Into the Scrum:
I stood on the edge of the 8-foot tall concrete wall that held the grandstand seats of the VIP guests at the National Buzkashi Matches. The horses and riders crashed again and again into the wall as the scrum compacted and stretched. Somewhere beneath the hooves was a brown calf carcass.
My pistol was in the small of my back under my grey Dickies shirt in a holster that Force Recon Marine Jack Cox gave me years before. I looked down at my desert combat boots at the end of my Levi’s jeans and rolled the rules of Buzkashi I had just learned around in my mind.
Valentine’s Day Decision: A sub-Tactical action can have Operational Level impact
Jason Criss Howk
I looked over at our faithful Afghan interpreter and cultural advisor Doc Najib. He looked at me smiling broadly and nodded his head yes. I looked back across the stadium at the 10,000 foot snow covered mountains in the distance thinking this is gonna be fun.
I took a few steps back and handed my pistol and Auburn University ball cap to one of the general’s bodyguards. As I saw an old man leading a white horse (how fitting) into the pitch I bent down near Major General Eikenberry and asked my carefully constructed question. “Sir, if I could borrow a horse would you mind if I played Buzakshi today?” He looked at me with a grin and said “I would love to see that Jason.” (Another perfectly asked question by the LT) He was caught by surprise when I immediately stood up, walked two steps forward and jumped down into the stadium.
I didn’t look back as I walked towards the Afghan horse handler. I quickly mounted the horse, took the quirt-like horse crop he handed me and rode towards the scrum on the other side of the field as I got used to the saddle and stirrups.
Thoughts ran through my mind of all the horse riding skills I learned in Alabama at the Beasley Farm after they lost their son and horse-trainer. If Bill, the Vietnam War Cobra pilot that trained me to ride, could see me now. Although this feat still doesn’t match Bill Witwicki taking his motorcycle for a spin on the dance floor at the officers club.
The crowd went wild as I neared the scrum and tried to charge into the middle of the pack to get at the calf on the ground. I only thought about it later but I wonder if they were cheering for me for joining the match or yelling at the others to crush me. One of my NCO’s said he was sure they were yelling kill the infidel (Soldier humor).
The rules for Buzkashi are simple. Pick up the calf or goat (the 60 pound “ball” filled with sand) without getting off your horse. Then ride to the other end of the stadium around the flag and then bring it back through the mass of riders grabbing at it and drop it in a circle in front of the grandstand. There were about 50 players in the stadium and all of them are allowed to wrestle for the calf. Some players were actually just resting the horses for better players that were fighting in the scrum. A scrum formed every time the goat was dropped in the brawl.
You have a whip but can only use it on your horse. This was explained to me by this handsome fella in the scrum when I was whipping other people and he put his hand out to shake mine and then yanked me off my horse above the scrum. As we stared at each other face to face, he shook his whip at me and then shook his head no. He was one of the best players so I was glad he took time to point out the proper use of the whip. I am pretty sure he mentored all the new guys like that. (seen below on the right of the referee in the green coat) He and the guy drinking in the red jacket were the star players–Cam Newton and Peyton Manning you might say.
You also can’t touch the other players with your hands or feet, but you can use your horse to “touch” others that are in your way. I learned this the third time I charged into the scrum and a big horse behind me came in rearing both hooves in the air and one of them cracked me in the back of the head cutting my scalp. They also used the horse’s head to head-butt the other players which made me see stars a few times. I quickly learned in the scrum why the players wore heavy jackets, helmets or padded hats, shin guards, and heavy boots. In my Alabama appropriate clothes I took a beating.
To gain team points and personal cash you just need to get that goat in the chalk circle on the ground. That pauses the game as the referee/jester hands out cash and discusses the player’s greatness. Players often gave the earnings to people in the crowd as they got paid to play and the horses were team property. The individuals not on a team would likely hang onto their winnings.
I played for about 30 minutes straight, running my horse up and down the stadium trying to grab the calf from other players. We dove into the scrums and got tossed about a lot. I never got over the goat on the ground to grab it as my horse and I were clearly the rookie team and kept getting pushed out by the others.
I may not have won any money but this moment in my 1-year tour in Afghanistan was a small win for our military team at the Embassy trying to build the Afghan National Army and reform the Ministry of Defense.
This was a critical period of time for the coalition forces training the new Afghan National Army. We were in the middle of some very difficult negotiations with the Minister of Defense over disarming militias, trading out ANA for militia-men at the Kabul checkpoints, standing up the first Brigade of the ANA Soldiers, and getting the number of Pashtun officers increased on the promotion list to decrease the inflated number of Tajiks on the rolls.
While the Special Operations Forces and Intelligence officers that invaded Afghanistan just over a year ago had earned, through bravery and shared suffering, the trust of the United Front commanders, we were still struggling to do so in these early days. (The United Front forces were intentionally misnamed the Northern Alliance by Pakistan and it was a term the commanders hated). As the U.F. leaders worried that America was being manipulated by Pakistan they were hesitant to lose control of security based on the last go-round with the Taliban in Kabul. Even though we rode in the same un-armored Toyotas, didn’t wear body armor to match their uniforms, and even flew in their rickety Mi-17 Russian helicopters they were skeptical that the military team based in the capital was really their long-term friend.
As General Eikenberry would recount later my decision to jump in the match was a simple but effective sign that we could be trusted, were a bit crazy, and we respected them. He also remembered wondering what he was going to tell my wife if I got maimed in the scrum.
That night was a Valentine’s Day party at the U.S. embassy and based on the number of pictures I was being shown of my ride on digital cameras there were lots of Westerners at the buzkashi match. More importantly my trusted interpreter explained the next day that I was a small celebrity in Kabul as everyone was telling the story of the American cowboy that rode in the match on the Vice-Presidents horse. The guy who kept yelling “yah!” at his horse as he charged into the scrum. That is not an international horse term.
On February 15th we had a meeting with the United Nations leadership and Vice President Mohammad Qasim Fahim and his team about restraining the militia and disarming them. A serious topic but one that was interrupted a couple times when VP Fahim checked to see if I was at the meeting and to tell the people about the match. His tone changed that day and in the end we made some valuable progress. Vice President Fahim even presented me with a ceremonial Buzkashi whip that was much nicer than the wooden one I used in the match.
General Eikenberry kept the momentum going with a lunch and then a dinner meeting with Commander Bismillah Khan Mohammadi a deputy of Fahims that was out of the government at the time. He was the person we needed to convince to reel in the militia in Kabul. He would later become the Chief of Staff of the Afghan National Army when General Delawar retired and then Minister of Interior and later Defense.
We would continue to build on our relationship with the senior security leaders from the United Front through the winter, into the spring and right up until the fall when we left Kabul. We would travel most of Afghanistan and key military locations in America with them.
We held a security sector reform conference with all the former militia commanders from around the country and developed plans to bring the militia-men into the National Army.
Our tour would end as we stood up the first Corps of the Afghan National Army in August 2003. Vice President Fahim was there to pin an Afghan medal on my chest as President Karzai recognized General Eikenberry with his own.
While that Buzkashi match was just one small step in the right direction it does demonstrate that letting junior leader’s take action when they feel the time is right is usually a good thing for the mission.
After the Match
For dinner that valentine’s night my friend Doctor Najibullah (MD not PhD) had us over to his house where he prepared a feast with all the trimmings.
It was a good chance to catch my breath and tell stories with friends…friends and stories that you never forget.
Before I departed Kabul Doc Najib my Afghan Brother gave me this framed wood-burning to help me remember the day he got me a horse so I could ride. It hangs in my dining room today.