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Opponents Look To Put Dogfighting On Tight Leash In Afghanistan

Dogfighting Under Scrutiny In Afghanistan
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WARNING: Video contains graphic images

Two large dogs collide in a cloud of dust, locked in a bloody struggle that will end with only one victor -- unless, that is, you count the hundreds of men clustered around them who have placed money on the outcome.

The contest is being staged on a dirt pitch on the outskirts of Kabul, and it's not a rare event.

Dogfighting is a traditional pastime in Afghanistan, and this is just one of hundreds of clashes played out every week in informal tournaments around the country.

For some, animal fights -- which can also involve cocks, rams, and raptors -- are a source of entertainment and, with luck, extra income.

Technically, these brutal contests are illegal. But due to their popularity, the amount of money thrown around, and the powerful people involved, Afghan authorities have done little to enforce any sort of ban.

That might soon change if increasingly vocal critics have their way, however.

Seeking to enforce the official ban on animal fighting for sport, religious leaders and rights activists have brought their campaign to the government.

Dihal Haq Habid, the country's deputy minister for the hajj and Islamic affairs, intends to take the issue up with the Interior Ministry.

"Dog, raptor, and cockfights are things that don't have a place in Islam," he says. "We are planning to meet with the Interior Ministry. Through the Interior Ministry we hope to ban these activities. We are hopeful that we will have an effect."

An 'Un-Islamic' Pastime

Although there are no reliable statistics, Habid argues that dogfighting is fueling gambling addiction and bankruptcy, which in turn is leading to crime and illegal activities. He considers the blood sport "un-Islamic."

Shamsullah Ahmadzai, head of Kabul's regional office of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, calls dogfighting a primitive tradition.

He says he has brought up the issue of animal welfare with several Afghan lawmakers in an effort to raise awareness and to mobilize opposition to animal combat.

"People shouldn’t get pleasure from harming animals," he says. "During fights, one of the animals is always injured. The pain of an animal shouldn’t be a source of entertainment. The government should take measures."

Ahmadzai says that animal welfare is a foreign concept in Afghanistan, where most people do not keep pets and consider them unclean. This, he says, helps fuel the popularity of the matches.
Dog handlers claim that they treat their charges well and spend large amounts of money on food and care.
Dog handlers claim that they treat their charges well and spend large amounts of money on food and care.

Dog handlers involved in the contests remain unapologetic. They insist that the animals are treated better than family members and that matches are more humane than in other countries because the dogs do not fight to the death.

Noor Mohammad, who comes from a long line of dog trainers, has been involved in the matches for the past 26 years.

According to Mohammad, the matches do not usually end when one of the animals is killed but rather when one dog asserts its dominance or its opponent surrenders -- typically when one of the dogs retreats to the edge of the makeshift arena or puts its tail between its legs.

Mohammad adds that the money owners spend on feeding and caring for their dogs each month can exceed the monthly earnings of most Afghan families.

"We give the dogs veal," he says. "We boil this with the bone until it is very soft. We give it to them in the morning [before a fight]. The expense of keeping a dog is a lot. It is more than feeding a family. It is a hobby. The food we and the animals get is all from God."

Mohammad says a top fighting dog can sell for as much as a new car and that its potential winnings can exceed the investment many times over.

Banned By The Taliban

According to Mohammad, the largest and most lucrative fights, held at private venues involving animals belonging to wealthy businessman and government ministers, boast purses of thousands of dollars.

"Ministers, tribal chiefs, military commanders, and many other respectable people are keeping dogs," he says. "They're bringing their dogs [to the fight] with bodyguards and inside fancy cars, which I have never sat in. I have seen those people betting 1 million afghanis (about $21,000)."

The contests have been especially popular in and around the capital. But in areas of Afghanistan where militants enjoy greater sway, crowds have dwindled following a number of deadly attacks on dogfighting matches.

The Taliban, which banned dogfighting during its reign, appears to be enforcing its edict in deadly fashion.

In February 2010, a bomb attack on a dogfight in Lashkar Gah, in Helmand Province, left at least three people dead and more than 30 injured.

That Taliban attack was preceded by two others in Kandahar in February 2008. One, a suicide bombing near a dogfight, left at least 80 men dead and wounded 90. A second attack a week later claimed 10 more lives.
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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