable to dialogue and integration with GIRoA; this will set the conditions for the marginalization of radical religious leaders in favor of those who support stable political processes. It is of tremendous importance, then, that religious leaders from all dogmatic, geographic, and linguistic communities be engaged in consistent public dialogue so that Afghans can responsibly choose how they wish to advance a narrative that preserves their religious heritage and ensures long-term, sustainable political processes. Such a wide-ranging program would require coordination across the security, development, and governance spectra with reliable leadership from GIRoA and ISAF. While it may be clear that engaging religious leaders is a critical component of stability operations, what is less clear is how those engagements can be conducted in a way that does not undermine key ISAF objectives or alienate large swathes of the population. What follows are several examples of religious leader engagement in Helmand Province and recommendations for how religious leader engagement can be broadly conceptualized so that it respects local variations and supports stability operations.

Engagement in Southern Afghanistan

Beginning in October 2009, Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Carroll, USMC (Ret.), and Patricio Asfura-Heim began to develop a religious leader engagement program for II Marine Expeditionary Brigade (IIMEB) that addressed the tendency for religious leaders to be ignored in military and diplomatic engagements. Carroll explained that in the early period of his deployment, he traveled to six districts in Helmand Province to assess the effectiveness of local government structures. He went on to write, "My conclusion was that we were thoroughly partnered with the Afghan district governor and some of the officials from his tashkiel [organization] or other provincial line ministry tashkiels. . . . When I asked about the engagement with influential religious scholars, such as mullahs or ulema [experts in Islamic doctrine] . . . I heard comments like ‘The mullahs are not that important.'"5

In the wake of such prevalent dismissal of religious leaders, Carroll observed that even if mullahs served only a religious role, the primary argument of the Taliban is that they are pious individuals fighting foreign infidels, and therefore "the most credible voices to counter the Taliban's rhetoric were moderate mullahs themselves; i.e., Islamic religious leaders who did not believe in the Taliban's extremist interpretations of the Qur'an, who would support . . . GIRoA and who were at least neutral—possibly positive—to the presence of ISAF."6 Carroll highlighted one of the most important aspects of religious leader engagement: it is not necessary that religious leaders support ISAF (but they must at least be neutral toward it) so long as they support GIRoA and legitimate governmental processes. Such an attitude reflects the necessity for Afghans to conceptualize and implement the future of their country; how religious leaders and institutions function in Afghan society is an Afghan question.

In support of his observations, Carroll and Asfura-Heim began a project to reintegrate religious leaders in their provincial religious organizations such as the Helmand Ulema Council and the office of the Helmand Director of Hajj. Carroll and Asfura-Heim found that religious leaders in southern Afghanistan were open to direct engagement and had specific grievances that could be addressed through greater integration of religious leaders. Primary among the concerns of these religious leaders was that they had been marginalized by the central government and had been sidelined in community discussions that did not directly address religious issues.7 Given their personal experience with religious leaders at various levels of Afghan society, Carroll and Asfura-Heim concluded that religious leaders' impact was not confined to religious issues; religious leaders were key powerbrokers whose input should be included in discussions about economics, security, and development projects. Integrating religious leaders at the provincial level proved fairly simple with Carroll and Asfura-Heim's ability to travel to provincial headquarters; what was lacking, however, was consistent interaction with religious leaders at the subprovincial level.

Attention to subprovincial religious leaders was further strengthened with the arrival of a U.S. Navy Muslim chaplain in February 2010. Chaplain "Salam," whose name has been withheld, is a naturalized U.S. citizen and a naval chaplain who was serving in the Washington, DC, area when he was asked to come to Afghanistan.8 Based on his past experience with the U.S. military and foreign Muslim officials, it was determined that Chaplain Salam would be the ideal person to extend the reach of the religious leader engagement program. Chaplain Salam and Chaplain Philip Pelikan did not act alone, however; they had the support of the IIMEB commander. In recognition of the important role that religious leaders and institutions play in the overall COIN effort, then–Brigadier General Lawrence Nicholson, commanding general of IIMEB, inquired whether it would be possible and beneficial to facilitate the visit of a Navy Muslim chaplain to Afghanistan. Chaplain Pelikan knew such a person and undertook a 6-month process to bring him to Afghanistan.9

