Military chaplains: Being a cog of conscience in the military killing machine
Navy Capt. James Fisher brings his evangelical Christian faith to work with Afghan military mullahs.
It's the end of lunchtime at the Afghan National Army base of Pol-i-charkhi and, as the mess hall reverberates with the dish-clatter and chair-scraping of soldiers in dark camouflage dispersing, two men linger behind, still digging with spoons into a shared dish of rice and lamb.Skip to next paragraph
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US Navy Capt. James Fisher is the guest of Afghan Col. Moheb Moheburahman. The American is fair skinned, every inch of his face and scalp clean-shaven, and with ready smile and can-do attitude, he looks downright sunny. The Afghan has an olive complexion and a full black beard flecked with gray. When he laughs, the white of his teeth brightens his face like a flash of lightning in a night sky. The American has never borne arms in battle; the Afghan spent years in the mountains of northern Afghanistan fighting as a mujahideen against Russian occupiers and, later, against the Taliban. A limp in his walk and a cloudy left eye are leftovers from a Taliban ambush.
Both men are officers, both are clergy, and neither could have imagined joining forces when they made religion the cornerstone of their life and work: Colonel Moheburahman as an Islamic mullah trained in Kabul and now serving in the Afghan Army; Captain Fisher a born-again Christian ordained in the Evangelical Covenant Church and committed to ministering to American troops.
As they eat and talk, an interpreter in a gray suit and yellow tie bridges the linguistic divide through word and gesture. Nothing, not even the smiles and the ribbing, gets lost as the two discuss the transformation of the Religious Cultural Affairs (RCA) department of the Afghan Army into a professional military chaplaincy.
Against the complex backdrop of combat and nation-building, this is neither a simple task nor always an exciting one. "I bet that, 25 years ago, the colonel didn't say 'I want to be a staff officer,' " Chaplain Fisher jokes.
The colonel – or M-12, as Fisher nicknamed him when his tongue first tripped over the military mullah's name – nods, smiles. At one point he thanks Fisher for draft guidelines he sent over, but then he tilts his head back and pokes jokingly but pointedly: "The Americans are here and then they escape from us." A smile flashes across his face. "I don't know why."
Fisher laughs, but his eyes are serious as he explains why he "escapes" his Afghan counterparts: "Here at Pol-i-charkhi you have five to 10 RCA officers, and in the general area there are one or two American chaplains."
The shortage of US chaplains and the proliferation of US bases around Afghanistan means American chaplains can't embed with Afghan units the way engineers and combat specialists do.
"Our first priority is to the American troops," he explains. Though he doesn't spell it out, the implication is clear: Just by joining Moheburahman for lunch, Fisher is stepping outside the traditional role of ministering to troops and advising command. Yet in so doing, he is also affirming the value of the chaplaincy.
US commanders have in past conflicts used chaplains to promote cooperation between local religious factions, and the US military chaplaincy has mentored and assisted chaplains of other nations throughout its history. But this is the first time US chaplains have helped establish a chaplaincy in an Islamic republic as part of a wider, nation-building effort. The result will be a chaplaincy radically different from their own. [Editor's note: The original version stated that this was the first time US military chaplains have been used to mentor foreign military clergy. In fact, the US military chaplaincy has mentored and assisted chaplains of other nations throughout its history. This is, however, the first effort by US military chaplains to establish a chaplaincy in an Islamic republic as part of a wider, nation-building effort.]
The Afghan Army, after all, serves the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, while American chaplains serve a secular command.
As such, US chaplains provide troops the opportunity to exercise their religion, while RCA officers actively encourage soldiers to perform the daily prayers and other requirements of Islam. Even more important to Afghan commanders, RCA officers counter Taliban propaganda by portraying the Afghan Army as an Islamic force.
"Our first priority," says Moheburahman, "is to let Afghans know that we are Muslim and that we want freedom inside an Islamic framework."
This not only attracts recruits, it lights their warrior fire.
"The most effective thing that can persuade Muslims to do dangerous things and to fight," Moheburahman explains, "is to give them the legitimacy of what they are fighting for. I describe the legitimacy of this government and point to verses [in the Koran]."