Kunduz fell to the Taliban, but in recent months coalition forces have won ground. Now, four weeks into Ramadan, fasting in 40C heat has taken its toll
For most of his adult life Juma Khan, a husky Afghan policeman, enjoyed breaking the Ramadan fast with his family after returning home from duty.
The evening Ramadan dinner, called iftar, is a moment shared not just by families, but by the entire country: at sunset, people gather over meals, always made with extra care, no matter how poor the family.
But, for the past two years, Juma Khan has not been able to enjoyed his mother’s and wife’s home-cooked iftar. Instead, his family is cooking for the Taliban.
When Taliban militants seized large swaths of Kunduz province, in Afghanistan’s north-east, they took Khan’s village in Gul Tepa, about 10 miles from Kunduz city. As in other areas under their control, the Taliban tax the civilian population and demand food.
Khan can still call his family by phone, but as a known policeman, he cannot go home. He is now stationed at the village of Otmanzay just a few miles from his home. The separation – especially during Ramadan – is painful.
“I miss my family, but what can I do?” Khan says with a shrug.
Kunduz fell to the Taliban twice in 13 months, in 2015 and 2016, but in recent months, US and Afghan forces have won ground, and even killed the Taliban’s “shadow governor”, Mullah Salam, in February.
Heavily supported by American special forces and airstrikes, government troops began Ramadan by stepping up attacks, clawing back territory around Kunduz, just short of Juma Khan’s village.
The frontline now runs through Otmanzay, a sleepy hamlet about five miles north-west of Kunduz.
Nearly four weeks into Ramadan, fasting in 40C heat and dust has taken the fight out of the young policemen camped out in a shady grove along a calm river.
Except from young boys herding sheep in the fields and the occasional truck lugging melons to the market, the area is deserted. The only attempt at constructing a base is three wooden beams bridging the narrow river.
In the late afternoon, some of the policemen strip down to shorts and wash off in the river, in preparation for prayer and iftar. War is said to be 90% boredom. That remains true here, but it is coupled with hunger and thirst. Even smoking is banned during Ramadan.
Lounging iin the shade, the men who don’t doze off take turns at complaining.
Mohammad Nadir, a father of five, says that although he is from Kunduz, he has been home for only two hours the past 10 days. Some of the younger men take more advantage of commanders turning a blind eye – or never visiting the frontline.
“Sometimes I escape for one or two days to be with my family,” says Abdul.
The area north-west of Kunduz city, called Talawka, bears signs of heavy fighting. Empty dirt streets are lined with brick houses destroyed by American airstrikes. A scorched patch on the road shows where local forces say an American Humvee was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, injuring three US soldiers. (The US military did not respond to requests for confirmation.)
The US push in Kunduz includes about 170 American soldiers and two attack helicopters, according to western security sources, in addition to fighter planes deployed from Bagram airbase. Across the country, US airstrikes until May nearly tripled compared to same period last year – to 1,245.
But – in a perfect example of the fragility of military gains in Afghanistan – after concerted efforts to regain territory near Kunduz, the frontline in Otmanzay was then left to a few dozen undertrained police officers without vehicles and with an arsenal of eight rocket launchers and two boxes of machine gun bullets.
“If the Taliban attack, we will spend all our ammunition in 10 minutes. You think we’re going to stay here?” says Alem, the group’s 19-year-old commander.
The Kunduz offensive was a rare step forward in war plagued by setbacks, and came at a time when the US is expected to deploy about 4,000 extra troops to Afghanistan.
Police commander Alem welcomes that prospect. “Without foreign forces, there are no operations,” he says bluntly.
While many Muslims see Ramadan as a time for contemplation and peace, the past month has been filled with violence for Afghans.
Some insurgents believe martyrdom during Ramadan is especially holy.
“Jihad is the highest form of worship of Allah. And this month is also about worshipping Allah,” said one Taliban fighter, on condition of anonymity. “If someone wants to do jihad, it is better to do it during this month.”
In the last hour before iftar, the policemen gravitate imperceptibly towards the seating area – which doubles as sleeping space and prayer ground.
Nadir, the eldest of the bunch, boils well water for tea, plonks a bag of watermelons in the river to cool, and wets the ground to beat down dust.
The men seem to find a camaraderie in reminiscing. At home, they would feast on dried fruit, cakes, and pilaf with succulent meat. Here, they expect an iftar of tasteless rice that can be reheated for the 2am breakfast before sunrise.
“The food isn’t great here. The big men eat it all,” says Alem, laughing and patting an imaginary fat belly. He means the higher-ranking commanders in town.
As the sun sets, food has yet to arrive. The men turn their heads at every sound in anticipation of the Humvee bringing rice – or the call to prayer allowing them to drink.
A bleat echoes across the fields.
“Is that the mullah?” asks one, reaching for a glass of water.
“No!” another responds, with a grin. “It’s a donkey.”
Minutes before sunset, a mine explosion booms in the distance. Ten minutes past dinner time, the Humvee finally arrives. The narrow dirt road was blocked by another army vehicle that had crashed, seemingly unprovoked, into a ditch.
Digging their hands into Styrofoam boxes with bland, greasy rice, and tomatoes washed in the river, the men swiftly devour their first meal in 17 hours. They stop talking. After rinsing hands, they take turns at praying in groups of three. A stillness sets in.
Commander Alem admits: “It feels like family.”