Posted by: Christian | June 9, 2008

Foreign Muslim Troops in Afghanistan

Muslim soldiers from Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Albania have all served in the US/NATO/ISAF coalition in Afghanistan. And it was recently suggested by the BBC that the United Arab Emirates model is highly successful and should be emulated.

Pics: UAE Army Major Ghanem Al-Mazroui speaks to the BBC and to Afghan villagers.

Afghans automatically love foreign Muslims? Absolutely not. Obviously those foreign Muslims, beyond the foreign Pashtuns and Pakistanis, who are fighting with the Taliban and conducting suicide bombings are generally hated. Even during the anti-Soviet jihad there were problems with many of the foreign Arab fighters. There are numerous anecdotes of the Wahhabi/Takfiri inclinations alienating the locals. The worst was the destruction of local graveyards which were seen as un-Muslim due to the decorated headstones. But then there were also foreign Muslim fighters who were seen as heroes and generally well-liked by the locals.

Even foreign Muslims involved in humanitarian aid can find their relations with Afghans strained at times. As any aid worker will tell you, distributing aid, building capacity and setting up a variety of local programs is inherently political since these actions are often seen as resources to the locals. Aid workers can never please everybody. They can have a wonderful program in one valley and end up alienating the folks in the next valley over who wonder “what about us?” Their work can also be seen as a resource for a local leader to use as patronage or to bolster his hold on power. This can then make them a target for local power rivals. Furthermore, I doubt any Afghans would chose a poorly run aid project run by Muslims over a superior one run by non-Muslims (their are poorly run projects run by both sides). There must be, past the common religion, some material substance or a personal relationship.

But with this being said I have to concede that introducing oneself as a Muslim obviously does come with its benefits in Afghanistan. There is a level of camaraderie/solidarity that a non-Muslim usually has to work a little harder for, on average. But of course there are many non-Muslims that could provide anecdotes of themselves being accorded the status of “best-friend-forever” upon introduction.

So my anecdotally based argument is that, on average, a foreign Muslim will initially enjoy a higher level of trust. But it is the politics and personality that will, in the long-term, shape the relationship. Once a conflict arises, the Muslim-Muslim love-fest will come to an abrupt end. A foreign non-Muslim can gain the support and trust of a local community if they have the right personality, skills and agenda.

So how are foreign Muslim troops perceived by Afghans? The BBC thinks it has an answer. I’ll analyze this BBC report below:

This was the BBC spiel, if you didn’t watch the video: “Little known to the rest of the world a small group of Arab soldiers, working with the coalition, are using the power of relationships instead of weapons in Afghanistan, and with warm support from the local tribes.” I’ll also refer to the BBC online report above.

The report then contradicts itself by showing Emirati soldiers going everywhere with guns and heavily armored vehicles as well as mentioning the fact that they have engaged in combat. So the “power” of weapons is at least occasionally deployed.

The BBC reporter arrives in a UAE C-130 and begins a short embed. This should raise concerns about the report as embedded reporters are notorious for their glowing portraits of troops and their operations. The reporter does a somewhat decent job of reporting and notes that the Emiratis are “wary of ambush.” So I guess the claim of a force-free operation can be blamed on the BBC producers back home.

The story then strays from the BBC claims:

At the last minute, the village they had originally planned to visit was deemed too dangerous: the Americans could not guarantee to provide air cover.

So the Emiratis go to a village they had previously visited and hand out Twix and Kitkat candy bars to the kids. The other goodwill hand-outs turn into a mêlée (this is a model?). Then later the Afghans ask the Emirati aid coordinator for a school….and get a mosque. And this is the model that the BBC is promoting:

The Emirati approach is to meet their fellow Muslims’ religious needs first, then build schools and clinics later.

Because that’s was sick and illiterate Afghans need: yet another mosque. Notice how the villagers explicitly ask for a school? In the Emiratis’ defense they do eventually deliver on providing education resources. The news story shows Emirati and Gulf Arab support for the University of Khost (Khost is more than open-minded towards education at all levels). And during the VIP ceremony UAE and (ahem) American troops provide security.

