How Many More Religiously Insensitive ‘Mistakes’ Is Our Military Going To Make At Bagram Airfield?

Just over two months ago, a Taliban suicide bomber blew himself up at an entrance to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, killing an Afghan interpreter and wounding three U.S. soldiers and three Afghan troops.

The reason for the attack? The U.S. military had dropped leaflets in the area that were highly offensive to Muslims, depicting a lion chasing a dog — the lion representing the U.S.- led coalition and the dog representing the Taliban — with the Muslim profession of faith, “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet,” printed on the dog, an animal considered unclean by many Muslims. The attack came hours after Major General James Linder issued an apology for the “religiously insensitive material” — an apology in which the general chalked the design of the leaflets up to a “mistake.”

And it was also just a “mistake” in 2012 when U.S. troops at Bagram burned an unknown number of Korans and were preparing to burn hundreds more, an incident that led to days of deadly nationwide protests and riots across Afghanistan.

And before that it was U.S. troops at Bagram caught on film by Al Jazeera English preparing to distribute Bibles in the Dari and Pashtu languages in an effort to convert local Afghans, a blatant violation of CENTCOM General Order Number 1, which strictly prohibits any religious proselytizing in the CENTCOM Area of Responsibility (AOR), which includes both Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. military tried to pass off this attempt to illegally distribute local language Bibles as an isolated incident, and also claimed that the video was taken out of context by Al Jazeera (an accusation that was proven false when Al Jazeera released the full unedited video). But, as I wrote at the time, this incident was far from isolated. Similar Christian proselytizing of local Muslims was taking place all over both Afghanistan and Iraq, as the numerous examples uncovered by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), the organization I work for, clearly showed.

What are also far from isolated incidents or “mistakes” are the numerous incidents of Christian proselytizing that continue to plague Bagram Airfield, the largest military base in Afghanistan, a base at which there are not only U.S. personnel, but personnel from a number of other nations, including Afghan troops and civilians.

General Order Number 1 has gone through several revisions since it was first issued during the First Gulf War, with the current version being General Order 1C, but one strict and unambiguous rule has not changed:

“This Order prohibits proselytizing of any religion, faith, or practice to local nationals or third country nationals in the USCENTCOM AOR.”

What part of this is hard to understand? And yet MRFF continues to receive complaints from both U.S. service members and DoD civilian employees about the constant and inescapable Christian proselytizing going on at Bagram, a base full of local nationals and third country nationals.

Just last week, we received an email from a retired military officer, now at Bagram as a civilian DoD employee, which read:

“As a retired military officer (30+ years) and current Department of the Army civilian serving in Afghanistan - I can say this B.S. never ends.
“Thought you would like to know how the U.S. government is proselytizing to all the DOD personnel and untold number of foreign troops who serve here.”

Attached to the email were the lunch and dinner menus posted at Bagram’s five dining facilities on Nov. 22 — menus on which were printed both a Bible verse and the message “Thank You Lord!”

In a second email, this DoD employee described the reaction he had witnessed to these menus:

“On this particular day, I noticed a group of coalition (ie. U.S.-allied but not U.S. armed forces) service members and civilians walking away in total disgust shaking their heads and refusing to enter the dining facility. I thought maybe the food choices were not the best since this is, after all, a war zone. I then read the official menu displayed and saw that each menu had ‘Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good - Psalm 107:1 NIV’ in impossible-to-miss, large, bold lettering along with a ‘Thank you, Lord!’ displayed on the bottom of each menu. Words cannot describe the anger, embarrassment, shame and frustration I felt along with an untold number of U.S. and allied military and civilian personnel who are either of another religion or non-religious altogether. Keep in mind; there are a large number of foreign allied Soldiers and foreign allied civilians with vastly different and diverse religious backgrounds who eat in these official U.S.-controlled, DoD dining facilities along with U.S. personnel.”

In another recent example of this non-stop proselytizing at Bagram, an airman who had recently arrived there wrote to MRFF:

“I’ve only been here a few weeks and I'm already fed up with it. The chaplains will print out fliers and put them in public places for a few days, and replace them within a few more. Eh, no big deal right? Well they're just just brochures that you can ignore, and certain ones are placed RIGHT in front of your face in the restrooms. These are the ones that I'm here to complain about.
“They are pretty much mini sermons, complete with a story (usually humor or relatable dialogue) followed by how it relates to daily life, finished with a bible verse and other Christian terminilogy [sic]/references. …
“… Attached is the one that was put up today, unfortunately it's a mild example. I meant to get a picture of yesterday's which was a little more pushy and had names and contact information but by the time I grabbed my phone and went to do it they were gone.”

The constant Christian proselytizing done through things like these dining facility menus and bathroom flyers would violate military regulations on any U.S. military installation, but to do it on a base in Afghanistan at which there are Afghan troops and civilians as well as troops from other nations, or, as General Order 1C puts it, “local nationals and third country nationals,” is not only in violation of military regulations but obviously detrimental to the mission of trying to get local Afghans to help coalition forces in the fight against the Taliban (which was the purpose of those “religiously insensitive” leaflets with the “mistake” that led to the suicide bomber attack at Bagram in September).

Bagram Airfield is not Las Vegas — what happens at Bagram does not stay at Bagram. How did word get out and quickly spread across Afghanistan causing those widespread deadly riots when the Korans were burned? Afghan civilian laborers at Bagram found the charred copies of the Koran that U.S. troops were “mistakenly” burning.

It would be ridiculous to think that the constant Christian proselytizing on this base isn’t well known among the locals. This is something that the service members and DoD employees who email MRFF clearly understand, and yet this proselytizing is allowed to continue unabated.

So maybe putting a stop to the “religious insensitivity” and “mistakes” should include allowing everyone at Bagram to at least be able to look at the dining facility menus or go to the bathroom without being bombarded with Bible verses and Christian proselytizing. Just a thought.