From Amanullah Khan in whose time independence was realised, to Habibullah Kalakani who seemed to distance it from the previous regime, to Nader Shah and Zaher Shah who gave it a regal face, to President Daud who continued the royal tradition, to the communists and the mujahedin who downgraded it, to the Taleban who revived it as a military parade, to the post-2001 rule that has recently restored its past splendour after a period of high-security low-profile events; Afghanistan’s independence day of 28 Asad 1298 (19 August 1919) has seen continual ups and downs reflecting the preferences and contexts of different rulers. Visualised by select photos from different political eras, AAN researcher Reza Kazemi* (with input from Thomas Ruttig and Jelena Bjelica) briefly charts one hundred years of Afghanistan’s independence celebrations and intersperses it with Afghan and foreign memories of a day that has been established as a symbol of what Afghanistan is.
I have declared myself and my country entirely free, autonomous and independent both internally and externally. My country will hereafter be as independent a state as the other states and powers of the world are. No foreign power will be allowed to have a hair’s breadth of right to interfere internally and externally with the affairs of Afghanistan, and if any ever does I am ready to cut its throat with this sword.
This is what King Amanullah announced to an assembly of dignitaries in Kabul on 13 April 1919. He then, according to the Afghanistan encyclopaedian Ludwig Adamec, “turned to the British agent and said, ‘Oh Safir [Envoy], have you understood what I have said?’ The British agent replied, ‘Yes I have.’” (1)
Amanullah rose to the throne in February 1919 after the assassination of his father, King Habibullah. As a fervent nationalist and reformer, he immediately declared full independence from the British, triggering the war of independence (known by the British as the Third Anglo-Afghan War). (2) It was a short war lasting from 4 May to 3 June 1919, and resulted in the end of British control over Afghanistan’s foreign affairs. (3)
This dispatch explores the history of Afghanistan’s independence day, illustrated by a collection of photos from different political periods, including some from an exhibition at the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University (ACKU), “One Hundred Years of Afghanistan’s Independence: From Amanullah to Ashraf Ghani,” on 17 and 18 August 2019. (4) It then takes a look at the approaching 100th anniversary of Afghanistan’s independence (19 August 2019) and notes a return to grand celebrations of the day, following a period of relatively low-key events largely confined to government buildings. Although the centenary commemoration is not free of controversy, given the widespread publicity the occasion gives the executive, who may soon be running in the presidential elections, it seems the independence day has over time been established as an indicator of evolving notions of Afghan identity.
100 years of Afghanistan’s independence: a brief overview
During the time of King Amanullah (1919-29), Afghanistan’s independence day was called eid-e esteqlal (the eid of independence). Its most spectacular stagings were held in Paghman, Kabul, where Amanullah had built the Taq-e Zafar (Victory Arch) to commemorate the 1919 war of independence. A road was also constructed in front of the Eidgah Mosque and behind Ghazi Stadium to mark Afghanistan’s independence day in Kabul city (see here). That the occasion was called eid was possibly aimed at strengthening the day by endowing it with a religious basis, given the ‘jihad,’ or ‘holy war,’ Afghans had declared and fought against the colonial power. There were sports contests and display of Afghan food and traditional art during the celebratory events. The festival opened with a speech by the king who reminded the gathering of the heavy price paid to obtain Afghanistan’s independence. The king’s speeches were later published for the public to read. In one part of his speech on the occasion of the third anniversary of Afghanistan’s independence in 1301 (1922), King Amanullah said (author’s English translation):
No one has gifted us this independence. Only Allah the Almighty has endowed us with this blessing. Independence is not something one gifts another; One sheds blood for it, as you did, and won it by your sword. The only wish of my humble heart is for the entire Afghan nation to have freedom and liberty as does their government.
Amanullah gives a speech on the third anniversary of Afghanistan’s independence day in Paghman, Kabul, 1301 (1922). Photo: ACKU collection
Dated 5 Sunbula 1301 (28 August 1922), this eblaq (announcement) reports on the weeklong jashn-e esteqlal (festival of independence) held from 26 Asad (18 August) to 2 Sunbula 1301 (25 August 1922) in Paghman, and publishes the speech made by King Amanullah during the opening ceremony. Photo: ACKU collection
This is how a Russian writer remembered Afghanistan’s day of independence in 1920:
In autumn that year, the frontier tribes staged a remarkable demonstration in Kabul. It was the time of the festival of independence… A colourful jostle enters into the city… Bands of spies curve around the crowd on bicycles which make every guttersnipe recognise them. Soldiers in European uniforms guard the public order, drive away lingering passers-by when they stand in the way of powerful dignitaries and freeze in convulsive saluting devotion when automobiles or carriages hurry by.
– Larissa Reisner, wife of a Soviet diplomat who lived in Kabul from 1919 to 1921 (taken from here).
For another memory of independence day, in 1924, when the celebration was called off because of the Mangal uprising against King Amanullah, see footnote 5.
