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War doesn't break for Islam's holiest month

According to Islamic tradition, those who die stand a greater chance of entering heaven during Ramadan, the ninth month of the lunar year when Muslims believe the holy book Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.
/ Source: The Associated Press

"May you have a blessed Ramadan," reads a poster greeting U.S. troops outside a base mess tent. It refers to Islam's holiest month, a time of good deeds, prayer and purification of the spirit through sunrise-to-sunset fasting.

But on the western approaches to the strategic city of Kandahar, neither side is taking a spiritual time-out from the war.

Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division are attempting to root out Taliban fighters still entrenched in about a fifth of the Arghandab Valley.

The division's 502nd Infantry Regiment, preparing for a major assault in Taliban-controlled Zhari district, stages probes into villages and grape fields sown with booby traps and hidden bombs, which the military calls improvised explosive devices or IEDs. Along Highway 1, a lifeline connecting Kandahar to the capital, Kabul, the insurgents are launching daily attacks against supply convoys.

"Ramadan? Every time you step outside the wire, the war is real. We're surrounded," says Lt. Douglas Meyer, commanding a platoon at Ghundy Gar, a desolate, sun-seared hilltop outpost ringed by Zhari's deceptively bucolic landscape.

According to Islamic tradition, the gates of hell are closed and those who die stand a greater chance of entering heaven during Ramadan, the ninth month of the lunar year when Muslims believe the holy book Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.

Radical Islamists believe that martyrdom during this time is a guaranteed ticket to paradise. They regard violence as a way of ridding the world of impurities, which include American troops in Afghanistan and other infidels.

Beginning with Muhammad's conquest of Mecca in 624, Ramadan has often witnessed bloodshed. Egypt and Syria began their 1973 war with Israel during the holy month, and violence in Iraq spiked almost every year since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Washington's decision not to interrupt its 2001 bombing in Afghanistan sparked harsh criticism among the world's 1 billion Muslims.

So far, and unlike some Ramadans past, the general level of violence has not escalated significantly since the month began Aug. 11, although military operations haven't slowed down either.

U.S. and other international deaths appear to have dropped this month from record levels in June — when 60 Americans died — and July, when 66 were killed. More than halfway through August, the U.S.-led command has reported 17 American deaths and 28 for the entire international force. At least seven Americans have been killed since Ramadan began.

Clearly, however, the month of fasting has an effect on the way Afghans fight — be they Taliban or Afghan security forces.

"The jihadists tend to get more excited during Ramadan, but they're fasting so the sugar levels start to decline by noon. Most of the fighting is done in the morning," says Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, the British commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan.

Patterns of fighting seem to change too.

"It's inconsistent. We've seen a surge one day and then they take one or two days off. Some of the Taliban leaders may have gone to Pakistan for Ramadan," says Lt. Col. Peter N. Benchoff, who commands the 2nd Battalion of the 502nd in Zhari. "But we have to watch 'The Night of Power,' when they believe they have the best chance of getting straight to heaven."

That night, which falls during the last 10 days of Ramadan, commemorates the moments in a mountain cave when Allah's words first came down to Muhammad.

Benchoff says Ramadan does create problems as U.S. forces pursue one of their most urgent priorities — training the Afghan National Army to a level where it could cope with the insurgency when the Americans begin withdrawing next summer. The Afghan soldiers can't eat or drink during daylight hours, when U.S. soldiers must down bottle after bottle of water to counter the withering heat. As a result, the Americans must scale down the previously intense pace of training and reduce joint patrols.

"The Ramadan schedule is kicking us in the butt, but it's also significant for the motivation and morale of the Afghan soldiers," says Benchoff, who nightly joins his Afghan counterpart as he breaks fast with a meal of goat and rice. U.S. troops are told to minimize eating and drinking in front of the Afghans, who in turn have offered them instructions on Ramadan's meaning and practices.

Around the bases and remote combat outposts of Zhari, the Taliban appear to be following the same daily pattern as Afghan government troops — dawn prayers, perhaps a morning attack and then rest during what are normally the most violent hours, between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m.

"It's like squirrels gathering up nuts for the winter," says Meyer, of Baltimore, Maryland, looking out across a neat patchwork of green fields and grazing sheep from his hilltop post. "They've put the IEDs (explosives) out there, and just sit back and wait."