Byline: Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau
An unorthodox play for Afghan hearts and minds.
Over three years ago, as the U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan began to expel the Taliban from populated areas, a British military Provincial Reconstruction Team in Helmand province started to gear up a campaign to win the villagers' loyalties. The team began by conducting a survey of local mosques in the province and found there were about 10,000 mullahs and muezzin attached to them. "We knew that the mullahs commanded great respect in Afghan society, even among the Taliban, so we decided to get as much support as possible for the allied effort and the government from the mosques' imams," says a British adviser to the operation who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the press. "Our aim was to let the mullahs understand we are here to help them and improve people's lives."
To do so the team began concentrating its effort on 570 influential imams who were living and preaching near Taliban-controlled areas in an operation dubbed Project Mullah. "We reached out to the imams and tried to build relationships with them," the adviser says. "We were worried that they wouldn't cooperate, but they did." As a reward the team began giving the imams and their mosques quantities of food, clothing, and shoes. As the mullahs began asking for more supplies, the campaign seemed to be a success. Soon the project was feeding and clothing imams and their families living inside Taliban-controlled areas, and the mullahs began asking for medicine and items such as soap and household goods.
It was not long before some imams even began to take team members into their confidence and to disclose their most personal complaints, such as their sexual debilities. The answer to the imams' pleas: Viagra. "We hesitantly gave Viagra to a few mullahs," says the adviser. "And after a few months they were all demanding the drug, so we began ordering and distributing large quantities."
Not all team members and British …