Habibullah Kalakani speaks in the event to commemorate Afghanistan’s day of independence on 19 August 1929, Paghman, Kabul. Photo: ACKU collection
In his short reign (January-October 1929), King Habibullah Kalakani, who first rose in the anti-reformist reaction to Amanullah before succeeding him, was in power only long enough to lead one commemoration of Afghanistan’s independence day. [Amanullah escaped to and died in exile in Europe but his corpse was brought back to Afghanistan and buried in Jalalabad.] He seemed to distance the occasion from his predecessor. Speaking at the ceremony to celebrate the 11th anniversary of independence on 19 August 1929 in Paghman, he referred to the Amanullah period and said, “Independence is neither mine nor Amanullah’s; rather, it belongs to you the people.”
On the occasion of independence day on 19 August 1929 in Paghman, some military officers and ordinary people take part in a shooting contest. Photo: ACKU collection
Next was the rule of King Nader Shah (1929-33), who came to the throne after having Habibullah Kalakani caught and shot in late 1929. After Nader Shah was himself assassinated in 1933, his son Muhammad Zaher, aged 17 at the time, was declared the king of Afghanistan. Zaher Shah ruled until 1973, (6) during which time Afghanistan experienced four decades of general stability. This has been cherished by many as a period of relative normality when Afghanistan was at peace with itself and the world.
Nader Shah had a monument constructed within the Arg (Royal Palace) compound, known in English as the Independence Column (called Menar-e Esteqlal/Azadi – Minaret of Independence/Freedom – in Dari) and established the tradition of laying a wreath at its foot on the occasion of the independence day. This is a practice that has continued till this day, showing a legacy of Nader Shah on the independence day. After his assassination, Nader Shah was even promoted as “mohassel-e esteqlal” (“achiever of independence”), given his role as a commander in the 1919 war of independence.
Independence Column, Kabul, 1946. Photo: Kabul Times
During the time of King Zaher Shah (1933-73), there were ostentatious celebrations of independence day which often lasted for days (watch this rare English-language documentary on the week-long regal commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the independence day in Kabul in 1328 (1949) here). For example, “During the annual commemoration of Afghanistan’s independence,” wrote Foreign Policy in a 2010 photo essay, “Kabul was lit up at night in late August and early September for nine evenings in the early 1960s.”
Girls preparing to march on the 30th anniversary of the independence day, Kabul, 1328 (1949). Photo: ACKU collection
Below are four memories – two by Afghans and two by foreigners – of independence day celebrations during the reign of Zaher Shah (a fifth memory – much more detailed, by the first German Nazi ambassador to Kabul – can be read in footnote 7):
The government and people used to put up tents in certain places not just in Kabul but also elsewhere like Herat in the west. There were concerts organised by singers such as Ahmad Zaher whose concerts were much more expensive than others such as Parastu, Rokhshana, Biltun and so on. I went to these concerts and had lots of fun with my friends. I come from a village in Ghazni but came to Kabul to work. There was peace in those days and all you needed to have a good life was finding some good, well-paid work. If someone had a good salary, they would bring it to his family and they would eat good food. If someone had a bad salary, the family ate bad food. For me, life in Kabul was much better than life in the home village in Ghazni. It was much better, much more convenient and much more liberal.
– A 70-year-old Afghan man, author’s interview, Kabul city, January 2014.
I fondly remember my youth and the jashn [independence festival] days in the time of Zaher Shah. We attended the jashn for seven days and nights and danced and had fun. Those days, people were calm and peaceful. There wasn’t the sound of war and the noise of warplanes. Now American aircraft bomb from the air and there are explosions and suicide attacks on the ground. What jashn do we have these days? Can you celebrate with a hungry stomach and an anxious mind?
– An 80-year-old resident of Kabul city speaking to BBC Persian in August 2014.
Kabul, 23 August 1958. Today is jashn, the Afghan national day, the day on which, in 1919, Afghanistan became a sovereign country after a victory over the British. It is celebrated by a large parade, followed by a week-long folk fair and an international industrial fair.
The cabinet, the diplomatic corps, other officials and people from all over the country participate in the parade in front of the King. The diplomats wear tails [long formal jackets]. They sit behind the King’s box and have time to talk and look around…
A quarter past 8 am, a cavalcade of cars and busses arrives in front of the honorary stands. The passengers sally out and take their seats. Most of them wear turbans and tribal outfit. They are the members of the Loya Jirga… The people who line the streets outside the roofed stands are pushed back.
Shortly afterwards, the King’s Rolls Royce rolls through the emptied main street, together with the surviving brothers of his father and with Prince Daud, his cousin, the Prime Minister. After 12 gun salutes, he takes his place in the box and the parade can start.
First, the soldiers march past the King in gala uniform and precise goose step, followed by tanks, guns, lorries and other vehicles. Representatives from all parts of the country follow, mainly in picturesque tribal costume, on foot, high on horses or on camels. One of the chieftains who proudly rides on his grey horse at the top of his followers, holds his little son, dressed in white, on his lap.
The remaining watchers crowd the sides of the street that is decorated with flags, men only, naturally. The women watch the parade from the roofs of the mud houses.
– Reinhard Schlagintweit, then political officer at the German Embassy in Kabul (8).
