Viagrastan: An Unorthodox Play for Afghan Hearts and Minds

"We hesitantly gave Viagra to a few mullahs," says one adviser. But within a few months, large quantities were being distributed. Kevin Frayer/AP

Over three years ago, as the U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan began to expel the Taliban from populated areas, a British military Provincial Reconstruction Team in Helmand province started to gear up a campaign to win the villagers' loyalties. The team began by conducting a survey of local mosques in the province and found there were about 10,000 mullahs and muezzin attached to them. "We knew that the mullahs commanded great respect in Afghan society, even among the Taliban, so we decided to get as much support as possible for the allied effort and the government from the mosques' imams," says a British adviser to the operation who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the press. "Our aim was to let the mullahs understand we are here to help them and improve people's lives."

To do so the team began concentrating its effort on 570 influential imams who were living and preaching near Taliban-controlled areas in an operation dubbed Project Mullah. "We reached out to the imams and tried to build relationships with them," the adviser says. "We were worried that they wouldn't cooperate, but they did." As a reward the team began giving the imams and their mosques quantities of food, clothing, and shoes. As the mullahs began asking for more supplies, the campaign seemed to be a success. Soon the project was feeding and clothing imams and their families living inside Taliban-controlled areas, and the mullahs began asking for medicine and items such as soap and household goods.

It was not long before some imams even began to take team members into their confidence and to disclose their most personal complaints, such as their sexual debilities. The answer to the imams' pleas: Viagra. "We hesitantly gave Viagra to a few mullahs," says the adviser. "And after a few months they were all demanding the drug, so we began ordering and distributing large quantities."

Not all team members and British commanders were happy with the Viagra campaign, no matter how popular it was with the mullahs and how many hearts and minds it seemed to be winning to the allied cause. "Some officers complained we are only producing more Taliban, meaning more kids who would grow up to be Taliban," another former team member says. "We distributed Viagra until the end of 2010 and were getting what we thought were good results."

Some mullahs who were receiving the Viagra were so helpful that the team was able to get the high command's permission to take one dozen of the most cooperative preachers on a tour of the U.K. "The idea was to show them that Islam is widely and freely practiced in the U.K.," says the former team member. On the way to Britain, the group stopped over in Dubai, where the mullahs saw Muslim women in the desert heat baring more skin than would be allowed back home. While in London they were surprised to see how many British women, who were dressed for the cold weather, were more covered than those in Dubai. The mullahs were impressed with the small mosques that are located inside the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office. They also visited a number of London mosques, where they talked freely with other clergy and worshipers.

But the team members who accompanied the mullahs were disappointed when it seemed that much of the bonhomie that had been on display in Helmand disappeared as the mullahs interacted with British mullahs and the faithful in the mosques. The Helmandi mullahs still referred to Jews and Christians as "the enemies of Islam," and to the Americans and the British in Afghanistan as "invaders" who must be driven out.

As a result, after realizing that it was difficult to gauge the overall success of the program, Project Mullah was suspended at the end of 2010. "Even with the Viagra we never got a clear sense that we had greatly improved the West's image among Helmand's mullahs," says the team's adviser. "We're simply not sure we have been successful in pacifying the region." Even Viagra, it seems, has its limitations.