Afghanistan: By Their Sports, Ye Shall Know Them

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Horsemen chase after a headless goat in the traditional game of buzkashi

The national game, in any country, often holds important clues about a nation's character. Gridiron football and baseball, with their snaps of action and built-in, made-for-TV commercials stoppages, seem tailor-made for America. Cricket, with its impenetrable rules and breaks for tea could only be an English game. And boule, in which participants can smoke, drink and banter, seems perfect for the French. Yet none of these is a closer reflection of their nation's nature than buzkashi, Afghanistan's favorite form of organized mayhem.

Roughly speaking, the game involves two or more teams on horseback fighting for control of the headless, gutted carcass of sheep, calf or goat. It's easiest to follow when played by two teams: Riders from Team A try to wrestle the carcass from Team B and then drop it in a circle at the opposite end of the field. Participants carry short whips with which they can beat opposition horses but not — according to the rules at least — opposition riders. The winning team is usually the one that best combines horsemanship, strength and courage.

Buzkashi was banned by the Taliban, but has enjoyed something of renaissance this winter, particularly with the growing influence of the Northern Alliance, which has a large number of cavalry units. The (Persian) New Year's game in Kabul on Thursday saw four teams gather for a game in Kabul. Buzkashi horses are usually owned by military commanders or powerful governors — the sort of people nobody would risk asking to sit out a game. So teams from Pansjir, Kunduz, Badakhshan and Kabul took the field together at a stadium close to the base of the international security force for one of the first major buzkashi games in Kabul since the fall of the Taliban.

The Kabul team, which sported striped blue and aqua rugby jerseys, is relatively new, and when the whistle blew its 12 players tended to hold back. Not so the teams from the north, where the game is most popular. A rider from Pansjir charged at the dead calf, which had been pulled from the back of a white Toyota station wagon, leaned out of his saddle and grabbed the its leg, and then slung the limp carcass between his own leg and the horse's back.

With a tug on the reigns, his horse turned on itself and made a dash for the far end of the field. It didn't get far. Within seconds more than 40 horses had surrounded the man holding the calf, and more than 40 riders were flailing at each other with whips and legs. Horses reared and bit at other horses. Men elbowed each other and tried to grab opponents' reigns to steer them off course. Mud kicked out from beneath hooves, dust swirled up. The crowd cheered the seething mass on.

Whenever a rider managed to grab the calf and break free of the melee, the crowd cheered louder. Occasionally, a Pansjir rider, who, in rich red padded gowns, even looked better than their opponents, would make it around a post at one end of the field. For that they earned a point. But whenever they drew near to the circle at the opposite end, a writhing scrum would form to prevent them from dropping the calf. Sometimes the horse pack would veer into the crowd and screams of horror and delight would go up until the horses fell back onto the field. Late in the game, a rider fell and was rushed away in a waiting car, his eye streaming blood.

With four teams on the field, brute strength became essential — a measure by which no team could beat the Pansjiris. In the middle of a pack of 48 horses and men, they would work together to pass the carcass to a rider on the edge who could breakaway. And if teamwork didn't get them anywhere they would simply smash through, beating any person or horse in their way. It was colorful and tough, and dangerous and exhilarating. Much like Afghanistan itself.