A parade had been announced a couple of days in advance. I decided to go, as I was in Kabul at that time. I walked to the grounds where it was held. To my surprise there was not a big audience, so I found a good spot from where I could observe and take photos. I even managed to take a couple of photos of old-fashioned helicopters and airplanes. I can’t remember exactly, but I think they were ancient MIG planes.
The event was interesting and very ceremonial, but not orientally lavish.
A grandstand on which the king was seated was very sumptuous, alas the troops did not look so sensational; they could not even keep the tramp. The troops were covered in dust raised from both their uneven tramp and from the ancient vehicles that were in the parade. There was music, too, a lot of drums. They were playing the marches.
It was interesting, but also personally disappointing, that the parade was organised in the western style. The king’s regime was obviously inclined towards the west. I can’t recall too many details now 47 years later, but I do remember that feeling of the disappointment that the parade in Kabul was western style like.
– Vojislav Vasić, Serbian ornithologist who travelled to Afghanistan and happened to be in Kabul for the 53rd Afghan independence day celebration in 1972, the last one organised by Zaher Shah before he was toppled in a bloodless coup by Prime Minister Daud in July 1973 [Zaher Shah died in 2007 in Kabul.]
Military parade on the occasion of the 53rd Afghan independence day, Kabul, 1972. Photo: Vojislav Vasić
Boys and men have climbed up a tree to catch a glimpse of the military parade, Kabul, 1972. Photo: Vojislav Vasić
In the time of President Daud (1973-78), the traditions set by Nader Shah and Zaher Shah to celebrate Afghanistan’s day of independence mostly continued. Below are two Afghan memories of independence day celebrations during this period, one in Kabul and the other in Herat:
I remember jashn-e esteqlal towards the end of Daud time, especially in the years 1355  and 1356 . The jashn continued for seven nights and days, especially after evening around 7 or 8 pm till the following morning, because 28 Asad [19 August], roz-e esteqlal [independence day], falls in the summer. There were camps set up in chaman-e huzuri and Kabul nandari [areas in Kabul city] which was a cinema and there was a park in front of it. Artists and singers came to sing and entertain people in the camps. Singers such as the late Ustad Sarahang, the late Ustad Rahimbakhsh who was my favourite and the late Ahmad Zaher came and entertained the people. Ahmad Zaher used to sing in the tent set up by the Ministry of Finance, but it was not possible for me to attend because it was the most expensive. If others cost Afs 30-40, Ahmad Zaher’s concert cost Afs 500 while the monthly wage of a mamur [ordinary government employee] was about Afs 1,300 then. The women singers were Mahwash, Parwin, Afsana, Rokhshana, Parastu and others. They were also singing in the tents.
There was also rezhe-ye nezami [military parade] with aircraft, tanks and infantry to celebrate roz-e esteqlal attended by Daud Khan in front of the Eidgah Mosque. There were different parts of the military that paraded, followed by the ma’aref [Ministry of Education] students and sportspeople. Different schools wore their special uniforms and their students paraded. They got prepared for this parade a month or so in advance. There were separate sections for the attan [dance] and tarana [singing].
This happened not just in Kabul city but also in the provinces like Faryab and Balkh attended by governors and police chiefs. For the provinces, it lasted some three days or so. But the most glorious was in Kabul.
Then security was not a big issue as it is now. There was really peace and calm then. It is so different now. I felt peace and calm then. I came to Kabul in 1352 from Faryab for studies and have been here so far. I and my friends also used to go to Qargha, Bagh-e Bala, Paghman and other sights to enjoy and have fun during the weeklong vacation.
– A 65-year-old Afghan man, author’s interview, Kabul city, July 2019.
Here in Herat, during Daud Khan’s period, there were festivities for three nights and days. Local Herati singers as well as singers coming to Herat from Kabul used to come to tents put up in and around the stadium to entertain people, especially in the evenings. People got together and ate. They also played cards. There was music. Some women also attended the events. It was very safe and calm in those days. I also went to those places and would stay to enjoy the events until 3 and even 4 am the following day. On the first day, there was rasm-e gozasht [military parade] and also a parade by students and sportspeople. On the last night, some people went and lit a big fire near Pashtun Pul [Pashtun Bridge constructed over the Harirud River between Injil and Guzara districts] around which they danced and had fun.
– A 60-year-old Afghan man, author’s interview, Herat city, August 2019.
The celebration of the independence day lost its former grandeur during the civil war that followed the killing of President Daud and several others close to him in a bloody coup by Afghan communists of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) in April 1978. The communists called the event Enqelab-e Saur, the Saur/April Revolution, reminiscent of the naming of the October Revolution carried out by the Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin in Russia in October 1917. They also considered their government to be a continuation of Amanullah’s reformist aspirations; there were large posters of him and the prominent Afghan nationalist Mahmud Tarzi, who was also Amanullah’s father-in-law, displayed outside on ministerial buildings.
