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.
Last week, Agbere, a perpetually cheerful father of six with a gap-toothed smile, flew from his home base, Bagram Airfield near Kabul, by plane and then helicopter to the Afghan army’s engineer school in the far north of the country near the city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
His brigade doesn’t have a direct role with the engineer school, which is mentored by German troops. But it has close ties to the school because of its work with training engineers in the field. The school’s commander, Col. Ahmadullah, has a reputation among NATO leaders as one of the best officers in the Afghan National Army.
Even with model leadership, however, there is a gulf between the Afghan officers and the mostly uneducated enlisted men. Agbere told Ahmadullah that his religious and cultural advisers can help bridge that gap, particularly if they were to do as Agbere and other U.S. chaplains often do, walk among the men as they do their work, be it in a motor pool or barracks, and just engage casually to see how the soldiers and units are doing.
Agbere made himself an example, walking from class to class, talking to the Afghan soldiers in groups and chatting up many of them individually.
In front of a motor grader, a group of soldiers who’d been learning about construction machinery lined up and Agbere introduced himself. They’d been warned, but one soldier still couldn’t believe what he was hearing as Agbere recited from memory a part of the first verse of the Quran, Islam’s holy book. He instantly broke discipline, murmuring down the line, "This American, he really is an imam!"
Agbere’s focus is on verses from the Quran that support the ideas of working together and saving lives. He doesn’t promise them victory – many are worried about what will happen after the last NATO combat units are gone at the end of 2014 – but he stresses that the outcome of the war depends on ignoring their ethnic divides. Working together for the future of the country is something that has firm underpinnings in their religion.
"Who is responsible for making Afghanistan great?" he said.
"Us!" came the reply, the enthusiasm behind it at least partly because some of their officers were listening.
Later, Agbere said it was crucial to underline that knowledge is important to Islam and link that with their training. That helps them understand that their work, even as, say, mechanics, is a religious duty.
At the end of his talks, Agbere always asks if the Afghan soldiers have questions. During a recent trip to an Afghan base in the eastern part of the country, one soldier asked about the morality of killing a fellow Muslim who also was a suicide bomber.
Agbere cited passages from the Quran to show that Islam wants its followers to build, not destroy.
"What you are doing is building, you are trying to help society, to help your people experience normal life," he told the young soldier. "So these people who are destroying are going against what the religion is talking about, and if you can prevent them from destroying, that is your jihad as a soldier."
The commander of the unit came up afterward and told Agbere that he had broken down a barrier. The soldiers didn’t even ask their own officers such questions, he said.
At the engineer school, Agbere repeatedly cited a verse in the Quran that talks about how Allah created a diverse population of men, women, nations and tribes, but that what makes one person better than another is not those kinds of differences but, as he interprets it, the good things in your heart, and the proper deeds that you do.
He linked that to the need for the soldiers to work together for their unit and country, rather than to dwell on ethnic and tribal divisions.
Ali Muhamed, a young soldier from Ghor province in the central part of the country and a member of the Hazara minority, was among several who paused in the middle of a class on clearing mines to listen. He said later that Agbere’s words made good sense.
"It was clear from the things he said that when we are working together and helping each other, that it is the same as praying," he said.
That, Agbere said later, is the kind of result that justifies his use of Islam to reach the young soldiers.
"It changes the narrative," he said. "It’s the last thing they expect to hear from someone in this uniform, and it’s the last thing the enemy would tell them."