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Afghan men on horseback compete in a buzkashi match on the outskirts of Kabul on Jan. 15, 2015. The game is the national sport of Afghanistan and was once banned under the Taliban.

Afghan men on horseback compete in a buzkashi match on the outskirts of Kabul on Jan. 15, 2015. The game is the national sport of Afghanistan and was once banned under the Taliban. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

Afghan men on horseback compete in a buzkashi match on the outskirts of Kabul on Jan. 15, 2015. The game is the national sport of Afghanistan and was once banned under the Taliban.

Afghan men on horseback compete in a buzkashi match on the outskirts of Kabul on Jan. 15, 2015. The game is the national sport of Afghanistan and was once banned under the Taliban. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

Riders struggle over a decapitated and disemboweled calf carcass during a buzkashi match in Kabul on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015. The game is played across Central Asia but has special prominence in Afghan culture.

Riders struggle over a decapitated and disemboweled calf carcass during a buzkashi match in Kabul on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015. The game is played across Central Asia but has special prominence in Afghan culture. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

A buzkashi player scores by dropping a calf carcass in a chalk circle during a match on the outskirts of Kabul on Jan. 15, 2015. Individual riders can win money and other accolades by wrestling the calf from dozens of other competitors, carrying the carcass around a flag, and dropping it in the "end zone."

A buzkashi player scores by dropping a calf carcass in a chalk circle during a match on the outskirts of Kabul on Jan. 15, 2015. Individual riders can win money and other accolades by wrestling the calf from dozens of other competitors, carrying the carcass around a flag, and dropping it in the "end zone." (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

Dozens of Afghan men compete in a Buzkashi match on a clear afternoon outside Kabul, Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015. The game often has few concrete rules and can last as long as players and horses have the strength.

Dozens of Afghan men compete in a Buzkashi match on a clear afternoon outside Kabul, Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015. The game often has few concrete rules and can last as long as players and horses have the strength. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

An official uses chalk to mark the goal used during a buzkashi match in Kabul on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015. The circle of chalk is often trampled beyond recognition by the hooves of dozens of horses, requiring near constant attention by the official.

An official uses chalk to mark the goal used during a buzkashi match in Kabul on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015. The circle of chalk is often trampled beyond recognition by the hooves of dozens of horses, requiring near constant attention by the official. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

One rider, left, tries to keep a calf carcass from his competitors during a buzkashi match on the outskirts of Kabul. The game involves almost constant contact between horses and their riders.

One rider, left, tries to keep a calf carcass from his competitors during a buzkashi match on the outskirts of Kabul. The game involves almost constant contact between horses and their riders. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

A buzkashi player rests his bloodied finger during a match outside Kabul on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015. The game is highly physical with players and horses constantly colliding and sometimes falling.

A buzkashi player rests his bloodied finger during a match outside Kabul on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015. The game is highly physical with players and horses constantly colliding and sometimes falling. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

Buzkashi riders wrestle over a calf carcass during a game outside Afghanistan's capital on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015. The players hold whips in their teeth to free their hands to grab the calf.

Buzkashi riders wrestle over a calf carcass during a game outside Afghanistan's capital on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015. The players hold whips in their teeth to free their hands to grab the calf. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

An Afghan buzkashi player rounds the green flag before attempting to drop a calf carcass in a chalk circle at the other corner of the field during a game outside Kabul on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015. Other players try to steal the calf and score for themselves.

An Afghan buzkashi player rounds the green flag before attempting to drop a calf carcass in a chalk circle at the other corner of the field during a game outside Kabul on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015. Other players try to steal the calf and score for themselves. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

Buzkashi players ride past the crowd at a match on the outskirts of Kabul on Jan. 15, 2015. Spectators often have to run or leap out of the way when the pack of horses abruptly switches direction and charges into the crowd.

Buzkashi players ride past the crowd at a match on the outskirts of Kabul on Jan. 15, 2015. Spectators often have to run or leap out of the way when the pack of horses abruptly switches direction and charges into the crowd. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

Crowds watch a buzkashi match on the outskirts of Kabul on Jan. 15, 2015. The games are usually attended exclusively by men.

Crowds watch a buzkashi match on the outskirts of Kabul on Jan. 15, 2015. The games are usually attended exclusively by men. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

Spectators lift their legs to get out of the way of buzkashi riders during a match on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015 in Kabul. Men and boys trickled in to watch as the game stretched on for hours.

Spectators lift their legs to get out of the way of buzkashi riders during a match on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015 in Kabul. Men and boys trickled in to watch as the game stretched on for hours. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

A man adjusts a saddle on his horse during a buzkashi game outside Kabul on Jan. 15, 2015. Matches rarely last for a predetermined amount of time and individual riders often have to stop to rest their horses before continuing.

A man adjusts a saddle on his horse during a buzkashi game outside Kabul on Jan. 15, 2015. Matches rarely last for a predetermined amount of time and individual riders often have to stop to rest their horses before continuing. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

KABUL, Afghanistan — With a swirl of dust, sweat and pounding hooves, the annual season of buzkashi, Afghanistan’s national sport, is in full swing.

The final months of winter traditionally serve as the informal season when riders mount horses to wrestle over a decapitated and disemboweled calf or goat. Buzkashi is translated as “goat dragging” in the local Persian, but a calf carcass is usually used because it lasts longer during the pulling and tugging.

A game of horsemanship that traces its roots to the medieval nomadic tribes that roamed Central Asia’s steppes, buzkashi is still played in various forms across the region, but Afghans are perhaps the most famous players. The game was immortalized by Hollywood in the third installment of “Rambo,” when the action hero plays buzkashi with mujahedeen fighters before shooting down a Soviet helicopter.

The game was banned under the Taliban, but has made a comeback since the regime’s fall in 2001.

Matches are notoriously haphazard affairs with widely varying or nonexistent rules, although more regulated versions have appeared in recent years. Riders usually compete as individuals and try to fight off other players to carry the carcass around a flag and across a field to a chalk circle that serves as an “end zone.”

smith.josh@stripes.com Twitter: @joshjonsmith

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