In the time of the communist government (1978-92) and of the succeeding mujahedin government (1992-96) that came in its wake, however, greater attention was given to the celebration of the victory days that they regarded as important: 7 Saur 1357 (27 April 1978) for the communists and 8 Saur 1371 (28 April 1992) for the mujahedin. However, some celebrations of the independence day remained, which were, as always, politically charged displays of the strength of those in power at the time. For instance, the daily newspaper Haqiqat-e Enqelab-e Saur (Truth of the Saur Revolution), the publication organ of the central committee of the PDPA government, reported on a “glorious celebration” of the 63rd anniversary of Afghanistan’s independence day at the foot of the Victory Arch in Paghman district of Kabul province in 1982. The event was attended, as the newspaper said, by “thousands of workers and farmers from Paghman, Bagrami and Charasiab districts and some nahiyas [districts] of Kabul city.” There was “drum beating and jubilation” and “youth clothed in national clothes with red handkerchiefs fastened around their waists were dancing the attan with others forming a circle around them,” said the paper. It also reported that leaders from Russia, Hungary, [East] Germany, India, Vietnam, Korea and Cuba sent congratulations to Babrak Karmal (PDPA president and general secretary in the period 1980-86) and Sultan Ali Keshtmand (then Prime Minister in the Babrak Karmal government).
A page from daily newspaper Haqiqat-e Enqelab-e Saur, 30 Asad 1361 (21 August 1982), that reports on the independence day in that year. Photo: ACKU collection
After the defeat of the Soviets, celebrating independence from British dominance declined in prominence. In 1373 (1994), in his speech on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of Afghanistan’s independence, Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was president through the civil war years, claimed, “After the defeat of the British [referring to the Anglo-Afghan Wars], the defeat of the Soviets [by the mujahedin] is the second victory of Afghans on the international level.”
A page from the weekly newspaper Ittehad-e Islami (Islamic Unity), 1 Sunbula 1373 (23 August 1994), that reports Rabbani’s speech on the independence day in that year. Photo: ACKU collection
In Herat, a former mujahed remembered:
When the mujahedin came to power, there wasn’t much celebration of the independence day. We were in the mountains and came to town after we defeated the Soviets and Afghan communist government. I remember we had some military march in the Ferqa [headquarters of military division] led by Commander Alauddin Khan. In the mujahedin time in Herat, celebration shifted to days such as 29 Hamal 1371 [18 April 1992], the day the mujahedin came and took power in Herat.
– A 51-year-old Afghan man, author’s interview, Herat city, August 2019.
For their first few years in power, the Taleban (1996-2001) did not hold any special events to mark Afghanistan’s independence day. In 2000 and 2001, however, the Taleban held events to commemorate the 81st and 82nd anniversaries of Afghanistan’s independence day (watch their military parade in 2001 in the link provided in this previous AAN dispatch). This is how AAN’s Kate Clark (then BBC correspondent in Kabul) reported the Taleban’s celebration of Afghanistan’s independence day in 2001 and the year before:
The Taleban held the first military parade in the Afghan capital since the days of the Soviet-backed communist government. A small number of cadets and elite corps marched past in formation, eyes turned smartly right towards the leadership sitting on a podium. Then the real Taleban came. Hundreds of pick-up trucks, filled with men, lounging in their black shalwar chemise and plastic sandals, carrying Kalashnikov rifles and rocket launchers. Pickups are the equivalent of Panzer tanks in Afghanistan’s low-tech, civil war – able to scorch across the hostile terrain…
Music and clapping are both banned. But poetry and chants praised God, the nation and the Taleban. It was a rare chance to see the Taleban leadership – everyone was gathered at the parade except the supreme leader, the reclusive Mullah Omar. Like Kremlin watchers during the Cold War, we scanned the seating arrangements, trying to work out who was in the ascendant.
At the centre were the hardliners whose influence has become increasingly evident in the last twelve months.
A year ago , Afghanistan’s Independence Day was celebrated with cultural as well as military events. The Taleban opened the national museum – for the first time in a decade. They boasted how much better they were than their predecessors, the mujahedin who’d looted most of the collection…
But it seems the public opening of the museum brought its existence to the attention of hardliners within the Taleban. After months of internal debate, there was an abrupt change of cultural policy. Moderates were side-lined and anything considered blasphemous in the eyes of God was destroyed. A year ago, I took some of the last film of the pre-Islamic statues in the museum…
They now lie in rubble, along with the colossal, centuries-old, carvings of the Buddha at Bamian. Taleban military tactics have also become increasingly hard-line.
 Independence Day has been a chance for the Taleban to show off their military strength – they’re better armed than the opposition, with much more territory under their control to recruit or conscript fighters from and they have the only military planes in the country. After seven years of fighting their aim, is still to capture the whole of Afghanistan.
… One banner read: Infidels were plotting against Muslims and Afghans, but their conspiracies are doomed to failure. Another warned that Afghanistan was a graveyard for invaders – a reference to the fact that the country has never been colonized.
Taleban riding on their decorated vehicles with old cannons in tow pass in front of the Eidgah Mosque during the independence day ceremony, Kabul, 2001. Photo: Saeed Khan/AFP
The post-2001 Afghanistan returned to its grand celebration of the independence day as soon as it could. In 2002, one year after the overthrow of the Taleban in the aftermath of the US-led international military intervention in Afghanistan, thousands of Afghans celebrated their independence day by gathering at the Ghazi Stadium in Kabul and elsewhere. In Kandahar, the centre of the former Taleban government, for instance, people waved flags and watched a military parade. Appearing next to former king Zaher Shah in 2002, President Hamed Karzai, who had cancelled the military parade to save money, paid his respect to Afghans who died fighting for freedom and vowed to ensure unity among Afghans and rebuild the war-torn country.