The report shows Emirati support for an orphanage and school (how is this any different than western support for orphanages and schools?) A local coordinator says she is is grateful to all, especially the British Red Cross, but says Muslim aid has a “special feeling” for Afghans. Uh huh. Like that mosque instead of the school? I guess the feeling that arises from having your explicitly enunciated needs ignored is, in a way, “special.” Furthermore, the main UAE aid projects seem to be run by a civilian agency. Not the UAE military.

The BBC says this “Blueprint needs to be repeated and expanded by others.” Right. What blueprint? I see no significant difference other than the UAE troops being Muslim and building mosques before other more desired projects. The UAE troops are operating only with the security support of American troops and are engaging in defensive actions while handing out junk food. It would be great if there was a model here. But there isn’t. The BBC report has all the accuracy and critical thought of a DoD press release.

But I give credit to the Emirati soldiers, despite BBC over-selling their techniques. The Emirati Major is obviously exceptional. He is not successful in building strong relations with the locals just because he is a Muslim. He has spent years in Afghanistan building relationships and has charisma, authority, etc… But I doubt that his country could provide a large number of officers like him. And as a comparison to the Americans, there are some ETTs that spend nearly all their time alone with Afghans in the field. They too have an excellent relationship with Afghans.

The problem for foreign Muslims in the US/NATO/ISAF coalition, whether they acknowledge it specifically or not, is that they are supporting (a) US and other non-Muslim foreign military forces, and (b) the government of Hamid Karzai. There is obviously enough in there to alienate locals, whether you are Muslim or not.

Pic: Jordanian soldiers in Afghanistan.

Jordanian soldiers Afghanistan

I wish foreign Muslims would offer more support, both in security and development. There are of course many foreign Muslims offering humanitarian assistance (many of them are listed here). Those who would not do so because they believe they are spiting America in doing so should realize that the Afghan people, not the US government, will bear the brunt if this spite.

Back to discussing soldiers. What about Muslim soldiers in non-Muslim militaries? The Brits and the Americans definitely have them. Estimates of Muslim-Americans in the military are 4000 at a bare minimum (more info here.)

Muslim Marines

So for those that think foreign Muslims have some magical powers in Afghanistan. What about American Muslims? “American” and “Muslim” don’t cancel each other out. The most well known is probably USMC Lt.Col. (retired) Asad “Genghis” Khan:

He was apparently an invaluable resource and he, of course, got screwed by the US government. Story on that here. My argument here is that not every Muslim in the US military has Khan’s skill, leadership and language knowledge. For a foreigner, being Muslim does not equal automatic success in Afghanistan. there is much more work required than “showing up Muslim.”

H/T: Registan, [My] State Failure and IRG.

Additional commentary: And yes, as Josh Foust pointed out, the UAE was one of only three state to recognize the Taliban government. But even worse, in 1999 the CIA bin Laden unit was ready to strike bin Laden in Afghanistan. All was set until satellite photos showed a UAE military C-130 cargo plane at bin Laden’s camp. Apparently some Emirati locals had dropped by to kill the local wildlife with their falcons and have tea with Osama. So Richard Clarke and George Tenet recommended against the strike. Plus, there was a $8 billion military equipment contract with the UAE. What would happen if you killed a couple of their princes? You can read all about it in Steve Coll’s Ghosts Wars (p. 445-50). Perhaps the C-130 that was used to shuttle the BBC reporter once shuttled UAE princes to go falconing with Osama bin Laden?

Oh well, nothing can be done about that now. So good on the UAE for contributing to the effort in Afghanistan.


  1. the story is good


  2. I fought in Afghanistan with 22d MEU in 2004.

    LtCol Khan ran a command with a toxic command climate. He treated his officers like disobedient dogs. That is why he was relieved of command.

    The relief had little to do with stories put out by the anti-war media. Khan retained his command long after the stories were released by the media.

  3. […] Foreign Muslim Troops in Afghanistan […]

  4. i like the USMC . iam working with USMC in 2004 with


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