Afghan Mullahs Key To American Success: Analysis

By Isobel Coleman and Masuda Sultan

The war in Afghanistan will never be won by military power alone. Ultimately, success depends on gaining the support of millions of fence-sitting Afghans who today figure that their long-term survival is best served by hedging their bets with the Taliban--even if they do not agree with the Taliban's extremist ideology.

This is particularly true in the southern and eastern parts of the country, where the population is majority Pashtun and the Taliban claim their strongest support. In the battle for hearts and minds, one influential group of opinion-shapers has been perilously ignored by the Afghan government--the mullahs. Putting local mullahs on the government's payroll and providing them with training could bolster other coalition initiatives in critical ways. In a country where the average person is illiterate and the average village has only the mosque as a communal meeting place, the Afghan mullah plays an outsized role in his community. He is not only a spiritual guide; he is also a social worker, a teacher, an adjudicator and often a judge. For the most part, he is completely disconnected from the government.

There are approximately 150,000 mosques across Afghanistan, but less than three percent of them are even registered with the government, primarily because of a lack of funding and reach. Mosques that do register with the government receive salary support for the mullah equivalent to about $60 per month, hardly enough to sustain a typical Afghan family. Although Afghanistan has a long history of providing training and salaries for mullahs, the institutions responsible for doing so today are extremely weak and underfunded.

This dangerous neglect has left the mosque open to outside influences, primarily the Taliban. It is a well known fact that much of the hate rhetoric against the coalition and the Afghan government is distributed through the mosques.

Paying for mullahs might seem counterintuitive. Shouldn't the Afghan government be trying to reduce their influence? Perhaps over the long-term this could be a reasonable strategy after the educational infrastructure is expanded and literacy rates increase, but the reality is that in the foreseeable future, mullahs wield significant local power; the government should try to co-opt that power rather than just dismiss it.

As the Acting Minister of the Hajj and Islamic Affairs, Mohammad Sediq Chakari noted in a recent interview, "It is only by engaging the religious community that we will be able to fight extremist ideology. The international community has so far ignored the clergy." The Ministry has thousands of pending requests for support from the mosques which are unaddressed due to a lack of funds.

The Taliban well understands the influence of the mullahs. They drink tea with them and pray in their mosques. Although mullahs as a group are generally conservative and some certainly sympathize with the Taliban, they have also been known to denounce Taliban extremism and violence; some, too, speak out against harsh Taliban policies as against Islamic tradition.

After years of working in and on Afghanistan, we have both seen first-hand the power of the mullah up close - to encourage opium production, or to discourage it; to allow girls in the village to go to school, or not; to denounce suicide bombers as un-Islamic, or to proclaim them as martyrs. Putting mullahs on the government's payroll will not change loyalties overnight. But as part of a counterinsurgency "clear, hold and build" strategy, paying mullahs a steady salary of up to $200 per month (roughly what the Taliban pays its fighters) in villages that have been "cleared" can be a cost-effective way to help "hold." A program covering half the country's mullahs would cost the Afghan government approximately $180 million - not cheap, but if it generates community support for other long-term initiatives costing billions of dollars, the benefits are invaluable. Such a policy could ultimately reduce the need for very expensive military operations, saving lives as well as money.

Dedicating another $10 million to expand mullah training programs could also pay large dividends. These programs could leverage expertise from well-established Islamic education initiatives in countries like Turkey and Morocco. In fact, most Islamic countries have an official clergy subsidized by the state. While this does not prevent religious dissonance, it does provide some consistency at the local level and prevents mosques from being completely influenced by extremist forces that monopolize religion.

The Karzai government has been able to mobilize mullahs behind specific policies in the past. In the run-up to the parliamentary election in 2005, conservative Pashtun leaders announced that despite the laws, women would not be allowed to vote. Realizing that this would depress Pashtun representation, Karzai convinced the mullahs to preach in their Friday prayers that it was women's Islamic duty to vote. They did so in surprisingly large numbers.

Recent polls show that while the Karzai government's popularity has plummeted amidst widespread corruption and a failure to deliver security and economic improvements, the Taliban is far from popular itself. Across several measures, majorities express strong antipathy toward the Taliban; 58% of respondents see the Taliban as the biggest danger to the country. If the central government, backed by coalition forces, can improve security and deliver tangible economic gains to average people, it still has a chance of stemming the Taliban tide. Getting the mullahs on board would be money well spent.

Isobel Coleman is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and director of its Women and Foreign Policy Program.

Masuda Sultan, an Afghan-American first returned to Afghanistan in July 2001 and is currently advisor to the Ministry of Finance of Afghanistan.