President Karzai and former King Zaher Shah listen to the national anthem during the independence day celebration at Kabul’s Ghazi Stadium in 2002. Photo: Deshakalyan Chowdhury/AFP
The grand commemoration of the independence day with military parades, fireworks and games of buzkashi continued for the coming years (for 2006, for example, see here). This changed in 2008, when there was an assassination attempt on President Karzai that disrupted a large ceremony marking the mujahedin victory day on 28 April (details here), after which events to mark Afghanistan’s independence day became low-key, mostly confined to the defence ministry compound where President Karzai and his successor President Ashraf Ghani have laid wreaths at the foot of the Independence Column (see Karzai in 2012 here; and 2014, his last year in office, here; and see Ghani in 2015 here; and 2017 here).
Back to splendour: the approaching centenary
In 2013, a year before he became president, Ashraf Ghani said he regretted that King Amanullah’s achievements and Afghanistan’s former power had been “forgotten”. As an advocate for continuing the reformist agenda of King Amanullah, President Ghani has stressed a return to the past glory of independence day commemorations, possibly associating with the progressive ruler.
An Afghan guard of honour marches as the national anthem plays during an event to mark the independence day at the Ministry of Defence compound, Kabul, 2016. Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP
In June 2019, President Ghani issued Decree No. 817 on commemorating the centenary of Afghanistan’s independence. Stressing the “glorious celebration of the country’s significant and historic victory” of the day that “belongs to the people,” the presidential decree did three important things: (1) it approved the plan prepared by the Administrative Office of the President celebrating the occasion (paragraph 2), (2) it created central and provincial secretariats on holding the centenary of Afghanistan’s independence (paragraphs 3 and 4) and (3) it allocated Afs 384,221,000 (around USD 4,800,000) from the presidential budget code 91 to organising events marking the centenary according to the plan (paragraph 7).
In his conversation with AAN, Baset Hafezi, an official in the Administrative Office of the President who serves in the central secretariat organising the centenary celebrations, said:
It has taken about two years to develop the plan. It includes over 150 national tasks to mark the 100th anniversary of the independence day. Its implementation started in the new year [1 Hamal 1398/21 March 2019]. It pursues the government’s vision to take the celebration of independence day to the homes of the people and to turn the occasion into a mirror in which all Afghans can proudly see themselves. The aim is to spread the message of unity and happiness on the independence day to all corners of the country.
The plan is not a public document because of “security and confidentiality considerations,” as Hafezi told AAN. However, a copy of parts of the plan obtained by the daily newspaper Etilaat Roz provides details of the diverse array of events that are planned for the occasion of the centenary of Afghanistan’s independence. The climax will of course be on 19 August 2019: the plan talks about a major celebration in the Presidential Palace, the opening of the recently-restored Qasr-e Darulaman (Abode of Peace Palace), (9) a large celebration in Paghman where the Qasr-e Balabagh (Upper Garden Palace) will be inaugurated, the opening of King Amanullah and Queen Soraya Mausoleum in Jalalabad, and a myriad of other celebratory events in the capital and the provinces across the country. There is even a discussion of the lighting of the Eiffel Tower in Paris and Burj Khalifa in Dubai with Afghanistan’s flag colours as well as celebration of the day with Afghan refugees abroad in countries such as Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and India. According to the plan, the inauguration by 30 Asad (21 August) of a grand mosque within the Darulaman Palace compound is also on the agenda, the construction of which involves bringing soil from all Afghanistan’s provinces and districts. While the plan clearly indicates a grand celebration of the centenary, AAN is not able to independently confirm that the government will implement it in its entirety.
The Darulaman Palace is being restored for the celebration of the upcoming centenary of Afghanistan’s independence, July 2019. Photo: Reza Kazemi.
However, the government has already carried out some preparatory actions. For instance, it marked the National Flag Day on 7 Asad 1398 (29 July 2019) in Kabul and the provinces and held the First Afghan Cinema Festival on 12-19 Asad 1398 (3-10 August) in Kabul.Four songs have also been composed by Afghanistan National Institute of Music for the centenary event, one of which, Azadi (Freedom), you can watch here. Relatedly, near the Darulaman Palace, President Ghani has also recently laid the foundation stone of Afghanistan’s biggest administrative complex. Named Darulaman, it is a USD 1.2 billion construction project that covers an area of 100 hectares of land. The government says it will be completed in 20 years and house 27 government institutions. As for the provinces, in Herat, for example, the provincial government held a number of cultural events (eg a seminar on the renowned painter Kamaluddin Behzad, a short film festival and poetry and traditional music events) in August 2019 in advance of the coming centenary.
