Today, Afghanistan is amidst one of the biggest humanitarian crises in history. Ever since the USA started the withdrawal of their troops from Afghanistan, the Taliban started gaining ground and soon had control over most territories of Afghanistan, including major cities.
Then, on August 15, the president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, fled the country and surrendered the capital to the Taliban. Since then, Afghanistan has been in turmoil as citizens fear the return of the draconian laws with each Taliban reigned over the country during 1996-2001.
Taliban’s seizure of Afghanistan has triggered a mass exodus as civilians started escaping the country and Taliban’s rule. In this migration, countless lives were lost as people took any and every opportunity to flee Afghanistan. Now civilians still in the country are scared that the new regime will halt all progress achieved over the last decade.
So, it was a surprise when recently the Taliban- who in their first reign was against sports and even media such as paintings, movies, music, photography- openly supported cricket in Afghanistan. While talking to PTI, Afghanistan Cricket Board CEO Hamid Shinwari talked about how cricket will run smoothly. He said, "Taliban loves cricket. They have supported us since the beginning. They did not interfere in our activities," Shinwari told news agency PTI. "I don't see any interference and expect support so that our cricket can move forward. We have got an active chairman. I remain CEO until further notice."
What does this move imply in the larger context of the Talibani agenda? Let us delve deep into the issue by understanding Afghanistan’s relation with cricket and how, throughout history, powerful regimes have used sports for their benefit.
Afghanistan’s love story
In Afghanistan, cricket has been a very significant medium for their connection with the outside world. Refugees who moved to Pakistan during the Soviet invasion brought cricket to Afghanistan and the national cricket board was founded in 1995. But it wasn’t until 2001 that Afghanistan got recognized as an affiliate member of the International Cricket Council (ICC).
Since then, the Afghan cricket team has been on an upward climb and has played in four consecutive T20 World Cups and two 50-over World Cups. Men’s national team received the Laureus Spirit of Sport Award for their qualification for the 2015 World Cup. The Afghanistan team also received their full test status in December 2017.
Afghanistan has also given world cricket a gem like Rashid Khan, who has emerged as one of the best leg-spin bowlers in the world. Rashid was number one ranked One-Day International and T20 bowler in 2018. In the same year, he also topped ICC's all-rounder rankings.
Cricket in the war-torn country has been a beacon of hope for the locals. The U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Harold Pittman talked about the impact of sports on the youth of Afghanistan in an. “I've seen the difference sports can make, particularly with kids in underprivileged neighbourhoods, and it can unite ethnic groups. In Afghanistan, 68 per cent of the population is under age 25. It has the largest number of elementary-school-aged children of any country in the world. These youth don't have a voice or many prospects for school or for jobs. By expanding sports, it gives them that much more to do to create an alternate future and avoid the things they could fall into, which includes drugs, crime, or the Taliban.”
The power of sports
George Orwell wrote, “sports is war minus the shooting” in his famous 1945 essay titled The Sporting Spirit. The statement reiterates how sports have been used as a tool for war and propaganda throughout history.
One example of this phenomenon was when the Nazi regime tried propagating their Aryan supremacist ideology through the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The Nazis spend upwards of 42 million marks for just the construction of the precinct outside the Olympic Village. They built massive stadiums which were full of swastika banners. They commissioned director Leni Riefenstahl to make a film about the games, called Olympia, depicting the grandiose of the Berlin Olympics. The Nazi regime also started the now-famous relay that carried the Olympic torch from Greece as another method of propaganda.
Even during the Cold War, nations used sports as a medium of propaganda for demonstrating their superiority over other countries. The Soviet Union mandated a long-term program for generating top-class athletes which resulted in 99 medals till the 1972 Olympics.
In the US, sports have been used as a medium of propagating American values and even combating evils like communism. Throughout the cold war, the Soviet Union and the USA took every opportunity to get an upper hand on each other, even in sports.
Understanding Taliban’s motives?
Similar to the aforementioned regimes, the Taliban is an extremist group that will go above and beyond to maintain its power. During their five-year reign, the Taliban had imposed a stricter version of the sharia law.
Under this law, western books and films were banned if considered blasphemous. They barred women from human rights and prohibited them to study or leave their houses alone. They also banned sports like cricket, football and used the stadiums for public executions.
But Taliban’s recent support towards cricket can be a step towards a new chapter in Afghanistan history. Whenever extremist regimes have supported sports, they have attempted to present the supremacy of their ideology and beliefs to the world.
Hence the Taliban would want the world to accept their government in its current form and witness their nation-building. Or the Taliban government could adapt the USSR or China approach of mandating the sports authority to produce world-class athletes. In this approach, athletes are obligated to win. These athletes undergo a strict routine and are introduced into the system at an early age.
But this approach doesn’t allow individuals to enjoy sports. Rather, it takes away the joy behind competing in sports. The governments in turn create soldiers who fight in a stadium instead of the battlefield.