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Afghanistan: Should The U.S. Halt Air Strikes For Ramadan?

With the approach of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the U.S. is facing a dilemma. Does it continue its military campaign against Taliban targets in Afghanistan and risk inflaming Muslim sensibilities, or does it put the military assault on hold as a sign of deference?

Prague, 20 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- For Muslims, Ramadan is the holy month that marks the revelation of the Koran to believers. During Ramadan, pious Muslims refrain from food, drink, and other sensual pleasures from sunrise until sunset.

The holiday starts in less than three weeks, on or around 17 November, depending on the cycles of the moon. Military planners in the U.S. are already debating whether to call for a pause in the air strikes over Afghanistan as a show of respect.

One member of the Saudi royal family recently spelled out the importance of the holiday and the possible fallout in the Muslim world should the U.S. continue its military campaign during Ramadan.

In an interview in today's "Wall Street Journal Europe," Prince Turki Sudairi, a member of the royal family and the publisher of "Al Riyadh" newspaper, explained why Ramadan is "very important." He says: "[Emotions] will run high. There will be more support for Islamic groups. Some governments could be toppled."

Sudairi cites Pakistan and Indonesia as particular trouble spots, saying: "We worry about civil war in Pakistan. The impact would be dramatic."

Pakistan's military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, who supports the U.S. campaign, has said he hopes it is over by Ramadan.

Some Afghans feel the same. Rahmatullah Musaghazi is the acting head of the Afghan National Liberation Front (ANLF), which was formed in 1979 as part of the anti-Soviet resistance movement. He expressed hope last week that opposition forces would be in Kabul before Ramadan and that U.S. military strikes would be over by then.

"I hope that [before] Ramadan, we will go to Kabul. But the only thing I hope and I pray to Allah [is] that the bombardment is finalized before Ramadan. That has been expressed by His Excellence [Pakistani President] Pervez Musharraf and by [U.S. Secretary of State] Colin Powell. It is my hope. The sooner, the better."

Powell says the U.S. would not rule out continuing the air attacks through Ramadan. But he expressed hope the United States can accomplish its military objectives before that.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, however, has downplayed Ramadan as a factor. During a briefing on 22 October, Rumsfeld said: "History is replete with instances where Muslim nations have fought among themselves or with other countries during various important holy days for their religion, and it has not inhibited them, historically."

Rumsfeld has a point.

In the year 624, the prophet Muhammad himself fought during Ramadan to reclaim Mecca.

In more recent times, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1973 launched a war on Israel during Ramadan. That war later became known as the "Ramadan War."

Iran and Iraq, during their eight-year war in the 1980s, fought through Ramadan every year of the conflict. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein once offered a cease-fire for Ramadan, but Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini rejected the suggestion.

In Afghanistan itself, when Soviet forces were fighting resistance forces in the 1980s, there was never a let-up in fighting during Ramadan.

There is one example of when fighting was halted so that Muslims could enjoy their holiday in peace. That was in Afghanistan in 1999, when the ruling Taliban and the opposition agreed on a truce. Whether it was ever observed, however, remains unclear.

Christians haven't been much better. They battled through many of their holy days as well. During the Kosovo war two years ago, pressure mounted for a halt in the U.S.-led bombing campaign on Orthodox Easter Sunday. Even the pope issued an appeal. However, the U.S.-led NATO force did not change its military plans.

Charles Heyman, a defense analyst at Jane's defense publishing group in London, says that from a military point of view, there is little sense in halting military operations in Afghanistan.

"The military will be saying that we need to keep the operational tempo up and we would not want to stop operations during Ramadan. And they would be pointing to the fact that, of course, during the Iran-Iraq war, both of those countries continued fighting each other during Ramadan. And terrorist atrocities, terrorist outrage have not necessarily been stopped by Ramadan and I don't think hostilities between the Israelis and the Palestinians will stop during Ramadan. So it's a very difficult one to call."

Maybe more of a factor than Ramadan for the U.S. military, Heyman says, will be the onset of winter. That, coupled with Ramadan, presents American planners with difficult choices. Heyman explains:

"From a military strategist's point of view, the onset of winter is a problem that they are going to have to work their way through. Winter will degrade the number of military operations that can be carried out both from the air and on the ground. But what we have here is two problems coming together at the same time and that, actually, is more than just the sum of two problems -- it doesn't necessarily make an insurmountable obstacle, but it magnifies the size of the problem. So they're going to have to make some pretty sharp decisions about what they do over Ramadan and how they approach the campaign during winter. My own feeling is that the campaign will have to scale down quite dramatically during the winter."

Whether in anticipation of Ramadan or of winter, U.S. military strategists are facing tough choices.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.