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Horsemen of Afghans' near apocalypse

The `game' of buzkashi explains a lot about a chaotic country, writes Tim McGirk in Mazar-e-Sharif
"If he smiles at you, it means you're a dead man." That was my introduction to Rasool Pahlawan, a warlord in the Afghan city Mazar-e- Sharif, who goes by the appropriate nickname "Butcher of the North".

Among the many perks of being a warlord in Afghanistan today are the toys: tanks, armoured personnel carriers, helicopters, and bodyguards who carry a quiverful of rocket- propelled grenades. But no possession means as much toRasool as his buzkashi horse.

Buzkashi is Afghanistan's national game, in which hundreds of horsemen whip and fight each other for the pleasure of grabbing a headless calf. It is a dangerous game, one at which Rasool, a large and powerful man, excels.

Buzkashi is as close to warfare as any game on earth. Brought down ages ago by the Mongol hordes (they still call him "Mr Genghis" in Mazar-e- Sharif), the horsemen are said to have used humans instead of dead calves to play buzkashi.

Louis Dupree, a historian of Afghanistan, wrote that these nomads "used prisoners of war instead of goats or calves, dismembering the hapless creatures and reducing them to masses of hominid jelly during the play". (With buzkashi in their blood, Afghans were never keen on cricket when the British brought their genteel sport over the Khyber Pass.)

Buzkashi has few, if any, rules. I saw a game held to celebrate the circumcision of another warlord's son. It took place in a rainy field near jagged blue mountains. The game was so fierce, so anarchic, it was impossible to tell if there were two teams or whether it was a free-for- all with every man for himself. It is a bit like politics in this country; the participants never know whose side the others really are on.

The object of the game is to steal the carcass, carry it around a flag about 400 metres away, dump it into a chalked-out ring, and collect the prize money. It may sound easy, but keep in mind that there are anywhere between 50 and several hundred horsemen trying through every means short of murder to separate the rider from the carcass. (Guns and knives are banned, but whips are allowed.)

And the dead calf is nearly impossible to hold. It weighs about 100lbs and is slimy from being dunked for several days in cold water. Adding to the mayhem, every so often, dozens of men on donkeys, clowning around, will ride into the middle of the game, carrying animal carcasses killed on the roadwhich they sling into the ring and demand the winner's prize.

The best buzkashi players, says Roland Michaud, a Frenchman who studied the game, have lyrical names such as Murad the Cunning or Muki the Hawk. Now Rasool the Butcher (though nobody dares call him that to his face) tops the list.

Afghans say: "Better a bad rider on a good horse than a good rider on a bad horse," and Rasool is a good rider on a good horse. In between matches, when the riders stop for water, they all seem the best of friends. But once the game starts the laughter stops and they fall on each other like wolves fighting over a kill. Then, after the game, they are friends again.

But Rasool Pahlawan is different. He likes to win at buzkashi. And if he does not win he gets angry. And then perhaps he will smile at the rider who snatched away his prize. So now, when Rasool gallops out onto the field, there are few men brave, or stupid, enough to challenge him.

The elders, who wear circular hats lined with fox fur to protect themselves against the winter rain, complain quietly that it was never like this in the past, that any horseman could prove his skills at buzkashi without having to worry about the clan leaders taking revenge. But this new generation of warlords and commanders, say the elders, have lost respect for many of the old Uzbek civilities.

In buzkashi legend, the son of one clan chieftain fell in love with the daughter of his father's buzkashi rival. The rival promised his daughter to the lover if he switched sides and competed against his own father in buzkashi. He agreed, and the game ranged over many miles. So intent were the father and his son at winning that they rode their horses over a cliff. Even in mid-air, hurtling to their deaths, they were still wrestling for the carcass.

If chess is the game for the Western military strategist, and go for the East, then buzkashi, with all its savagery and single-mindedness, is perhaps the only way of explaining why the Afghans have inflicted so much war and devastation on their country, and why a warlord's smile can mean death.