In an article he wrote for Small Wars Journal, Chaplain Pelikan summarized Nicholson's intent:

By order of the Commanding General, 2d Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB), Afghanistan, the Command Chaplain and a Muslim Chaplain (if obtainable), along with appropriate political specialists, governance advisors, and necessary security, were to engage with Islamic leadership in Helmand and Farah Provinces in discussions to enhance the relationship with key religious leaders and the communities in which they serve in order to convey the good will and otherwise positive intentions of U.S. Government and ISAF (International Security Assistance Force)/NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] forces operating in the region in conjunction with the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) and its military and police forces.10

In effect, Nicholson called for a systematic engagement of local religious leaders with the knowledge that these leaders are key nodes in the social network and have increased capacity to spread the U.S. Government/ISAF message of support for GIRoA and rejection of violent religious ideology.11 Command support is yet another crucial factor for successful reintegration of religious leaders. The logistical support requirements and the sometimes prevailing attitude that religious leaders are not of central importance to building stability can hamper the attempt to engage religious leaders. Afghan religious leaders primarily serve the role of a mediator; as trusted leaders of their local communities, they are local advocates to ensure that ISAF projects and intentions match those of the community. Concomitantly, as trusted partners to ISAF, Afghan religious leaders transmit and reinforce the ISAF message of security and effective governance.

In addition to calling for a systematic engagement plan with religious leaders, Nicholson offered a paradigm for understanding that their target audience was "little ‘t' Taliban." "Little ‘t' Taliban" were those who were lured into the Taliban with promises of power, money, and stability—for financial and social, not religious, reasons. If, Pelikan offered, local Afghan religious leaders could explain the ways that ISAF and GIRoA were working to bring stability and clarify the opportunities for local Afghans to participate in those programs, then it would be possible that Taliban rhetoric would be undermined. If U.S. military chaplains, and Muslim chaplains in particular, could engage with religious leaders, then those religious leaders could act as trusted partners for participation in legitimate political, commercial, and religious institutions.12 What Nicholson and Pelikan brought to the growing focus on religious leaders in Helmand was the value of military chaplains. It was not enough for provincial-level IIMEB individuals to meet with provincial-level religious leaders; there was a need for both groups to reach to the district and village levels where the message of stability has the most impact. The ability to extend to subprovincial levels was brought about most effectively through the work of military chaplains.

The introduction of a Muslim chaplain served as an "icebreaker" for many religious leaders in southern Afghanistan and fostered trust between ISAF and the tens of Afghans who traveled from remote villages for the engagements.13 In particular, the religious leader engagement team would schedule their religious leader engagements such that the Muslim chaplain would open with brief remarks that were followed by an open discussion with local religious leaders. As one example, the effects of these discussions had significant positive effects in Golestan District, Farah Province: "[the engagements] enhanced the ability of the Marine Company Commander at the Golestan Forward Operating Base (FOB) to communicate with the locals, determine better ways to assist the community with their many ‘quality of life' issues, and helped empower the local mullahs by connecting them with GIRoA through the Farah Provincial Director of Hajj."14 There was certainly an atmosphere of religious camaraderie in the reports about these meetings, but the most important aspect was the ability of local IIMEB commanders to open new channels of communication through religious leaders and ensure that the needs of Afghans across the entire spectrum were being considered.

Other Perspectives

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who reported on these events for the Washington Post, noted that IIMEB was one of just a few units in Afghanistan that made a concerted attempt to engage religious leaders as part of its campaign plan. Such a feat by the Marines stands as a testament to the religious and nonreligious impact of mullahs and other religious leaders in small, remote villages in southern Afghanistan. Chandrasekaran pointed out the impact of bringing one of only a few Muslim chaplains to southern Afghanistan: "At his [the Muslim chaplain's] first session with religious leaders in Helmand, the participants initially thought the clean-shaven [chaplain] was an impostor. Then he led the group in noontime prayers. By the end, everyone wanted to take a picture with him."15 The benefit of involving a Muslim chaplain in this religious leader engagement program is undeniable: it bolstered existing relationships, weakened barriers to communication through shared language and ritual, and fostered new and enduring relationships with religious leaders at every level of Afghan society.

