According to military officials at the Pentagon the Islamic holy month of Ramadan is one of the most complex periods for coalition forces to conduct operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and being culturally aware of the environment is critically important.
For many troops who have served in current operations in the Middle East, Ramadan has been a time of increased vigilance and cultural awareness. Although cultural awareness and sensitivity always are important facets of military operations, Ramadan poses particular challenges for which coalition forces should consider and prepare, said Army Maj. Pat Work, aide de camp for the Army secretary.
This year, Ramadan begins at sunset Aug. 31 and goes through sunrise Sept. 30. The holy month begins 11 to 12 days earlier each year, because it is based on the lunar calendar, which is 255 days long.
Because Ramadan is a time of fasting, there is less opportunity for interaction with the local populace. Local citizens, security forces and even insurgents spend their days praying, reading the Koran and participating in other Ramadan traditions. However, insurgency doesn’t stop; attacks simply occur more often at night, said Work, who has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as a company commander with 2nd Ranger Battalion and as a battalion operations and executive officer with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team.
“The situation changes, but the mission doesn’t change,” Work said. “The most effective leaders are going to recognize this immediately and prepare for it accordingly.”
The lack of social activity among the citizens during the daytime will offer less opportunity to gather intelligence. Units may have to adjust their patrol schedules and focus security efforts to after sunset, when Muslims gather to celebrate breaking their daily fast, he said.
Leaders should be extremely flexible with all their assets, Work said. They should consider their evacuation plans, traffic control plans, intelligences plans, curfew-enforcement plans and influence Iraqi security forces to change their schedules too. Insurgents are more vigorous when society is livelier, and large gatherings present greater targets for terrorism, Work said.
“The enemy is going to go where the people are, so [coalition forces] need to be there too,” he said. “People are where the fight is won or lost, and insurgents are very aware of that. If the people gathered at night, that’s obviously going to weigh into your tactical planning.”
Since the window to conduct combat operations is smaller, managing operations may be more difficult. However, Army Maj. Brett Sylvia, a joint-staff officer for the Iraq Political Military Affairs Division at the Pentagon, said his experiences deployed during Ramadan found the insurgency very predictable, because they, too, have limited opportunity to operate.
“[Attacks] did follow a very predictable cycle, which people, I think, are familiar with at this point,” Sylvia said.
Typically, attacks occurred often during feasts and after the holy day of Friday, said Sylvia, who spent the past two Ramadan periods deployed to Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team as a squadron, then brigade executive officer. Sylvia recalls Saturdays and Sundays as heavy attack days, especially after a particularly quiet Friday.
Although many challenges in combat operations arise during the month, the celebration creates opportunities to build and foster relations with local leaders and citizens. Ramadan presents the chance to maximize their efforts in other ways, such as expressing respect and understanding of Islam regardless of religious preference, Sylvia said.
From a rapport-building standpoint, being able to break the fast with certain key people is important, because that’s something Muslims do with close friends and people they feel are important, Sylvia said.
Military leaders should set up some type of engagement with local leaders to invite Iraqis to break the fast with them, Sylvia said as he reflected on his most recent deployment and the effort his former brigade commander put into observing Ramadan with local leaders.
“It’s an important step in terms of rapport building, in terms of demonstrating who [coalition leaders] feel is important,” he said. “It was a great opportunity to build up the stature of certain members of the community, but also to build up your own personal power base as you work yourself in with them culturally.”
In today’s counterinsurgency environments in Iraq and Afghanistan, having cultural awareness and sensitivity is vital to the overall mission’s success as coalition forces are constantly interacting with the local populace, he said.
“Having good cultural awareness is as essential as marksmanship, because it’s about the populace, and it’s about intelligence,” he said. “You can build trust so much more rapidly if you have demonstrated cultural awareness and cultural sensitivity.”
Ramadan is considered the holiest month in Islam, as Muslims commemorate the birth of their holy scripture, the Koran. The observance is a celebration of peace, prayer and reconciliation. Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset as a means of purification to attain consciousness of Allah, or God, and guard against the influence of Satan. They fast for the entire month, abstaining from eating, drinking, sex, smoking or becoming ill-tempered during the daytime, according to Islamic tradition.
Although the observance is meant to be peaceful, fighting and terrorism generally have persisted throughout past Ramadan observances when war and conflicts already were under way. During the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988, Iran rejected multiple offers from Iraq for Ramadan cease-fires and continued heavy fighting. Violence during Ramadan remained the norm from 1975 to 1993 during Lebanon’s civil war and conflicts in Palestine. Ramadan violence occurred throughout the 1990s in Algeria with its civil war, and continued into the new millennium with U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.