Afghan soldiers take part in a midday prayer at a military training facility in Kabul. The army has launched a campaign to counter Taliban propaganda and prove its religious credentials. (Kevin Sieff/WASHINGTON POST)

As Afghan army forces constructed a patrol base in a volatile stretch of Helmand province this spring, insurgents turned to one of their most effective weapons against the troops: They told area residents that their new, uniformed neighbors were godless “fake Muslims.”

The battle over Islam has become a crucial front in the war between the Taliban and the country’s growing security forces, prompting the Afghan army to create a strategy for proving that its soldiers are true Muslims.

In Helmand, Afghan commanders swiftly tapped their arsenal. The first step: building a mosque that dwarfs the rest of the base and sounding a call to prayer that echoes outside the city of Lashkar Gah several times a day.

“The message was: ‘We are the true Muslims. Not the Taliban,’ ” said Col. Ataullah Zahir, the top Afghan military official in the area.

Across the country, as the Afghan army prepares to inherit prosecution of the war from its foreign counterparts, one of its most important campaigns is being waged with billboard-size Koran verses and public prayer groups, rather than Kalashnikovs. The campaign represents a bold effort to counter Taliban propaganda and establish the Islamic credentials of the armed forces.

Fighting the battle over religion — often the key to public support in this conservative Islamic nation — is perhaps the Taliban’s strongest suit. If Afghans doubt the spiritual bona fides of their army, the institution stands little chance of gaining popular support.

“The insurgents can’t fight us face to face, but they know how to rally people against us using false information about Islam,” said Gen. Amin Naseeb, head of the Defense Ministry’s Department of Religion and Culture.

Afghan military officials have encountered the tactic across the country, particularly in the south and east, where Taliban members speak at madrassas, or religious schools, and on radio shows about what they say is the impiety of the country’s armed forces. As foreign troops begin to leave the country, the Taliban appears to be shifting the spotlight of its public disparagement campaign away from Western forces and toward Afghanistan’s own soldiers.

‘Religious obligations’

Inside his Kabul office, Naseeb calls in two assistants to unfurl a massive banner showcasing an Afghan soldier accepting a gun from a man in a coalition uniform. Above the image, a verse from the Koran is written in bold letters:

“Protection, patriotism and fighting on the path of freedom for an Islamic country is one of the religious obligations.”

Naseeb wants to print 20,000 copies of the banner and post them across rural Afghanistan. He has courted top religious officials, explaining the Afghan army’s moral cause and the value the force places on adherence to Islam.

In recent years, the army has recruited 50 men known as hafiz — those who have memorized the Koran — in addition to dozens of clerics. Those officials work to ensure that Islamic law is observed within the ranks and that the intensity of the war doesn’t overwhelm soldiers’ religious obligations. The army’s cadre of spiritual leaders, most of whom carry religious texts, not weapons, are also meant to send a message to Afghan civilians, as walking symbols of the military’s faith.

The officials attend meetings with local politicians and tribal elders, visiting mosques outside military
bases and reaching out to Afghans who might not be convinced of the army’s religiosity.

Despite some key differences in interpreting the Koran, the army and the insurgents practice similar versions of Islam.

“They read from the same Koran, they believe in the same God, they take part in the same rituals,” said Enayatullah Balegh, a professor of religion at Kabul University.

Western influence, aid

But there are important differences.

For nearly a decade, Afghan soldiers have worn Western-style uniforms and participated in joint patrols with foreign troops. Although the patches on their uniforms read “Allah is great” and “God, duty and country,” establishing their religious commitment has often been a struggle.

U.S. officials, eager to promote Afghan forces as the country’s true protectors, have attempted to aid their partners in that campaign. The Americans fund radio stations, encouraging Afghan military personnel to discuss Islamic matters on the air, as well as security issues. Western forces also promote local shuras, or consultations, where Afghan security officials can take their message to tribal elders.

Nearly every Afghan army base in the country has a mosque like the one in Helmand — buildings that serve as both houses of prayer and public monuments to the force’s religiosity. At the army’s training headquarters, there are three mosques. Units from across the country converge on the sprawling base not only for conventional military training but also for religious instruction from top military clerics.

Last week, Col. Mohammad Arif, the religious liaison for an Afghan battalion based in Kabul, took his soldiers to one of the mosques for midday prayers. Still dressed in fatigues, they dropped their guns and bowed toward Mecca.

“For the Taliban, Islam is about propaganda,” Arif said. “For us, it’s about faith.”