For humanitarians, the resurgence of dogfighting in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, which had suppressed such activities, was a terrible irony. Last Sunday, that irony gave way to tragedy as a suicide bomb attack took the lives of at least 80 people and an unspecified number of animals at a dogfighting event outside Kandahar. The target of the bomber was a local militia leader who opposed the Taliban.
Dogfighting has deep roots in the tradition of internecine conflict in Afghanistan. The country is a patchwork of rival tribes and ethnic groups mainly united by their distrust of central government, their hatred of foreigners, and the influence of Islam. The badal, or blood feud, is a way of life. Dogfighting fits right in.
In a country devastated by decades of war, poverty and suffering, and totalitarian religious rule, dogfighting has flourished as cheap amusement. It is of course more than that—disempowered people want a setting where they can exert control and dominance, and in this case they wield power over mighty and aggressive animals. And there is apparently some place dark in the human spirit that is titillated by the bloodletting produced by staged fights between animals. In this regard, the Afghans are hardly alone; staged fights between animals date back to the days of the Romans and Greeks, and dogfighting and cockfighting remain major worldwide industries throughout the New World and Old World, and even in the United States.
The leaders of the Taliban banned such activities, but not because they were concerned about the dogs. Rather, like the Puritans in 17th century England and the early American colonies, they wanted to stop people from enjoying themselves by engaging in any activities not focused on glorifying God the Almighty.
The tragic incident at Kandahar raises some paradoxical issues for those of us involved in the worldwide animal protection movement. None of us would welcome the Taliban back to power, even if it were to result in the end of dogfighting and other manifestations of cruelty to animals. At the same time, we don’t feel good about the renaissance of dogfighting in Afghanistan, and we don’t want to stay quiet about it.
Humane Society International has written to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to ask that the administration press Afghanistan’s government to discourage dogfighting, especially as a broadly approved public spectacle (you can see the letter here). We have advanced our position that such events are always accompanied not simply by cruelty to animals but by social degradation. Children, in particular, are desensitized by exposure to death-as-entertainment. And the presence of these public spectacles of cruelty does nothing to inspire American confidence in the people of Afghanistan or its government, at a time when American support can hardly be taken for granted.
In our work, we actively promote the proven connection between cruelty to animals and violence to people. At its core, ours is a movement that opposes violence to all sentient beings, and those of us in animal protection must continue to condemn ritualized violence in the strongest terms. This means condemning not only the suicide bombing in Afghanistan but also the organization of a public "entertainment" that involves dogfighting.
One of the reasons that the United States has a stake in Afghanistan is that the march of democracy and economic progress carries along with it codes of moral conduct, including an enhanced respect for others, including animals. One can hope that the ongoing effort of the Afghan government to raise standards of living and education will result in more progress in the arena of animal welfare. Humane Society International has worked with several Afghan animal welfare groups in recent years, and we have real hope that pet keeping, a proven pathway to broader concern about animals, will gain a greater foothold in the country and nourish a broader ethic toward animals.
If the truth be acknowledged, there is little that Americans can do to stop dogfighting in a distant and troubled land where it remains so culturally entrenched and where there are few local countervailing forces. But it should give us all the more reason to put our own house in order by rooting out dogfighting and other cruel pursuits in our nation. America should be a beacon of moral thought and action, and when we hold ourselves to rigorous moral standards, we can convey these ideas to others with greater moral authority.