At a time of ongoing peace manoeuvres and imminent but uncertain presidential elections, these moves by the incumbent government, President Ghani in particular, have been extensively and severely criticised. Spokesmen of presidential candidates such as Hanif Atmar and Rahmatullah Nabil have accused the government of using the centenary as a campaign instrument in favour of the president in the coming elections. The exorbitant costs of the commemoration and construction projects such as the grand mosque within the recently-reconstructed Darulaman Palace premises have also been denounced as moves by the president to “deceive the public and make a forged [artificial] national character for himself.”
Despite all the controversy, Afghanistan is getting ready to mark the centenary of its independence. In Kabul, streets are being renovated, cleaned and lit, regardless of frequent power outages in the summer, and squares decorated with Afghan flags and celebratory banners. Similar things are happening in the provinces across the country. So, event preparations are under way to commemorate the occasion in as splendid a manner as possible, especially for those willing to celebrate it, especially the government of President Ghani.
This brief survey of a century of Afghanistan’s day of independence reveals the changing fortunes of the commemoration amid continual political change. Rulers of different times have tried, successfully or unsuccessfully, to leave their mark on the historic day. However, no ruler has attempted to abolish the occasion, but each has celebrated it in ways that they saw fit in their circumstances. The history of the day can also arouse mixed feelings of pride and gloom, of opportunities lost and of paths not taken.
The celebration of independence has often been problematic in Afghanistan. There are heated debates on the meaning of the country’s independence at a time when its government is so dependent on foreign military and economic aid. Moreover, violent conflict will continue to deprive residents in vast swathes of the country from a meaningful celebration of the occasion. More generally, notions of independence and a truly autonomous nation-state are increasingly questioned and challenged in a globalising world with which post-2001 Afghanistan has become profoundly interconnected.
For the current National Unity Government, in particular President Ghani, the coming centenary offers a good opportunity to reach out to diverse groups of people and project images of patriotism, nationhood, reform and progress. As well as the potential campaign benefit, there can be a well-intentioned motivation, a desire to bolster Afghanistan’s fragile national identity, which is under pressure from years of conflict, growing political fragmentation and the anxiety induced by potential peace negotiations with groups that hold contrasting ideas of nationhood, statehood and national identity.
The coming centenary comes at a critical juncture when peace overtures are being made, presidential elections are looming and future looks uncertain for Afghanistan. Through all its ups and downs, nevertheless, 28 Asad 1298 (19 August 1919) has come to stand as a symbol of what Afghanistan is as a country and Afghanness as an identity.
Edited by Thomas Ruttig and Rachel Reid
*The author would like to thank Atiq Arvand, communications officer at the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University (ACKU), for responding to his questions on the ACKU photo collection and reading and commenting on an earlier draft of this dispatch.
(1) Ludwig Adamec (2003), Historical Dictionary of Afghanistan, Lanham, Maryland and Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., pp 371-2. Adamec passed away in 2019 (AAN’s obituary here).
(2) For details on the three Anglo-Afghan Wars including the Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919, see, for example: J A Norris and L W Adamec, “Anglo-Afghan Wars,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, II/1, pp 37-41, available online here. It is noteworthy that President Ashraf Ghani’s grandfather, Abdul Ghani Khan Ahmadzai, fought in the Third Anglo-Afghan War, along with Qayum Karzai’s grandfather.
(3) There is no consensus on which day is most appropriate to mark as Afghanistan’s day of independence (see here). For some, it is 9 Hut 1297 (1 March 1919) when King Amanullah released a statement on Afghanistan’s full independence. For others, it is 24 Hamal 1298 (14 April 1919) when he made his fiery speech as referred to in the text (13 April 1919, according to Adamec). Yet for some others, it is 28 Asad 1298 (19 August 1919) when the Rawalpindi peace treaty was affirmed by Afghanistan and Britain following their third war, at least according to some Afghan historiography. Due to this and other reasons (succeeding rulers attempting to distance the occasion from previous regimes), Afghanistan’s independence has been commemorated on different days (eg 9 Hut, 28 Asad, 6 Jawza [27 May], 1 Sunbula [23 August]). However, 28 Asad (19 August) has over time been established as the day memorialising Afghanistan’s independence.
(4) The photo exhibition coincides with the second Afghanistan studies conference, “Independence, More Independence and Beyond Independence,” which will be held by the ACKU in collaboration with the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies (AIAS) on 17 and 18 August 2019 at the ACKU, Kabul University. It follows the first Afghanistan studies conference, “Afghanistan Inside Out: History, Culture and Politics in Afghanistan Studies,” which was held on 11 and 12 August 2018 at the ACKU.
(5) Emil Trinkler (1925), Quer durch Afghanistan nach Indien, Berlin: Kurt Vowinckel Verlag, pp 109 and 189 (English translation of the excerpt by Thomas Ruttig):
At this place [Paghman], the jeshm [sic], independence day, is celebrated every year; unfortunately, it was called off in 1924 due to the insecure situation [Khost tribal rebellion of the Mangal who had proclaimed their own Amir, Abdul Karim].
