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Story and photos by Bryan Nygaard

GARMSIR, Afghanistan — “Let there be no coercion in religion: Truth stands out clear from error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy handhold, that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things.” – The Noble Quran 2:256

During the 10 years that the U.S. and its ISAF allies have been in Afghanistan, the fight has not been for cities, hills or some other piece of land that holds strategic value. The fight has been for the minds of the Afghan people. The expression “hearts and minds” has long been dismissed as cliché and hollow, but it embodies the very essence of counter-insurgency operations being conducted to provide stability in a country that has been ravaged by war for more than 30 years.

Afghanistan is a tribally divided multiethnic country of 29 million people who are united by the religion of Islam. It serves not just as a philosophy, but also as an all-encompassing part of their existence.

Another trait shared among Afghans is a low literacy rate. According to Lt. Col. Pat Carroll (retired), the cultural and governance advisor for stability operations in Regional Command Southwest, illiteracy allows them to be easily influenced by insurgents.

“The insurgency puts out a lot of lies; a lot of exaggeration, a lot of false rhetoric that says the ISAF Coalition is a bunch of infidels – they are contrary to Islam, they want to get rid of religion…they want to destroy things,” said Carroll, a native of Springfield, Va. “They’re playing off of illiteracy and lack of education. It’s not surprising that a lot of the Afghan population is influenced by Taliban rhetoric. It’s fertile ground for it.”

In order to counter the insurgent’s propaganda, coalition forces have been engaging the religious teachers and leaders throughout Afghanistan.

“By convincing the religious leaders that we, ISAF and [the Afghan government], are here for the betterment of Afghanistan, we hope that they will counter the rhetoric and the action of the insurgents,” said Carroll.

On Dec. 28, Maj. Gen. John A. Toolan, the commanding General of Regional Command Southwest, visited a religious shura (meeting) held Garmsir district center in Helmand province. In attendance were several religious leaders from the area and numerous tribal elders who usually hold a heavy amount of influence over the village.

Toolan was accompanied by Mohammad Gulab Mangal the governor of Helmand province and the heads of the Helmand Ulama council, who act as legal scholars that are engaged in several fields of Islamic studies.

The purpose of the shura was to facilitate interaction between the provincial religious leaders and the Garmsir district leaders, asking them to work with the government to work on peace efforts, stability and reintegration of those who stand against the Afghan government.

“It resonates better with them if they hear it from their own religious leaders, who they look to for guidance on how they conduct everyday life,” said Carroll. “And if we can make any type of inroad…even if we make an inroad where 50% of clerics say that we’re here for positive reasons, that’s fine. At least they’re countering, talking back to those who are blowing Afghans and ISAF soldiers up.”

During the shura, Toolan spoke to a room of more than 50 Afghans concerning his own faith and respect of other religions. Although Toolan, the top-ranking general in Helmand province, is a Christian, it is believed that because he is a man of faith (as opposed to an infidel) that it will send a positive message to the village elders and religious leaders.

Carroll believes that this message will reach the insurgents.

“I have no doubt that what happened today will reach insurgents,” said Carroll. “At least the message that ISAF came down here, the ISAF commander stood up and said he was a man of faith and had respect for the religion and culture.

“They won’t like it. The insurgency doesn’t like to see that stuff because it contradicts what they’re putting out.”

Also in attendance was Lt. Cmdr. Abuhena Saifuislam, a Muslim chaplain who serves as the ISAF Religious Engagement Advisor.

Saifuislam first came to Afghanistan nearly two years ago to participate in shuras such as this one. Many of the Afghans he encountered were dumbfounded that the U.S. military had not only Muslims in its ranks, but Muslim chaplains.

“It was eye opening for them to see me two years ago,” said Saifuislam. “It really opened up the door for this kind of engagement.”

During that time, Saifuislam attended a shura, also at the Garmsir district center, where he was approached by a schoolteacher.

“He told me that for the last eight years, he could not go to sleep thinking that the Americans are here,” said Saifuislam. “He could not go and tell the children that they had nothing to fear. But now after meeting me, he could go back and sleep in peace and tell his students that they had nothing to fear.”

Saifuislam noticed that there was a significant rise in attendance at this shura compared to two years ago.

“What I’m hearing is that the people are more open,” said Saifuislam. “Before they were not as open. They’re coming forward and sharing their needs and grievances – whatever it is. There is a channel of communication that has been established.

“When you see the attendance, there is a degree of trust. I’m sure it is going to grow.”

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