August has already seen two days of national public holidays in Afghanistan and will see a third this week, celebrating the anniversary of the departure of the last United States troops on the 31st. That follows the celebration of Taleban forces’ entry into Kabul on 15 August 2021, which sealed the fate of the Islamic Republic and saw the re-establishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA). 19 August was also commemorated as the anniversary of the end of the Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919; it has for decades been commemorated as Afghan Independence Day. In the century between Afghanistan’s oldest and newest public holidays, there has been a long list of victories, revolutions and other momentous occasions, some of which have been designated as national holidays – for a time at least. AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini has compiled a list of them, pondering on the divided memory they leave.Boys dressed in military costumes and holding toy guns march in parade celebrating the second anniversary of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP, 15 August 2023.
On 15 August (24 Asad in the Afghan calendar), the IEA celebrated the anniversary of their takeover two years earlier, in 2021. That day, the Taleban captured Kabul and took the world by surprise by sweeping back into power, after two decades spent fighting the Islamic Republic and its international supporters, primary among them the United States, which had ended their first emirate in 2001. What the IEA has called The Conquest of Kabul Anniversary has understandably become its main national holiday (read the official statement on the occasion here). This year, the occasion was marked by extensive celebrations in all Afghanistan’s main cities, except Kandahar, where Taleban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada reportedly “called off the parade himself so as not to disturb the public.” By contrast, many Afghans now in exile named it a day of national mourning and held public demonstrations against the Emirate in the countries where they now live (see for example here).
Given the various economic and diplomatic obstacles the IEA faces, the anniversary of their victory provided an opportunity for a display of euphoria. The symbolic value of military parades and motorcades was apparent, as was their importance in reinforcing the cohesiveness of a militant movement and rejuvenating enthusiasm among the rank-and-file with the day’s re-enactment of the Taleban’s triumphant entry into Kabul. However, such a celebration, in the wake of a bloody conflict whose scars have not yet healed, was very much a day for the victors.
However, throughout their two-decade-long struggle for power, the Taleban have repeatedly shown themselves to be aware of the need for crosscutting references to reach the broader population (see this AAN report on Taleban ideology), including marking events which underpin nation-building sentiments. For example, in their propaganda war against the Republic, they routinely used the symbolic arsenal of Afghan patriotism drawn from the Anglo-Afghan Wars of the 19th century. They compared President Hamid Karzai (and later Ashraf Ghani) to Shah Shuja, the puppet ruler installed by the British in 1839, and their own leader, Mullah Omar to Dost Muhammed, the king who was ousted by invaders, struggled to resist foreign occupation and eventually returned to the throne in a liberated Afghanistan. It was, therefore, logical that once in power, they would adopt some of these holidays as signifiers of national identity, at least those against which have no ideological objections.
19 August, Independence Day, marks the signing of the Treaty of Rawalpindi at the end of the Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919, which granted Afghanistan the right to conduct its foreign relations policies independent of the British Empire (read the author’s previous report on the Third Anglo-Afghan War and its outcomes here). Independence Day has been the mainstay jashn (celebration) in Afghanistan for over a century (read an AAN report detailing a century of Independence Day celebrations here). As the paramount symbol of national pride and freedom as well as resistance to colonial, non-Muslim attempts at conquest or control, the 19 August holiday has proved an evergreen. It has been celebrated by governments of very different political leanings, by the kings, communists, mujahedin, the Republic and the Emirate, both now and during its first period of rule (see for example this AAN report about Independence Day under the First Emirate here and the IEA celebrations last year here).
The Taleban do observe Independence Day, but its coincidental proximity to the Taleban takeover led to incidents in 2021, as the newly victorious Taleban clashed with locals celebrating the occasion in Jalalabad. Arguably overlooking one of the core meanings conveyed by the 19 August celebration, Taleban soldiers had forcibly replaced the traditional national tricolour flags – closely associated with the continuity of an independent Afghan statehood, as well as, more recently, the Islamic Republic – with their own white flags. The resulting clashes left several local youths dead or injured (see Al-Jazeera reporting here).
Thus, two weeks in August have come to include the oldest and the newest of modern Afghanistan’s political events as national holidays. The list of other national holidays is long and twisted, mostly consisting of anniversaries of violent takeovers. The following summary will help to explain why some have been retained but most dropped and why nearly all have failed to account for and include the Afghan population in its entirety.
