Earlier this year came the shocking revelation of an Air Force Chaplain at Bagram Air Field (BAF) who received a shipment of Bibles translated into Dari, and who gave a sermon that appeared to exhort troops to proselytize. This is a crime under Afghan law that is punishable by death. That Chaplain directly fed into the propaganda operation by the Taliban, who claim that we are here to destroy Islam. The aftereffects still ripple through Afghan society. His actions, both in receiving the Dari Bibles and in his speech, may actually have tipped the scales in the minds of some to begin supporting or actually participating in operations against the Taliban and the GIRoA. His actions could actually be lethal; but not to the enemy.
Today an article was published in The Times (UK) quoting two U.S. Army Chaplains as saying that American troops in their two battalions are losing heart. It is difficult to explain the power of the urge to find these men of the cloth and grasp them firmly by the neck while calling upon the very stones of the earth to turn against them.
When Soldiers struggle with their purpose, it is clear that they are untrained in what that purpose is. They are kinetically trained warriors put into a political/military struggle where a great percentage of activity is not directly targeting the enemy, all while functioning in an environment where the enemy may target you anonymously with weapons that permit him to hide while he tries to kill you. They have been failed by their training. Many senior leaders cannot adequately train or supervise Soldiers in a COIN environment because they have not studied it themselves. I have met precisely one Chaplain who has actually read FM 3-24. Our Army is still struggling with COIN doctrine, and many of our Chaplains are wandering around lost while they could be of great benefit. These men should keep one thing in mind: First, do no harm. What they did by speaking on the record to this reporter was harmful. Calling the overall morale of our troops into question in front of a foreign media outlet boggles the mind.
In a strongly religious society such as Afghanistan, where Islam is woven tightly into the fabric of life and into the nature of conflict, what can a Christian Chaplain do? Again; first, he/she should do no harm. Secondly, he/she should read the book about this type of conflict and understand what it is that the Soldiers are involved in. He (going forward meaning either gender) should be able to assist a Soldier in understanding the nature of risk and loss in this type of environment, where a peaceful moment can be shattered beyond all recognition and with it the bodies of friends and colleagues. He, above all, needs to find his place in this from the perspective of our Soldiers and their purpose, that he can be the crutch for the spiritually and emotionally wounded. There is no place on the battlefield for the weak, and in this battle the mentally and spiritually weak are a particular liability. We cannot bear broken crutches with us. The damage done by these two men, while not on the par of the Dari Bible Fiasco, is actually only moderately less severe.
Understanding the nature of this conflict and the society, especially the religious nature of the operating environment, is difficult for anyone. As the primary religious and spiritual advisor to the commander and Soldiers, is the Chaplain making contributions that increase the realistic cultural understanding of the commander and his Soldiers? Is he making it his business to be the go-to guy on issues of realistic understanding of cultural norms? Is he finding his counterpart in the ANA or other ANSF and empowering both understanding and the tremendous effects that can be brought to bear by the RCA (ANSF equivalent of a Chaplain)? Can the Chaplain explain that Afghans aren’t offended by the inadvertent showing of the sole of the foot, as long as it’s not purposely done to insult? Can the Chaplain explain that waving with the left hand, when the right hand is full, is not insulting? Can the Chaplain help a Specialist learn simple greetings in Dari and Pashto, so that Soldier can get along better with his counterparts or civilians he may meet? Can the Chaplain explain the basics of Muslim prayer to a Baptist kid from southern Georgia, so that he can understand what and why his Afghan counterpart is doing?
The positive potential of ANA RCA’s is, in many places, untapped. RCA’s are usually educated, literate, moderate mullahs who can fight the Taliban message that the ANA and ANP are apostatic puppets of the Coalition. They can bring moderate education to village mullahs who are often illiterate themselves. Given the power of mullahs in Afghanistan to spread messages and themes, this is powerful. It has been done, and it works amazingly well. Are our Chaplains assisting and empowering the ANA and ANP RCA’s to do this?
The answer to the questions above, with extremely rare exceptions, is, “No.”
There is being helpful, and there is being harmful. Every person here in a uniform is by definition a counterinsurgent. Each and every action either supports the work of counterinsurgency or it harms it. Even a wasted action is harmful. You are either providing thrust or you are adding drag. There is no middle ground. Today, The Times may as well have carried the words of insurgents themselves, for just about as much harm was done. When a man, by virtue of his particular office, is largely unsupervised, he must find a way to make a positive contribution to the mission.
But first, he must do no harm.