For Afghan police, breaking fast on the job carries risk

Patriotism and optimism sustain Afghanistan's security forces in the face of mounting violence

Iftar with Afghan policemen.
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Ezatullah Nizami Ahmadzai, a young Afghan policeman stationed at a small checkpoint on the outskirts of Kabul, was just sitting down with his compatriots, on Saturday, for iftar, the breaking of the fay-long fast that Muslims observe during Ramadan.

Hardly had they said their short prayers and taken a morsel, when explosions disrupted their moment of spiritual reflection. Their checkpoint had come under attack by Taliban insurgents. Leaving aside the meal, Ahmadzai picked up his weapon and joined his colleagues, all of whom had been fasting all day, to fight the six assailants.

Together, the small band of police officers defeated the insurgents, killing two of them and injuring two others, while the remaining two fled. Ahmadzai though was also killed along with two other policemen.

On Tuesday, another group of Afghan police officers gathered for iftar at another central Kabul checkpoint. If the events of the last few days have shaken their morale, they did not show it.

In groups of five or six, the police officers stood guard monitoring the evening traffic – mostly civilians rushing home for iftar. “They are checking vehicles for traffic violations, and also for suspicious people and activities,” said Major Basir Mujahid, spokesman for the Kabul Police, who was in attendance.

“Cars are being stopped for not having number plates, as well as those cars with tinted black windows that have been recently made illegal.”

As the time for the call to prayer before the end of the fast approached, the police officers retired to a bunker where food was laid out on a sheet on the ground.

Qabili pulao – a dish of meat, rice, carrots and raisin – was sent from the local police district. “It is prepared based on the calories and protein requirements of the soldiers. And the medical officers at the police district test the food every day for quality before it is dispatched to us,” said Mullah Qand, a 28-year-old police officer from Baghlan.

Some of the police officers gathered around the food, waiting to hear the call to prayer, while a few others stood guard outside. “They will break their fast after we are finished, and then we will guard them while they eat and pray,” one of the younger officers said.

Mr Qand has served in the police for six years and only returns home to see his family in his home province during holidays. I do miss them a lot,” he said, but I have duty to serve the country. My family is very proud of me and they know I am doing this for them – to give them a better nation.”

Iftar with Afghan policemen.
Afghan policeman Mohammad Qand prays at a check-post in central Kabul. Hikmat Noori for The National

Unlike police elsewhere, Afghan police are frequently involved in battling insurgents. Stationed in Logar province for three years, Mr Qand regularly fought on the frontlines.

The growing violence does not deter his resolve however. “There are challenges being a policeman amid growing conflict, but I have faith things will improve,” he said. “How long can this war continue?”

National pride and optimism are essential traits in young officers, according to Major Mujahid. “This keeps them going despite the pressures of conflict.”

This spirit of hope is also what helps them remain resolute in face of extreme tragedy. Mohammad Samim, a 23-year-old officer from Kapisa province, has only been in the field for a year but has already seen enough death to last him a lifetime.

“When I was studying in the police academy, there was bomb blast right outside our campus, I lost many friends in that attack,” he said, referring to a 2015 attack that claimed the lives of more than 50 cadets and injured a hundred others. “Friends I had spent every moment with, studying together, working together, eating on the same table, seven days a week. For two years, we were hardly apart from each, and now all I have is photos of them.”

Iftar with Afghan policemen.
An Afghan policeman monitors traffic at a checkpoint in central Kabul. Hikmat Noori for The National

Around the meal, every police officer had his own story of loss and tragedy. Police casualties have never been made public, partially to ensure that it does not affect troop morale. However, in November last year, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani revealed that more than 28,000 Afghan police officers and soldiers have been killed since 2015.

Many have already made peace with death, even as they fight for lives. “In the military services we have a saying, ‘When a soldier tightens his cummerbund, he is preparing to die as well’,” said Major Mujahid. “These Taliban and Daesh insurgents might attack us, but they are working for foreign hands, they are the servants of others countries, so when they kill us, we will die in pride defending our motherland.”

Ongoing dialogue between the Taliban and the US has also become a source of the hope the men carry alongside their automatic rifles. Despite several rounds of talks, little progress has been made on securing the terms to ending America’s longest war.

“In Afghanistan we are fighting this war not just for ourselves, but on behalf of other countries,” said Major Mujahid. “We are standing here in defence of many countries, not just Afghanistan. We are the first line of defence against the terrorists who are a threat to you; we are fighting so they don’t reach you.”

His men in uniform, like most Afghans, desire peace. “Of course we want peace, and we will welcome them with open arms if they come in peace,” Major Mujahid said. “But they have to accept our constitution, our security forces, our values we developed over the last 18 years, and of course our government stays how it is.”

The Taliban is likely to contest many of these preconditions to peace.

But the men are willing to keep fighting, says another police office. For above all there is an enduring motivating force, they all agree.

“Ishq-e-Watan,” they say in chorus. Love for the Land.