On 6 August, the agitation was increasing. Rumours were going around in the city again about an imminent attack on Kabul. In the evening, we were just sitting on the roof for our meal when the landlord came and pleaded for some fuel. He offered an exceedingly high price but we had to keep the fuel for ourselves for the worst case. All vehicles – including cars – had been sequestered by the government, only the Europeans were allowed to keep theirs…
We often wondered what would happen to the Europeans when the city was taken over and a new government came. Opinions were divided. Some were very pessimistic and sensed the worst. Others looked calmly into the future. Because the rebellion was indirectly directed against the Europeans, I tended to believe the former was more likely.
… From all over the country troops were called in and in the August and September days of 1924, Kabul presented a colourful picture. When the first troops arrived, we initially believed, these were the rebels…
In mid-August, the situation deteriorated. The jeshm [sic] – the independence celebration – that is held every summer was cancelled; the government and the Amir had suddenly returned from Paghman.
On 20 August, a big victory of the government troops was announced. It was said that the heads of 15 killed Mangals would be paraded through the streets. But nothing like this happened…
In early October, the government troops were successful again; Gardez [that had been encircled by the rebels] was relieved, Hesarak taken, and the rebels were pushed southward over the Altamur pass.
In November, delegations of the Amir and the rebels met in Jalalabad, but did not come to a result, so that the fighting continued. Toward the end of the year, the rebellion collapsed. The punishment against the Mangal was terrible. 1575 men were executed, 600 women dragged to Kabul, 3000 houses levelled and burnt down.
(6) Given Zaher Shah’s age, three of his paternal uncles, namely Muhammad Hashem (Prime Minister 1929-46), Shah Mahmud (Prime Minister 1946-53) and Shah Wali (commander of the Central Army Corps in Kabul) – descendants of Muhammad Yahya and Muhammad Yusuf who were companions, musaheban, of King Habibullah (r. 1901–1919), father to King Amanullah – effectively ruled the country for 20 years from 1933 to 1953. For the next ten years, from 1953 to 1963, it was Prime Minister Muhammad Daud, paternal cousin and brother-in-law to Zaher Shah and a musaheban descendant, who was in charge of the country. Zaher Shah therefore did not personally wield much practical power for the first 30 years of his 40-year-long reign.
(7) Kurt Ziemke, first Nazi ambassador to Kabul, on the independence day, not dated, likely in 1935, with some references to 1936, in Kurt Ziemke (1939), Als deutscher Gesandter in Afghanistan, Stuttgart and Berlin: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt (English translation of the excerpt by Thomas Ruttig):
It is a very popular spectacle; the Afghans are not only supposed to commemorate the great historical event, they also are supposed to celebrate and have fun. Government offices remain closed for a week; each Afghan enjoys a vacation from work for this time.
On a large fairground [chaman-e huzuri], stalls are erected, and there is a lot of hustle and bustle. People are gathering from the Kabul’s surroundings, the countryside, and from far away. Their pleasures are harmless, and the enjoyments they can afford modest; spirits remain frowned upon, and there are no dancing girls. Dice are thrown for cheap prizes, and in front of the cooking stalls people sit on their heels and listen to monotonous music; a primitive merry-go-round is turning creakingly; soothsayers, story tellers and magicians are gathering circles around themselves; funny boys in disguise are imitating representatives of various European nations; I saw one who pretended to be a European drunk on wine, who got huge laughs for his funny and realistic performance; a bear danced, lemonade in the flashiest colours is offered, as well as pistachio, almonds, nuts and sweets. When night falls, garlands of electric lights stretch over the lanes between the stalls; the city is illuminated, fireworks are lit, and for many a son of the wild mountains, of the wide steppes, there are novelties to be discovered and to be marvelled at.
A festival for men it is, and after dark, the woman in the chador disappears who can watch the stick fencers and how the wrestlers are fighting during daytime [antiquated language in the original]. The women are squat on the side lines in semicircles. They stroll through the lanes between the stalls, refresh themselves at the lemonade seller’s, look at the show boxes and are not noticed by the men.
On day one of the celebrations, the diplomatic corps is invited to participate in the official commemoration at seven o’clock in the morning at the Independence Column, the Mina [sic] i Esteklal, an obelisk built of whitewashed bricks, with some steps leading up to a low platform. The obelisk stands in the midst of a wide avenue, in front of the east gate of the Ark [Royal Palace].
On one side, ministers and officials in tails and Persian hats have taken position, next to them follow the members of parliament, in their clothes of choice. In the midst of the participants, I also note the former Amir of Bukhara who fled his country from the Bolsheviks and enjoys the hospitality of the Afghan government…
The generals stand in a separate group. The Prime Minister and the Minister of Court also stand apart, closer to the obelisk.
The diplomatic corps has positioned itself on the other side, according to rank. The British minister stands imperturbable amongst us; England has resigned itself to Afghan independence and its celebration, and there will be no word against England. The official speeches remain calm about the wars with England, the earlier aggressions of the British, the destruction of the bazaar of Kabul, because the past should remain forgotten; the relations with England are good now, and the speeches stress the benefaction of liberty, the advantages of independence, the necessity of progress, unity and national discipline.
