Chawke, Afghanistan - Dozens of local herders waited on the cold concrete steps of an abandoned school building, warily watching the Afghan soldiers gathered nearby. The tribesmen had been searched twice already, their shawls unraveled and turbans probed for weapons.
Days earlier, a local mullah had declared that it was the duty of Afghans to attack soldiers and policemen as infidels. Col. Hayatullah Aqtash, a small army officer with smoky blue eyes, had come to Chawke District with his men to offer a counterpoint. He strode through the barren courtyard, greeted the men with a prayer and began.
“God and the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, put the responsibility on my shoulders to protect you,” he told the men, pointing to his shoulder where the Shahada, an oath all Muslims make, is stitched in gold onto every army uniform. “If you shoot at me, you shoot at them.”
The weathered faces of the men, about 40 in all, shifted. The din of traffic hummed on a neighboring highway.
The colonel continued: “Let’s make a judgment — what the insurgents do versus what we do. I want peace. I want schools and paved roads, electricity. Now what do they do? They blow up the roads. They blow up the schools. They commit suicide in our mosques.”
“Now tell me,” he concluded, “who is the Muslim?”
Even as his Afghan Army brigade patrols violent stretches of Kunar Province in the north, the colonel is waging a parallel battle that he calls his “propaganda war” against the Taliban: to combat the branding of the army as a secular, corrupt puppet of foreigners. By stressing his soldiers’ faith in Islam, and pointing out the absence of American forces on the battlefield this year, Colonel Aqtash is hoping to erode popular support for the insurgents.
It is a tall order. There is still a prevailing suspicion of the army and the police, born of rampant drug use and theft by ill-disciplined recruits in the early years after the Taliban’s ouster. And even as many Afghans acknowledge improvements in those areas, there is still widespread skepticism about the Afghan forces’ ability to secure the country on their own after the exit of Western troops — who have themselves failed to pacify the insurgency over the past decade.
So for Afghan commanders in the field, it is a constant challenge to build credibility with local leaders.
They are taking it on by emphasizing the one advantage that American soldiers and Marines could never claim: commonalities with the insurgents and the villagers who support them — language, culture, custom and, most importantly, religion.
“Naturally, when the Afghans go, people are more welcoming of them,” said Mohammad Hanif Khair Khwa, the governor of Sarkano District, which is adjacent to Chawke District. “The foreigners might even be more kind than the Afghans in the village, but they are still foreigners.”
Across the country, Afghan troops are adopting the strategy, employing religious and cultural affairs officers to craft messaging and outreach efforts. In the 203rd Corps, which patrols some of the most deadly stretches of eastern Afghanistan, troops hand out Korans and prayer rugs to the villagers they meet. In the 209th Corps up north, soldiers pray in the local mosques and invite elders to attend religious ceremonies on base.
“In order to repel the enemy’s propaganda, our top priority is our own personal religious development,” said Col. Shah Wali, the religious and cultural affairs officer for the 205th Corps in Kandahar. “We have mosques in every battalion, and our soldiers pray five times a day.”
It is too soon to know whether the religious emphasis will work, given the myriad challenges for the army.
First, there is the Taliban’s fighting capability to reckon with. Three months ago, an outpost overseen by Colonel Aqtash’s unit — the Second Brigade of the 201st Corps — came under withering attack from Taliban fighters. The base, in the Narai District of Kunar, was briefly overrun as the soldiers slept, and the battalion stationed there, one of the colonel’s best, suffered more than a dozen deaths.
Equally worrisome, the Taliban still have a local advantage. Taliban commanders often hail from the same villages the army is trying to extend its influence to, making it difficult to persuade residents to shun the insurgents. That has been an issue in the Wardoj District of Badakhshan, a northern province where violence has been raging through the summer.
“Our efforts to reach to people through religious means has been effective in some parts,” said Lt. Col. Hazratullah Azghari, the head of cultural and religious affairs for the Second Brigade of the 209th Corps, which operates in Badakhshan. “But in other parts, despite all our efforts, people still show animosity towards the army.”
To convert villagers, the army will have to establish credibility in pockets of the country long hostile to the government or accustomed to lackluster soldiers. Among the challenges for the military: combating abuse of power, curtailing drug use and trying to persuade soldiers not to desert and to stay in the army past their initial enlistment.
But perhaps the biggest question hovering over the viability of the approach is the role of the government itself.
“The major problem I see here is good governance needs to be implemented,” Colonel Aqtash said. “Without good governance or job opportunities for the people, it will overshadow any military achievements being made.”
The visit to the Kuchi elders, in the village of Chawke, was a spontaneous decision by Colonel Aqtash, who broke off a meeting with American forces at another point farther along in order to address the mullah’s criticism of the Afghan forces.
After some initial wariness, the Kuchi elders in Chawke actually seemed to open up to the colonel a bit.
“We all believe in the same God and the same holy word,” said one elder, hobbling from the compound after speaking with Colonel Aqtash. “They are our people. There’s a difference between your own people and outsiders.”
Still, the colonel acknowledges that it will be a long struggle.
Colonel Aqtash, 52, first joined the army in the late 1970s, receiving Soviet training and serving Afghanistan’s Communist governments into the 1990s. After taking his family to Pakistan during the civil war, he returned to resume his Afghan military career in 2003. Since then, he has studied at the Marshall Center in Germany and finished a 15-month training program at the Defense Academy of Britain.
By training, experience and temperament, he has come to emphasize how critical information operations are to his command. He has made the message clear to his brigade: This is a Muslim army, and piety is crucial. Officers preach the message to the public, as do the district and even provincial officials in the areas they operate within. The soldiers themselves need little convincing.
As the day wound down one warm evening, soldiers played soccer on a field adjacent to the brigade’s whitewashed mosque in Kunar. A honey-colored sunset ignited the clouds of dust kicked up from the scrimmage. A few men sat on Humvees parked along the edge of the field, watching the match.
But a moment later, the call to prayer blared out over a tinny speaker, and the ball was abandoned in the middle of play.
Soldiers performed their ablutions at a concrete wash station before entering the mosque. Inside, they packed the structure, forming tidy lines along the frayed carpet as an officer recited the Koran.
The men began to pray — for guidance, for safety, for strength from God to defeat the enemy.