Religious Leader Engagement in Southern Afghanistan

Article excerpt

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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.

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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. …