The U.S. contingent in Helmand was not the only group to consider the role of religious leader engagements, however. The United Kingdom (UK) delegation at the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team also constructed a religious leader engagement program in late 2009 that was intended to undermine Taliban propaganda by having religious leaders act as reliable mediators between ISAF and the Afghan people. As part of their efforts, the UK delegation invited a group of Afghan religious leaders to Great Britain; in response to their visit, one mullah said, "The Taliban tell everyone that Britain is an infidel nation hostile to Muslims, but the mullahs were able to see for themselves that in fact Britain is a tolerant country in which Muslims can build mosques and practice their religion peacefully."16 The UK efforts, similar to those of the United States, aimed at discrediting the Taliban by addressing the dominant source of their claim to legitimacy: piety.

By engaging religious leaders at every level, UK and U.S. representatives were able to disseminate the message of Afghan stability to the farthest reaches of their areas of responsibility with the face and voice of Afghans. For example, while visiting Bakwa District, Farah Province, the religious leader engagement team was approached by a mullah who wore the mark of the Taliban—a crescent moon and star tattooed on the right hand—who was deeply moved by the presence of Afghans and Americans praying together: "He told us that he was a Taliban Mawlawi [religious scholar] who taught in a Madrasa . . . just outside Bakwa. So tremendously impressed by our message, he stated, ‘Before today I just thought that all Westerners were infidels and I was against you. But today I saw something that I'd never seen before. And I have changed my mind about Americans. I will work with you from now on.'"17 In this way, Afghan religious leaders acted as force multipliers, strategic communicators, and trusted allies in the fight for stability. As more Afghan religious leaders are engaged, Afghans themselves will carry the message of responsible development, effective governance, and sustainable security.

Role of Chaplains

The involvement of chaplains was central to the success of the religious leader engagement program in southern Afghanistan, but the historic and doctrinal role of chaplains presents certain challenges for how these types of programs can be expanded. Chaplains have traditionally been charged with providing for the morale and spiritual well-being of their troops. As military operations have evolved in the 21st century, so have the responsibilities and expectations of chaplains; whether by personal abilities or requests from various partners, chaplains have been regularly involved in stability operations through engagement and support of local populations. Chaplains may represent an ideal nexus for religious leader engagement programs because of their intimate knowledge of religious matters: "In the general conduct of counterinsurgency operations the religious aspect is often either overlooked or is simply thought of as something to shy away from because many people feel unqualified to discuss religion. We chaplains, however, are never ashamed to talk about religion. And our experience in this operation proved that the direct approach with the Afghan religious leaders was the right one."18 Chaplains' commitment to religious ideals is an invaluable asset for developing relationships with local religious leaders, but that religious basis is a means by which to develop relationships that channel legitimate Afghan concerns from the lowest to the highest levels of Afghan society.19 The designation of chaplains as noncombatants is another consideration for how they can participate in stability operations: "A potential controversy exists when a chaplain is asked for specific information from commanders or intelligence officers related to his interaction with local mullahs. Chaplains, as doctrinal noncombatants, could be placed in the awkward position of providing targeting information to commanders, a combatant task."20 The designation of noncombatant has its limitations, but it is also a contributing factor to presumptions of good-faith interactions that allow chaplains to develop relationships that can ensure the faithful transmission of the true objectives of ISAF and GIRoA in the face of anti-Afghanistan rhetoric.21

Military doctrine is continually adapting to more effectively describe and empower chaplains at every level. Army Field Manual (FM) 1–05, Religious Support, appendix A, "Religious Support in Civil Military Operations," for example, describes specifically how U.S. Army chaplains ought to support civil-military operations. While reaffirming that the primary duty of chaplains is to support the religious needs of Soldiers, the appendix goes on to encourage chaplains to advise commanders on the religious dynamics of the local population and reinforces that chaplains ought not to be the sole participants in negotiations with host nationals or in human intelligence collection.22 In this way, chaplains are seen, primarily, as part of a larger engagement team; where chaplains are restricted in their behavior, other members can take the lead.

