US troops bring Little League to Afghanistan

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

In a converted soccer stadium at the center of this town in eastern Afghan- istan, a gruff American soldier squats behind home plate, represented by a sandbag, and eyeballs incoming pitches. A young Afghan boy, swathed in traditional garb, winds up and whizzes a fastball across the plate. An opposing batter swings for the fence and misses; his momentum spins him around in a pirouette that ends the inning. Against the right field wall, a slate-and-chalk scoreboard is kept in Pashto, the local language.

While American special forces troops comb the region near the Pakistani border for remnants of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, they have brought America's national pastime to the people of Orgun-e, a dusty town in eastern Paktika Province, 19 miles from Pakistan.

Baseball notwithstanding, Afghanistan's first Little Leaguers will probably still dream about scoring the winning points in buzkashi, the national sport, which is played with the carcass of a headless goat. But the arrival of America's national pastime in Afghanistan less than a year after anti-American terrorists took refuge here epitomizes the transformations underway in this war-torn country.

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"Baseball is here to show them the American way, to show them that we're not here for any other reason than to help out," says Sgt. Jay Smith, of the US special forces. "We're not against [Afghans], we're not against Islam. We can be here together, Afghans and Americans."

In what is perhaps a historical first, certainly since the fall of the anti-American Taliban regime, children are playing organized baseball in Afghanistan, to the tune of "Take me Out to the Ballgame," which blares from speakers on a beige psychological-operations Humvee.

Donations stretched far

For lack of a chest protector, the catcher wears a bulletproof vest. The pitcher's mound is a sandbag. A spent antitank shell strapped to a wheeled machinegun carriage has been used to lay down chalk boundary lines.

"That's our version of beating swords into plowshares," says Sergeant Smith, who solicited donations of sporting goods from friends and church groups in the United States for the country's first-ever Little League.

The Eagles and the Afghan Club, Afghanistan's only organized baseball teams, are facing off today, as they do on each Friday of a 10-game season. The first contest between the two teams, played four weeks ago, was called after two innings with the Eagles down 15-2 – not because of the lopsided score, but because the players had to leave the field for afternoon prayers.

"We got prayed out," says Sgt. Henry Koenig, a US special forces soldier who helps organize the games. "Now we take into account prayer time. And then we go out and play ball."

Elite US special forces troops are conversant in local languages and sensitized to cultural differences so that they can conduct unconventional warfare operations in local communities.

As the conflict in Afghanistan has morphed into a classic counterinsurgency, the work of special forces soldiers, especially on the porous Pakistani border, is critically important. The fact that special forces troops now double as baseball coaches in Orgun-e perhaps illustrates just how unconventional warfare in Afghanistan has become.

Mohammad Aneef, a 14-year-old Afghan Club player, says he met his first American a month ago when Smith handed him a mitt. Aneef says he likes the Americans, and enjoys playing baseball, but that batting is terrifying.

"When the pitcher throws the ball, I scream because the ball can hurt," Aneef says. "He throws it very hard."

'Everyone likes baseball'

Monty, a bearded special forces soldier who totes an MP5 submachine gun, dismisses suggestions that bringing baseball to Afghanistan is an example of America pushing its cultural weight around.

"We're not trying to force anything American on anybody," Monty says. "It's good interaction between us and the kids. It shows we're here to support, not to attack."

However, Monty admits that the Americans are guilty of at least a degree of cultural imperialism.

"If we have a load of humanitarian aid, and they don't have a school for girls, we'll say, 'You won't get anything until you get the girls in school.' " Monty says.

Hatira, 7 years old, is conspicuous as the only girl on the ballfield. She has a mitt that was given to her by Smith, whose sister wanted to make sure that at least one donated glove went to a girl. According to Adam Khan Massoudi, the district minister of education, there are plans to form a girls' league in Orgun-e.

"Everyone likes baseball," says Mr. Massoudi, swathed in a white turban. "It's a gift from the United States."

Enthusiasm doesn't make for a perfect swing though. Afghanistan's fledgling Little Leaguers, most of them between the ages of 10 and 16, tend to confound the mechanics of baseball with cricket, which is popular in neighboring Pakistan. Batters in Orgun-e tend to take underhanded golf swings at pitches, and often bring the bat with them as they round the bases, itself far from a straightforward affair.

"Initially, they wanted to run to the pitcher's mound after a hit," says Smith. "Some would round the bases to home plate, then turn around and race in the wrong direction all the way back to first."

If base-running skills could stand some improvement in Afghanistan's Little League, pitching is a strong point – Afghan baseball players have rifle arms, and deadeye accuracy.

"They're used to throwing rocks," says Sgt. Josh Baker, head coach of the Eagles.

The game's newest star

Thanks to the heroics of Nazim, Coach Baker's 14-year-old star pitcher, the Eagles win their first game ever, 6-1, in six innings. In the second inning, with a runner on second base, Nazim (like many Afghans, he goes by only one name) hit an inside-the-park home run that squirted through the second baseman's legs. The right fielder covered, but the throw to third sailed high, and Nazim came home for a 2-0 lead. Later in the fifth inning, Nazim hit another inside-the-park home run, this one a solo blast that was flubbed in left field.

"Baseball is a new game in our country," Nazim says. "It's a good thing; it could help."

While Nazim has a natural aptitude for baseball, he is under pressure at home to stay away from the diamond.

"My father is unhappy that I'm playing baseball," Nazim says. "My father has a shop, and he tells me that I should be in the shop, because he needs help. When my father told me not to go play baseball, I told him, 'I'm going to school.' "

Nazim's father needs help in his store because he lost half of his right foot to a landmine during the jihad against the Soviets. With the harsh lessons of war surrounding him, Nazim says he has no plans to be a soldier when he grows up.

"I like to be a player, not to be a fighter," Nazim says.

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