A calendar crowded with takeovers
Before the staple national celebrations grew to include anniversaries linked to one faction or personality snatching power from another, Independence Day was the main celebration throughout Zaher Shah’s long reign (1933-1973). However, even then, there was already a taste of what was to come. The anniversary of the restoration of his Muhammadzai monarchy, after Habibullah Kalakani’s short stint as monarch in 1929, was celebrated every year at the end of October at least throughout the 1930s.
A date that did not become a public holiday was 9 March 1963. It could be taken as the start of the so-called Constitutional Period (1963-1973), also termed the New Democracy (Dimukrasi-ye Naw) when Zaher Shah began, effectively, to reign. He had been proclaimed king following the death of his father, Nader Shah, in 1933, but had ceded power to a succession of older and more powerful male relatives, two uncles and then his cousin Sardar Daud. Daud’s decade-long authoritarian premiership ended in 1963, to be replaced by the Constitutional Period. It has been idealised by many Afghans as a time of progress, characterised by a new constitution, Afghanistan’s first elections and greater civil and political rights, including for women. However, this turning point never acquired the status of an official holiday, possibly because the transfer of power had been peaceful.
Another day that did become a national holiday for a long time was Pashtunistan Day. This holiday had more to do with the discordant relationship between nation-building and state boundaries than it did with the competition for power. The day asserts the unity of Pashtuns (and Baluch) on both sides of the Durand Line and hints at Afghanistan’s territorial claims on the areas forming Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, its North-Western Frontier Province (renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2010) and Baluchistan. Pashtunistan Day was fervently celebrated all over Afghanistan with the support of the state’s machinery, every 31 August from 1949 onwards, especially during the decade 1953-63, which saw Sardar Daud as prime minister. Its importance was much reduced in 1976, when Daud, this time as president, found himself relying increasingly for economic and political support on the Shah of Iran. In the regional diplomatic balance of the time, Daud had to accept Tehran’s entreaties for reconciliation with Pakistan and an end to Afghanistan’s claims to territory on Pakistan’s side of the Durand Line.
Over the decades, the commemoration of Pashtunistan Day has been revived periodically, first, under the communist governments in the 1980s and then during the post-2001 Islamic Republic, though with much less emphatic state sponsorship. It seems unlikely that Pashtunistan Day will persist, if for no other reason than because 31 August has joined the Emirate’s crowded August calendar of festivities as the day when the last US troops left Afghanistan (see France24 report here).
The first date to be noted in Afghanistan’s calendar of temporary national holidays involves Sardar Daud again, but this time at the other end of the transfer of power. On 17 July 1973, while Zaher Shah was on holiday in Italy (a ‘holiday’ that was to last 30 years), Daud wrenched power from his cousin in an almost bloodless coup d’état and with the support of factions in the royal establishment and some progressist and leftist groups. Styling himself President, Head of the Cabinet and Foreign Minister, he proceeded to proclaim the first Afghan Republic – and a single-party state. The coup was termed a ‘revolution’ at the 1977 Loya Jirga and the day (26 Saratan in the Afghan calendar) was celebrated as Jashn-e Jomhuriat (Republic Festival). Three days of events at the Chaman-e Huzuri, a sports grounds in downtown Kabul, included competitions of equestrian tent-pegging. However, that holiday was not to last long, indeed only the few years that Daud’s Republic existed.
What had at first looked to many observers as just another power shift within the Musahiban family, that had held onto power since 1929, was actually the presager of unrest and an unparalleled downward spiral into violence. Daud’s seizure of power came at a time of social and economic change and increasing external tensions in the region. New players, such as the communist organisations, had been brought into the business of ‘kingmaking’ by Daud. Up till then, it had been the preserve of royal clans and tribes. However, he violently rejected them afterwards. The growing ambitions of these outsiders, who included the Islamist organisations, to ‘court politics’, coupled with police repression, radicalised politics. The end of Daud’s reign was, however, marked by a national holiday for more than a decade.