FM 1–05 represents the growing awareness that chaplains can play a leading role in engaging local religious leaders of host nations, but there still remain certain limitations to how chaplains can be involved in stability operations. For example, Chaplain William Sean Lee proposed that military doctrine be changed to include the title "religious liaison" for chaplains. In that role, chaplains would be formally tasked with engaging "indigenous religious groups and leaders" to support stability operations; were such a change to be implemented, chaplains could be identified as the primary partner for religious leaders, with those relationships occurring in concert with security, governance, and development objectives.23

Thus, while chaplains are uniquely prepared to engage Afghan religious leaders because of their sensitivity to religious issues, there are certain factors that should be borne in mind to maximize their effect. While chaplains are a vital tool in the fight against a jihadi narrative, they are not the sine qua non of religious leader engagements. As seen with IIMEB, chaplains can help open dialogue, lay a foundation of trust, and demonstrate ISAF commitment to the Afghan people, but the sustained work of religious leader engagement comes through continued involvement with religious leaders within the communities where they enjoy positions of authority.

Religious leaders and religious institutions play an undeniably important role in Afghan society, and it is in the best interest of the U.S. military to design, implement, and effectively sustain engagements with those leaders. Religious leader engagement programs in southern Afghanistan demonstrate that well-thought-out plans of action can have tremendous impact on GIRoA's intent to counter anti-Afghanistan propaganda and address the legitimate needs of the Afghan people. In short, ISAF is a short-term solution to a long-term set of complex issues that can only be addressed by Afghans and the individuals they identify as legitimate powerbrokers. Ultimately, no amount of foreign savvy can account for the credibility and sustainability of driving the religious leader engagement process through legitimate GIRoA-affiliated individuals and institutions.

To ensure the continued integration of religious leaders at every level of Afghan society, religious leader engagement programs should be routed through official GIRoA channels to ensure that the process can be sustained once GIRoA takes full control of its affairs. In Helmand, for example, the director of Hajj and Religious Affairs, Sayed "Mullah" Mukhtar Ahmad Haqqani, was a key partner in the fight to discredit Taliban ideology because "he was a dynamic and engaging man who immediately grasped our plan and intentions and took [Salam and Pelikan] ‘under his wing' as we circulated throughout the province together."24 As Afghans determine how, when, and which religious leaders are actively involved in the process of their own stabilization, ISAF and the U.S. Government will accomplish their goals.

From the perspective of ISAF and the U.S. Government, it should be kept in mind that religious leader engagement is a distinct type of engagement that has benefits and limitations that differ from other types. Engagement with religious leaders should rest on a long-term, sustainable plan that specifically considers the role that religious leaders play in village-level to national-level operations. U.S. military chaplains are key to the creation and sustainment of religious leader engagements, but their role does not need to be constant and should respect their status as noncombatants. There is reason to believe that the doctrinal elements of chaplain responsibilities ought to be reconsidered and adjusted to meet the rapidly changing needs of military operations in the 21st century. One of the most beneficial aspects of religious leader engagement in southern Afghanistan was the involvement of a Muslim chaplain; his presence broke down barriers between local religious leaders and allowed for more honest discussions about stability operations.

One of the difficulties associated with the religious leader engagement programs was the availability of U.S. military Muslim chaplains. The U.S. military may wish to consider reaching out to nonmilitary chaplains (at hospitals, universities, and prisons, for example) who would be willing to support religious leader engagements around the world. A robust chaplaincy that can minister to U.S. troops as well as host nationals will boost U.S. military stability operations around the world. In fact, sustained religious leader engagement programs need not be confined to conflict zones; American foreign policy, in general, can benefit from recognizing the role of religion in societies throughout the world.

The enemies both of GIRoA and of stability in Afghanistan have waged a war based primarily on violent ideology shrouded in religious language that cannot be bombed into submission. The most effective method of dealing with ideology is to provide viable rhetorical alternatives. Active, sustained, and consistent engagement with religious leaders cultivates meaningful relationships and empowers local leaders to articulate ISAF and GIRoA commitment to stability. The primary effect of religious leader engagement has been to bring greater legitimacy to GIRoA. By connecting local religious leaders with their district political and religious leaders, district officials with provincial officials, and provincial officials with national leaders, ISAF was able to undermine some of the most frequent causes of instability: political alienation, religious extremism separated from mainstream society, knowledgeable religious leaders operating outside legitimate institutions, and the allure of violent narratives. JFQ



