This essay was submitted by Ashraf Hadairi ’01, a native of Afghanistan, former aid worker, and former Wabash intern with the United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees.

Dr. Whitney Azoy is an anthropologist and the author of Buzkashi: Game and Power in Afghanistan. He served with the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in the 1970s and was most recently in Afghanistan in April 2001.

Dr. Azoy was instrumental in Ashraf's application to Wabash College. Read more about Hadairi in "They Deserved My Respect"


Fall/Winter 2001

Afghanistan's "Goat Game"
and American Foreign Policy

by Whitney Azoy

William James called sport and games “the moral equivalent of war.” Buzkashi, Afghanistan’s “national” sport, shows how U.S. near-term goals—capture of Osama bin Laden, degradation of terrorist installations in that country, and (as yet unstated but critical to the other two) elimination of the Taliban regime—can be achieved without going to red-hot war.

“National” is in quotation marks because Afghanistan is not now, and has never been, a nation in the modern sense of political coherence and responsiveness to central authority. Rather it remains an ethnic hodge-podge with the Hindu Kush —geographical, cultural, and strategic boundary between Central Asia and the sub-continent—splitting it diagonally down the middle. Nationality everywhere in the world is a concept, a thing of mind. During the half-century of Musahiban family rule (1929-1978), the concept of Afghanistan as a unitary nation-state began to gain some legitimacy. That process of legitimization can begin again. First, however, the Taliban (Kandahari Pushtun ethnic aggressors as well as oppressors of women, destroyers of antiquities, and protectors of their paying guest Osama) must be eliminated. Buzkashi shows us how to do it without body bags.

Buzkashi (literally “goat-grabbing”) has been likened to rugby on horseback and is, arguably, the wildest game in the world. Its aim, at least on the first level of competition, is for a rider to grasp the goat (or calf) carcass of the ground and ride free and clear of everyone else. Various Afghan governments tried to codify buzkashi with teams, uniforms, numerical totals, and scoring circles, but the game on the steppes remains a Hobbesian war of all against all. A single game can attract hundreds of riders, all trying to get the buz (goat) carcass at the same time.

I lived buzkashi as an anthropologist for two years in the mid-1970s, wrote a book about it, and found my notion of “game as metaphor” appropriated a decade later as journalists struggled to describe the shifting forces Afghanistan’s jihad against the Soviets. Afghan life, they said correctly, had become a buzkashi with a bewildering array of players, each with his own interests, grabbing for control of the country, seeming to take hold, and then having it wrenched away.
There is, however, a second level of buzkashi competition which points the way to a Taliban demise without American deaths. Despite appearances, the real players in buzkashi are not the riders but the rich horse owners, the khans, who support the game for their own prestige. These rival horse owners are also rural power brokers and often adversaries in real life political skirmishes. When his horse and hired rider win, the khan’s “name” is said to “rise.” And reputation is the true currency of Afghan politics.

The key role in any buzkashi is that of overall sponsor: the man who announces the game, invites the guests, organizes the extensive hospitality, supplies the vast sums of prize money, and – acid test – proves himself able to restrict three or four days of equestrian mayhem to the actual game itself. Significantly, this overall sponsor is seldom himself on horseback.. Rather he sits to one side, powerful in apparent repose. A nod here, a raised finger there, and his will is done

The man who can manage a buzkashi successfully gains enormous prestige. People speak for years of his achievement. Henceforth he is known as someone who order events, achieve his ends, and impose his purpose on chaos – the sort of man to support in the real world in the hope of concrete spoils.

All too often, however, the game boils over into fierce and bloody brawls. The sponsor is thereby disgraced in this public arena. His initiative has failed, his name “falls,” and then – worst of all – his supporters abandon him. They ride away, literally and figuratively, in search of some other patron, now in the ascendancy, who is more likely to provide them with political rewards.

As buzkashi reveals in microcosm, Afghan politics is a zero-sum game forever in flux. Powerful patrons, empowered by their followers, achieve victories which provide those followers with spoils. Such supporters, however, are seldom loyal for life, least of all to an ideology like the Taliban extremism imported (from Saudi Arabia and Muslim India) via Pakistan. Instead followers are forever calculating which patron’s power is waxing and which is waning. Once a khan’s power is seen to fade, his followers ride away.

Thus impression management is crucial – power is as power seems – and never more so than at the moment. America’s military threat combined with the prospect of an end to Pakistan aid for the Taliban has had enormous effect on internal perceptions. Already the Taliban’s power is perceived within Afghanistan as on the wane. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans are riding away to would-be refugee status at the closest border; Mullah Omar’s call for them to return has the plaintive tone of a hapless buzkashi sponsor whose game has gone wrong. Northern Alliance gains over the past few days have been less the result of military victories than of defections by local warlords whose alliance with the Taliban was never based on more than convenience or fear. The re-ascendancy of a new/old khan, ex-King Zahir Shah, gives the disaffected somewhere to go. Players as diverse as the Northern Alliance and a U.S. Congressional delegation have already ridden to Rome.

Afghans of every condition and ethnic point of origin (even, in the end, Kandahar) will continue to ride away as long the impression of Taliban debility can be managed and enhanced. The better the impression management, the quicker the riding away. Our threat of massive military engagement must continue credible. Diplomatic isolation must be maintained. Financial assets must be frozen solid. The US must make certain – absolutely certain – that General Musharraf has made Pakistan’s intelligence services desist in their supply of oil, men, arms, and money to the Taliban…and that these fiefdoms do as they’re ordered. Oddly, two experienced interviewers (Christiane Amanpour of CNN and Lyse Doucet of BBC) both failed in the past few days to phrase this issue precisely to Musharraf. Here’s the question, people: “General, can you and will you prove that all Pakistani aid to the Taliban, including that spawned by your Inter Services Institute, has now been terminated? Yes or no?” Musharraf must be made to say yes…and to mean it and to prove it.

Then, Afghans being Afghans, it’s only a matter of time before the Taliban collapse. With their dissolution will come the end of immunity for the terrorist camps and also for Osama bin Laden.

Conversely an actual US attack runs great risks. One is the inflaming of Afghan xenophobia, so consistently and forcible demonstrated from the time of Alexander the Great to that of the Soviets. Even more negative would be the consequences of trying – and failing –to capture or kill Osama by force of arms. Then American weakness would be revealed, and the topsy-turvy dynamic of Afghan impression management politics could be revived with disastrous effect. Nor would the effect be confined to Afghanistan. The image of such U.S. powerlessness – against the world’s poorest people – would be broadcast worldwide. Our own supporters could start to ride away.

Don’t venture a buzkashi in Afghanistan unless you know—flat-out know—that you can control it. Better to contain the situation, stage manage impressions from afar, and let an age-old Afghan dynamic take care of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. Inshallah (“God willing,” as Muslims say) it won’t take long.

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