The post-1978 holidays
The next shift in power – and its resulting public holiday – came in another coup d’état, known as the Saur Revolution of 27 April 1978 (7 Saur in the Afghan calendar). (See the AAN dossier on the Saur Revolution and its consequences here.) On that day, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) and particularly the Khalq faction, which had strong support among the armed forces, attacked the Presidential Palace in response to the arrest of its leadership by the government. Daud and most of his family were killed, along with dozens of others from both sides, and two days later, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was born (see this AAN report for details).
The new government erected a monument to the revolution and its ‘martyrs’ in front of the Presidential Palace and for many years, 7 Saur was celebrated in all government-controlled areas. What followed the coup, however, was a guerrilla war, waged by the mujahedin against government forces and later also, the Soviet army, which invaded Afghanistan on 24 December 1979 to support its ally in Kabul. As the war caused increasing military and political difficulties for the government, the celebration eventually assumed more subdued tones. In 1986, for example, PDPA General Secretary Babrak Karmal, soon-to-be-replaced at the behest of Kabul’s Soviet patrons, failed to attend it altogether. The policies of his successor, Najibullah, aimed at distancing the Kabul regime from communism, further eroded the date’s significance in the following years. Yet, all official references to the Saur Revolution were dropped only in mid-1991 (as mentioned by Barnett Rubin in his The Fragmentation of Afghanistan, 1995, p154). Subsequent Afghan governments have all condemned the Saur Revolution as the root of all evil in Afghanistan.
A date from that period which is still remembered and celebrated to this day, is 15 February 1989 (corresponding to 26 Dalwa in the Afghan calendar), when the last Soviet troops left the country, crossing the Friendship Bridge over the Amu river (see AAN report here). The Soviet withdrawal has been celebrated as Liberation Day by the mujahedin governments, the Islamic Republic and the Islamic Emirate in both its incarnations. It may appear to resemble Independence Day and to vindicate the old colonial view that would have the quarrelsome Afghans able to unite only against an external foe. However, unlike the independence of 1919, the withdrawal of the Soviets did cast a whole segment of Afghan society in the role of losers, to bear the consequences of the political defeat of communism. Also, it did not usher in an era of peace, let alone prosperity.
The most obvious celebrants of 26 Dalwa were the mujahedin organisations which had fought the Soviets. However, a separate date marking their conquest of Kabul on 28 April 1992 has proved a more controversial celebration. This is not only because, as with all violent accessions to power, it also signified the downfall of another party, but also because the victorious mujahedin factions proved incapable of forming a united government and very soon began to fight each other in what led to a vicious civil war in the capital and elsewhere across the country (1992-1996). Victory Day (Ruz-e Piruzi), also called the Islamic Revolution Day (Ruz-e Enqelab-e Islami), was retained as a national holiday by the post-2001 government, largely at the behest of the mujahedin parties which had become constituent parts of the Republic. The celebrations would take place across the country, especially in major cities such as Herat and Mazar-e Sharif where former mujahedin parties still held considerable power. The main celebrations would take place in Kabul and usually consisted of a military parade which ended with speeches by those in the highest echelons of the state at the Chaman-e Huzuri near the Old City of Kabul. Ironically, it was one of the city neighbourhoods that had suffered the worst destruction during the mujahedin infighting.
Celebrating a day that marked the beginning of a new brutal chapter of the Afghan conflict was questioned by other Afghans on many occasions. One of the rare instances when this strife was made evident to external observers was when MP Malalai Joya was attacked and ostracised for condemning the protagonists of Victory Day in parliament in 2006 (see Reporters sans Frontières’ (RSF) report here); fellow MPs from mujahedin parties were so incensed at her repeated denunciation of warlords and war criminals in the chamber that they eventually had her suspended from parliament in 2007.
The Taleban, many of whom were among the mujahedin fighting in the 1980s jihad, have been keen to still commemorate that victory over communism, during both their first and the current emirates. Conveniently, also, it comes on 8 Saur (27 April), thereby helping to erase the ‘stain’ of the Saur Revolution on the 7th. (see this post on the Pixstory). They referred to it during their decades-long struggle to regain power and likened their fight against the Republic and NATO forces to the one against the Afghan government and Soviet army of the 1980s. In 2013, for example they timed the launch of one of their major spring offensives with the 8 Saur anniversary (see Khaama Press report here).
