MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan -- In many ways, the war in Afghanistan is one of ideas, of narrative, of whose story is credible, says U.S. Army Major Dawud Agbere.
If that’s true, Agbere could be the most dangerous U.S. soldier that the Taliban face.
And he doesn’t even carry a gun.
Agbere, 45, is the only active-duty Muslim U.S. Army chaplain in Afghanistan and one of just four in the Army. As such, he’s in high demand for holding services, counseling U.S. and NATO soldiers – Muslim and others – and overseeing chaplains in smaller units. But in the past few weeks, Agbere has created a new role for himself: a Muslim ambassador from NATO forces to the enlisted soldiers of the Afghan National Army.
That means that in addition to being the senior chaplain of the 555th Engineer Brigade, based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, he’s also become a counselor and motivator to thousands of Afghan troops he encounters as he visits the far-flung American troops who are responsible now for dismantling NATO bases, training Afghan army engineers and clearing the roads of improvised bombs.
It started with a normal part of a chaplain’s job here, mentoring their Afghan army counterparts, who are called religious cultural advisers, or RCAs. But Agbere noticed that there was a large gulf between the Afghan RCAs and the enlisted troops. Agbere asked permission to talk directly to the Afghan enlisted men.
“Normally, what we do when we talk with the RCAs doesn’t trickle down to the soldiers,” he said. "We talk with their leaders, and they talk to the soldiers, but it’s not the same, it’s not direct."
The commander of the 555th, Col. Nicholas Katers, saw a photo of Agbere speaking to a battalion of young Afghan soldiers, who appeared to be hanging on every word. He went out in the field with the chaplain and immediately saw the potential of what he was doing, and he began encouraging Agbere to speak to more Afghan troops.
"They just gather around him like a rock star," Katers said recently. "He’s our secret weapon."
Now Agbere, who grew up in Ghana before emigrating to the United States in 1995, travels almost weekly to Afghan bases, using his deep knowledge of the Quran to make connections.
He is fighting several things on these trips. For one, he’s trying to weaken the effects of Afghanistan’s ethnic divisions, which are among the most serious threats to the central government. He also tries to counter the messages of radical religious leaders and insurgent commanders who twist the meaning of the Quran.
Many Afghans are illiterate and look to their religious leaders for guidance about how the world works. The extremists take advantage, telling people things like NATO troops are just here to kill Muslims, that it’s their religious duty to kill the foreigners, that suicide bombings are allowed under Islam, and that it’s OK to kill other Muslims if those Muslims are fighting the insurgency. Such brainwashing has led to some of the so-called "insider attacks" in which Afghan soldiers and police officers kill their U.S. and NATO allies.
When Agbere talks with them, the Afghan soldiers are often startled just by the existence of an American officer who is a Muslim religious leader. They are even more surprised to hear what he has to say about the relationship between Islam, their job as soldiers and the U.S. and NATO troops who are mentoring them.