As the mission in Afghanistan nears a tenth anniversary that no-one plans to celebrate, the patchwork of allies that make up the US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will be trying not to dwell on the bloody setbacks and frustrations that have often seemed to characterise their wearing counterinsurgency.
Necessary for any upbeat account of the war are the Muslim contributors to the mainly Western group of allies. Their participation has always offered ISAF the best chance of casting off its unwanted crusader image and of convincing Afghans that the foreigners, some of them fellow Muslims, are actually on their side.
Malaysia is one of the coalition’s few Islamic participants, and its first ISAF contingent – called MALCON – has just completed a nine-month tour in the central Afghan province of Bamiyan. MALCON’s experience of Afghanistan was markedly different from that of the war-weary Americans and Europeans, the team’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Nor Azan bin Omar, told Monocle. After arriving with a team of 40 military doctors, paramedics, engineers and soldiers in mid-2010 with a mission to improve Bamiyan’s healthcare capacity, the Malaysians encountered none of the dogged Taliban resistance for which the country is notorious, Col bin Omar explained. “Shared religion made it easier for the Malaysians to approach the locals,” he recalled. “The MALCON members prayed together with the locals, we ate halal food with the locals, we attended religious celebrations and rituals together. The insurgents themselves felt comfortable with the presence of Malaysian Muslims.”
The ongoing problem for ISAF is that willing Islamic partners have been few and far between. Besides NATO member Turkey, which has 1,800 troops in Kabul, only Bosnia and Herzegovina, Jordan, Malaysia and the UAE have provided contributions, and they are all small. This is doubly unfortunate since, as the Malaysian experience shows, Muslim contingents have the potential to deliver much greater effects while suffering far fewer losses than their kafir counterparts. NATO is now going through the same thing again in Libya, where only Qatar and the UAE have agreed to contribute to an air campaign that needs Muslim involvement in order to be seen as legitimate. In the end, winning hearts and minds is the objective in Afghanistan, and it seems the Malaysians were more successful at that than some of the larger contingents sent by their non-Muslim allies. “The war can be won in this province,” Col bin Omar concluded as he handed over to a second contingent of Malaysian military medics. Not all ISAF commanders leave Afghanistan feeling so optimistic.