The same does not apply to another mujahedin-centred remembrance day, Ruz-e Shohada (Martyrs’ Day) that was established as a public holiday by the Afghan parliament in 2012. The date chosen, 18 Sonbola in the Afghan calendar, linked it to the anniversary of the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massud on 9 September 2001, which had already been commemorated by the state before 2012.
The day was supposed to honour all martyrs who had lost their lives fighting for their country. However, the choice of the date of Massud’s death was not universally popular and the character of this commemoration, which came to be known also as Hafta-ye Shahid (Martyr’s Week) or simply Massud Day, was transformed into something entirely different. This was especially the case after 2014, with the worsening military situation and growing political tensions between the various factions in the Republic.
Many of the former commanders from Massud’s Shura-e Nazar network within Jamiat-e Islami, especially those from the Panjshir and Shomali, who had initially obtained high-ranking positions in ministries or the armed forces, started to resent what they perceived as their having been sidelined from power (see this AAN report). Building on the frustrations and fears of their community constituencies, they started to mobilise their networks to hold demonstrations on Massud Day. The commemoration was thus turned into a means for them to reassert their cohesion and power with friends and foes alike. From a state-organised commemoration of martyrs, the occasion grew increasingly out of government control, with motorcades and gatherings of armed men in and around Kabul coloured by intimidating political and ethnic connotations (see ToloNews here).
Once in power, the Emirate did not allow this celebration to continue. In early September 2021, as the Taleban were still trying to quell an armed resistance in Panjshir, they ruled out Martyrs Day celebrations in the name of security (see Pajhwok here). They removed the celebration from the calendar of public holidays in 2022 (see Pajhwok here). It is unclear whether they will cancel Martyrs’ Day altogether or select another calendar date for this purpose. That would allow the Emirate to honour Afghanistan’s martyrs, while at the same time delinking it from their former foes and denying their political opponents a highly symbolic date around which to rally.
Celebrating which past? Lost occasions under the Republic
What about those other major turnabouts in recent Afghan history, the fall of the first Taleban Emirate and the coming into being of the post-2001 institutions? Could 13 November 2001, when after weeks of US bombings, the Taleban fled Kabul, have been picked to mark such a change? Or would the UN-sponsored Bonn Agreement of 5 December 2001, when the Afghan factions who had opposed the Taleban, either within the country or in the diaspora, came together to establish a future government have been chosen? Or possibly, the Emergency Loya Jirga of 11-19 June 2002, or the establishment of the new constitution, ratified on 26 January 2004, could instead have offered occasions for a national celebration?
The Islamic Republic, however, was content to keep celebrating the 1919 Independence Day, the Soviet withdrawal and the mujahedin’s entry into Kabul, while adding the commemoration of the martyrs only. By refraining from commemorating an inception date of its own, the Republic in a way admitted the very disparate nature of the social and political groups constituting its elites, whose many internal differences were seldom worked out and more often subsumed under a tenuous set of common interests. The possibility of deciding on a new, comprehensive national day was blocked by many factors, not least the ongoing conflict and the new tensions it created, but also by the overly cautious and timid approach by the Republic’s cultural and political institutions towards the country’s recent history.
Born and developed with strong external input from foreign powers, the new institutions appeared, on the one hand, to lack the national legitimacy to proudly inaugurate a completely new chapter of the Afghan political life without being accused of being foreign puppets, so they always tried to refer to a few widely accepted old symbols or to national ‘forefathers’. On the other hand, the post-2001 institutions were still scarred by the violence caused by the internal ethnic or ideological strife that had devastated Afghanistan in the past decades. Leaders appeared unwilling to open a debate that would have put on the table and eventually account for – and maybe even heal the scars left by – the innumerable and conflicting lived experiences of various Afghan communities through the multiple decades of conflict. These experiences were obscured by a veil of silence and the communities cowed into begrudgingly accepting the (latest) winners’ version as the only mainstream narrative. In the end, the fault lines of fear and distrust left beneath the surface of the Republic’s façade were one of the weaknesses that brought about its collapse. Maybe this is a lesson that every government in power could benefit from.
Edited by Jelena Bjelica and Roxanna Shapour
This article was last updated on 30 Aug 2023