Kabul, Afghanistan — Faith is a center piece of life for many people the world over. In the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, however, it is a matter of identity.
This is no less true for Afghan Airmen and Soldiers on the frontlines in the fight against an anti-government insurgency that is active in much of the country.
Assigned to Train, Advise, Assist Command-Air, Chaplain (Maj.) Chris Conklin is the first air advisor charged with assisting the Afghan military’s religious and cultural affairs program with the mission of effective religious care and spiritual readiness for those who defend their nation.
“Our priority for the future is to prepare this essential office to keep pace as the Afghan Air Force grows,” Conklin said. “We want to ensure the teams’ manpower grows as the total force grows and want to produce clarity on career progression [for religious advisers]. Additionally, we want to encourage thought into what requirements members are going to have in the Afghan Air Force.”
Once a week, Conklin now meets with his counterpart Afghan National Army Col. Abdul Basir, the Afghan Air Force’s lead Religious and Cultural Affairs (RCA) officer, to discuss issues surrounding religious and cultural support operations in Kabul and bases throughout Afghanistan.
To attend meetings with their Afghan partners, Conklin and his Chaplain Assistant, Staff Sgt. Chris O’Neil, leave their secured compound, wearing tactical vests and kevlar helmets. Meeting in the offices of the Afghan Air Force, the team’s discussions have little religious content and focus on program progress and challenges.
“My goal is not to teach them how to be good Islamic scholars,” Conklin said. “In the same way we train our Air Force chaplains. We are not instructing on how to lead worship services, but we assist in discussions of how to best integrate [religious support] into the military through manning, force structure and developmental changes.”
During his career as a Lutheran chaplain, Conklin has worked closely with imams, rabbis and clerics of various Christian denominations. Instead of cause for controversy, he says, differences in faith are a strength of the chaplain corps that is as diverse as the members it serves.
“One of the great things about the American chaplain corps is that its chaplains work side-by-side with those of different faiths,” Conklin said. “As a U.S. military chaplain we have the unique opportunity to break down barriers. It is not about religious background, it is about finding out about people’s needs and helping to think through the process of developing an Air Force.”
This experience with diversity now helps Conklin, who is able to assist with the logistics for a growing force of a different faith. Conklin and Basir talk of organizational design, career progression and manpower standards that will translate into tangible emotional and spiritual support for thousands of warfighters and their families.
Despite the existing language barrier, Conklin said that the structure and goals of the religious support office offer numerous commonalities with that of the American military. Much like chaplains in the U.S., Basir’s team takes the role of a mental and spiritual support on military installations.
Faith is an intensely important part to Afghanistan’s culture, placing Basir’s team at the center of military readiness.
“Our job is very important,” Basir said. “We have the responsibility of training the people and make their minds ready for the mission.”
Starting their morning with prayer and pausing four more times for moments of religious mindfulness, faith is at the heart of each Afghan service member’s duty day. The RCA office is responsible for leading religious practice, leading Friday prayer and holiday services and teaching religious education classes to enlisted members and officers. According to Basir, the RCA serves to provide a balanced foundation and build resilience among service members.
“The main factor in war is the human, not the technology,” Basir said. “Without a pilot the aircraft can’t fly. Without the soldier, the rifle doesn’t shoot. If something is on their mind, they may not be able to focus on the fight and may make mistakes. So you have to train the mind, so he can be successful and focused.”
The team instructs service members on Islamic laws, its application to armed conflict and to daily duty performance. For Afghan Soldiers and Airmen, courage, accountability, honesty and duty are all part of fulfilling their religious and civic duties as Muslims, Basir said.
“We explain the purpose of their duty,” Basir said. “This allows Soldiers to overcome even great obstacles and continue their fight for their fellow citizens. We are here to help give them morale. We are here to tell them that they will be able to withstand any difficulties.”
Unlike U.S. military chaplains not all religious and cultural affairs officers are Islamic clergy. Moreover, the RCA is responsible for much more than simply providing for religious services and instruction. Working beyond boundaries of spiritual health, they also help to educate members in basics of education, such as reading and writing, where needed.
The RCA also goes beyond care for current service members and extends its services to support the families of martyred Afghan veterans. When a Soldier dies on the battlefield, RCA officers travel with the body to the family and in effect fulfill the same services of a casualty notification team performs in the U.S. military. Their services can even include delivering a year’s worth of pay on behalf of the military to the family those left behind.
The Afghan counselors remain in contact as long as the family wishes and even provide materiel support to those in need. For survivors, who are injured in battle, the RCAs visit the injured in the hospital and connect them with their families. For the RCA, no wingman is ever forgotten and no family left behind.
Furthermore, holding a position of moral authority, the RCA office is also a force for gender integration and advocates for the integration of women in the military. Able to provide religious interpretation to service leaders, the RCAs give valued input on Islamic gender issues, teach policy and provide reports to commanders and leaders on the progress on integrating women into the force. This impact makes the religious and cultural officers force multipliers, supporting development of the force that is slated to nearly double in size over the next few years.
“In order to help produce a professional, capable and sustainable Afghan Air Force, the religious and cultural affairs offices are extremely important,” Conklin said. “Their officers are the ones that are training and affecting all other members in the military. Mentoring and advising them is therefore absolutely critical to our mission."
With a few months to go, much remains to be worked for Conklin and Basir, before another air advisor continues to expand their already productive working relationship. Until then, Conklin said he enjoys the ability to contribute to the fundament of the future for Afghanistan’s Air Force.
“It’s exciting to be here,” Conklin said. “To be an air advisor is unique, and it is rewarding to be part of this mission as the AAF continues to grow and modernize.”