  1. William Sean Lee, Christopher Burke, and Zonna Crayne, Military Chaplains as Peace Builders: Embracing Indigenous Religions in Stability Operations (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University, 2004), 5, available at <www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?Location=U2&doc=GetTRDoc.pdf&AD=ADA425869>.
  2. "The enemy has succeeded in establishing jihad as their pervasive, overarching narrative. Consistently over time and space, all of their remarkably sophisticated information operations uniformly hammer home this religious message of jihad. Virtually all Taliban leaders, from senior military and political leaders down to sub-commanders at the district level, are mullahs. The implications of this have not yet sunk in. We are fighting a counterinsurgency; the enemy is fighting a jihad. But the intersection of how insurgencies end and how jihads end is historically nil." Thomas H. Johnson and M. Chris Mason, "Refighting the Last War: Afghanistan and the Vietnam Template," Military Review (November–December 2009), 2–14, available at <http://usacac.army.mil/cac2/militaryreview/archives/english/militaryreview_20091231_art004.pdf>.
  3. Jeffrey Cozzens, "The Culture of Global Jihad: Character, Future Challenges and Recommendations," The Future Actions Series, The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, October 2008, available at <www.scribd.com/doc/16073473/The-Culture-of-Global-Jihad-by-Jeffrey-B-Cozzens>.
  4. Johnson and Mason, 2–14.
  5. Patrick Carroll and Patricio Asfura-Heim, "Victory in Afghanistan Part 2: Countering the Taliban Narrative Through Credible Religious Voices," Marine Corps Association Web site, available at <www.mca-marines.org/gazette/article/victory-afghanistan>.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Author interview with Patrick Carroll, February 7, 2011.
  8. Carroll and Asfura-Heim, "Victory in Afghanistan Part 2"; Carroll commented on the importance of bringing this Navy chaplain to the religious leader engagement program: "Our efforts received an additional boost in early 2010 when the G–3 Fires and Effects Coordination Cell/Information Operations and the MEB chaplain's office arranged for a U.S. Navy Muslim imam to come out to the AO [area of operations]."
  9. Author interview with Chaplain Philip Pelikan, January 10, 2011.
  10. Philip Pelikan, "Mullah Engagement Program: Helmand and Farah Provinces, Afghanistan 15 February–15 March 2010," Small Wars Journal (December 28, 2010), 1–10, available at <http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/journal/docs-temp/631-pelikan1.pdf>.
  11. "An example of a senior Army chaplain who properly balanced his roles as a religious leader and a staff chaplain was CH (LTC) Larry Adams-Thompson, the CJTF [Combined Joint Task Force] 76 Chaplain in Afghanistan from March 2004 through March 2005. Continuing the work of his predecessor CH (LTC) Ken Sampson, CH Adams-Thompson organized monthly meetings with local mullahs. The intent of these meetings was to discuss religious issues, moral concerns, and to build clergy-to-clergy relationships." Kenneth Lawson, "Doctrinal Tension: The Chaplain and Information Operations," Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin 35, no. 2 (April–June 2009), 24–31, available at <www.fas.org/irp/agency/army/mipb/2009_02.pdf>.
  12. Interview with Pelikan.
  13. Author interview with Patricio Asfura-Heim, February 14, 2011.
  14. Pelikan, "Mullah Engagement Program."
  15. Rajiv Chandrasekaran, "At Afghan Outpost: Marines Gone Rogue or Leading the Fight Against Counterinsurgency?" The Washington Post, March 14, 2010, available at <www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/13/AR2010031302464.html>.
  16. Ministry of Defence, "Former Afghan Refugee Returns to Helmand with UK's Stabilisation Unit," available at <stroicar.com/eng/news_detail.php?id=2634>. These engagements were headed by Pamir Patang, who fled Afghanistan for Britain in 2000. See also Stabilisation Unit, "Salaam Aleikum—SU's Pamir reflects on his Afghan experience," available at <www.stabilisationunit.gov.uk/index.php/our-people/stories-from-the-field/429-salaam-aleikum-sus-pamir-reflects-on-his-afghan-experience>.
  17. Pelikan, "Mullah Engagement Program."
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Lawson; Department of the Navy SECNAV Instruction 1730.7b, October 12, 2000, prohibits chaplains from being assigned compromising collateral duties or (in section 6g) being forced to reveal sensitive information.
  21. See, for example, SECNAV Instruction 1730.7b, section 5e (4).
  22. See also FM 1–05, section 5–40, G–13, and G–18.
  23. Lee, Burke, and Crayne.
  24. Interview with Pelikan.

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