US troops bring Little League to Afghanistan
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
"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.
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.