GARMSIR DISTRICT, Helmand province, Afghanistan --
In hopes of countering insurgent dogma and improving local infrastructure, coalition forces have recently begun engaging local religious leaders to rally support for coalition forces and developmental projects in the district.
“We’re engaging mullahs to bridge to the local communities in a different way,” said Capt. Daniel Petronzio, the officer-in-charge of 1/3’s Embedded Training Team and a native of Beverly, Mass. “It shows our openness to religion …”
A mullah fills a combination of religious and social roles in Islamic society. He leads community prayers, teaches from the Qur’an and orchestrates ceremonies for births and funerals.
Essentially, a mullah helps Muslims apply the Qur’an to their daily lives – a role that is especially important here, where much of the population is illiterate.
The Afghan government and coalition forces are working with local mullahs on several initiatives, including the reconstruction of mosques, which addresses the community’s cultural needs, and hiring of local apprentices for the reconstruction, which helps the local economy and hurts insurgent recruitment.
“--Working with the mullahs to employ local people counters the need for younger men to go to insurgent forces to make money for their families,” explained Petronzio.
Coalition forces and the Afghan government are also working with the mullahs to drive the reintegration program, which helps disaffected insurgents to rejoin Afghan society.
Mullah shuras, the Pashto term for meeting, have been held in five different areas of Garmsir. In most cases, the mullahs initially expressed suspicion that coalition forces intend to change their religion, but came away from the meetings with a new perspective.
“As a battalion, we were looking for a way to express to the local population that we were not against religion or against Islam,” said Capt. Michael Kline, the staff judge advocate for 1/3 and native of Burke, Va. “We were finding that one of their largest concerns was that the Marines were here to wipe out Islam. To us, that seems like a ridiculous notion, but to the local people, it was a real fear.”
“Personally, it has been a very eye-opening experience with these mullahs,” added Kline. “When I tell them many of the Marines do believe in God and that Marines and ANA are here to provide peace and security and not change their religion, they’re often very surprised and excited. Just having that small interaction helps them see us as people. Letting them know that we understand how important religion is to them and that we respect their beliefs has been crucial in helping them understand that the government of Afghanistan and Marines are here to make Garmsir a better, safer place.”
The battalion supports Regimental Combat Team 1, under 2nd Marine Division (Forward), which serves as the ground combat element in Helmand. The mission of the division is to partner with Afghan National Security Forces to conduct counterinsurgency operations to secure the Afghan people, defeat insurgent forces, and enable ANSF to assume security responsibilities in the region. Ultimately, the partnered forces promote the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.