and American Foreign Policy
by Whitney Azoy
William James called sport and games the moral equivalent of war.
Buzkashi, Afghanistans national sport, shows how U.S.
near-term goalscapture 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 regimecan 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-continentsplitting 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
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
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 Afghanistans 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 khans
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 patrons power is
waxing and which is waning. Once a khans 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. Americas military threat combined
with the prospect of an end to Pakistan aid for the Taliban has had enormous
effect on internal perceptions. Already the Talibans 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 Omars
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 Pakistans intelligence
services desist in their supply of oil, men, arms, and money to the Taliban
that these fiefdoms do as theyre 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.
Heres 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, its 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 worlds
poorest people would be broadcast worldwide. Our own supporters
could start to ride away.
Dont venture a buzkashi in Afghanistan unless you knowflat-out
knowthat 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 wont take long.
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