WASHINGTON — It is a long-held military cliche that to succeed in war in a foreign land, one must triumph in the battle to win the hearts and minds of the people.
For a few moments Wednesday, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller was focusing on the mind, specifically those of the Afghan people, who see their enemies as their friends and their friends — such as U.S. forces — as not in their country to help, he said.
“The Afghan army and the Americans, we’re the mujahideen,” Neller said in a meeting with Pentagon reporters, called to discuss current conditions in the Navy and Marine Corps. “We’re the mujahideen. That’s the message.”
Neller said the Taliban, elements of ISIS and other terrorists forces in Afghanistan are frauds, sending people to their deaths while the groups’ leaders live outside the country. They have duped Afghans, he said, in stealing the mantle of Islam to disrupt and terrorize the nation.
“The terrorists call themselves the freedom fighters, the mujahideen – they’re not,” Neller said. “They’re criminals. They’re apostates. They hide behind Islam. They sell drugs. They kill innocent people. That’s not what Islam is.”
The term “mujahideen” first became widespread in the U.S. media and on Capitol Hill during the Russian invasion and occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 into the 1980s. Then the mujahideen were the nom de guerre for a disparate group of forces — from warlords to democracy seekers to former royalists — with a common opposition to the Russian invasion.
Eventually the U.S. provided the anti-Russian elements financial and military supporting, including Stinger missiles, which helped down Russian helicopters and reshuffle the battlefield dynamics.
However, the mujahideen was an alliance of convenience for the U.S. and served as a training institution for radical Islamics, including Osama bin Laden.
In a sense, Neller was employing the term “mujhahdeen” in its classic sense. Prior to its association with the guerrilla war against the Russians, the term represented those who were pursuing a jihad, which means struggling towards praiseworthy goal.
“Maybe they’ll get tired of this and they’ll decide that there’s a better way, and then we can move on to something else,” Neller said, referring to the Taliban and others.
Winning the minds may be the best weapon left for the Afghanistan campaign. The historic winter offensive by the U.S. and NATO forces has ended and its result are still to be seen — even as the Taliban, ISIS and other terrorist elements are prepping their spring assaults.
Bombs went off in various parts of Afghanistan on Monday, with ISIS and Taliban elements claiming responsibility
Speaking informally to Pentagon reporters on Monday, Defense Secretary James Mattis said the attacks were a sign of desperation by terrorists who he said are reeling from tougher U.S. strategy and improved Afghan nation security forces.
“The Taliban realize the danger of the people being allowed to vote,” Mattis told reporters on Monday, referring to Afghanistan’s upcoming election. “Their goal is to destabilize the elected government. This is the normal stuff by people who can’t win at the ballot box. They turn to bombs.
“This should be completely expected,” he said. “It’s what they do.”
However, on Tuesday when Mattis was ask how to meld the deadly attacks with recent Pentagon statements expressing optimism about the war, he quickly told reporters he did “not subscribe to that” outlook.
“I don’t know that that’s been the message from this building,” Mattis told reporters before meeting with Macedonian Defense Minister Radmila Šekerinska “We said last August NATO is going to hold the line; we knew there would be tough fighting going forward.”