The sound of the Royal March announces the arrival of King Zaher Shah, who drives up in an automobile, surrounded by the riders of the guard in their red parade uniform. The tall and bouncing men ride exquisitely; faultless and without mistake is their military bearing.
The King repairs to the obelisk’s platform and reads his speech which is amplified by a loudspeaker. He praise the memory of his father Nader [murdered the previous year], who re-established independence when he forced down the predatory usurper from the throne; he turns to the youth, exhorts their faithfulness, their helpfulness to the poor, calls for general national reconciliation and unity of the people.
Soviet ambassador Stark advances and reads out the diplomatic corps’ general congratulations for the national day in three French sentences, and the King replies in similarly courtly words.
Now it is the turn for the President of the Chamber, a noble elderly gentleman, who expresses – with deference and dignity – the joy and the pride of Parliament in the name of the people. He holds his speech without any oratorical gesture, he stresses no single word; he reads with a restrained voice as if the presence of the King prohibits pathos, exuberance and emotion. Then the Prime Minister speaks, in a low voice as always, quiet, with a notable tone of cordiality.
There are no cheers, no thunderous applause rewards the speaker, because this is not the Afghan way.
An order is to be heard, and under the sounds of the Royal March, the Kind leaves again. The solemn act of state is over.
We now proceed, still in tails or in state regimentals, to the fairground, the Tchaman Huzuri [sic]… The place is embedded between the hills of Sherpur where Lord Roberts once had to weather the siege of his enforced camp, and the ruins of the Bala Hessar. In the background, there are the towering peaks of the Hindu Kush. Along one side, the road to Peshawar passes, and along this road, there is a one hundred metre long row of business buildings the ground floor of which has stores with shopping windows. In this building, the first trade fair had been opened in 1934. Now, they hold stores with European convenience goods, antiquity shops, offices and exhibition rooms.
At the upper end of the ground, opposite the high mountains, raises the long building of the Ministry of Public Works the front of which is adorned by two verandas on top of each other, the upper most with a protruding loggia. Here, the King will take his place, to right there are the rows of chairs for the chiefs of mission, to the left those for the ministers, generals and big officials. The other members of the diplomatic corps are placed to their sides, the foreign staff in the lower veranda, while the ladies are completely banned from the house. For them, tents have been erected outside, because the King, according to Muhammadan customs, does not want to be seen in to close companionship with women. The Minister of the Court and the chief of protocol frequently take care of the ladies’ tents.
The troops have already taken position in the background in a long front. Silently, the population standing at the Peshawar road greets the King who is approaching in his car; loud enthusiasm is alien to the Afghan. In front of the stands, where we have already taken our places, the King mounts a horse and gallops, accompanied by a small troupe only, towards the staircase, bows in the direction of the mausoleum on top of Sherpur hill. Up there, rests King Nader.
We hear the King’s anthem, the King salutes his soldiers, who answer loudly and in unison, and the King inspects their front.
The King proceeds to our loggia, the guard takes position in front of the stands, with the body guard on both sides of the entrance. The body guards wear blue uniforms of an old-fashioned cut, with ammunition belts crossing their chests and shoulders, turbans on their head, and rather make the impression of a militia. They turn no eye from the King, blue are their eyes, somewhat passively they look at us – they are from the Durrani tribe, from the clan of the royal house. Beware to come too close to the King!
The King’s uncle, minister of war Shah Mahmud, leads the troops at the parade. Without any motion, he sits on his gorgeous grey horse for three hours. It was him who, immediately after the deadly bullets that felled King Nader, proclaimed his nephew Zaher King, and his resolute and rapid deed suppressed any disquiet. The army he now parades before the King stood behind him. Steadily and without any slackening, the troops parade past; the guard division, Kabul’s first army corps, provincial regiments, police formations, infantry, cavalry, artillery, the sappers, the rail division, machine gun detachments, tanks, armoured cars, the officers’ academy, cadets, some 20,000 men. The soldiers wear steel helmets, steady is the parade, while two music corps take turns. A dashing regiment of guard lancers on grey horses rides by. The King rises in front of each banner.
My wife is walking around downstairs with her camera, she can take photos without any disturbance. The King notices her from his loggia, he seems to ask the Prime Minister and nods in my direction. I compliment the King about the extraordinary bearing of the troops and the well-accomplished parade which the King acknowledges with an explicit reference to the work of the German officers [advisors]. With particular warmth, he speaks again of Colonel Christenn [two ‘n’ correct] who also was the head of the local [Nazi] party group…
In the afternoon, we watch rural dances of several tribes from the stands. Of course, only men do the dancing. Ghilzai, Mangal and Nuristani performed. The Ghilzai wore embroidered, tallies shirts which, like women’s skirts, fell over the flagging pants, sleeveless and similarly embroidered velvet waistcoats over the shirts. With the beat of longish drums, they jerked their black hair around, creating circles, advance in lines, dance the fighting and the war.
The Mangal were clothed less colourfully, somewhat drab, and without visible embroidery. Their moves seem to be particularly brusque, their circles wilder.
Completely different from them were the Kafirs who danced around a pier and some drummers in a circle. They wore a kind of felt tunic with black embroidery, on their heads round caps with flapped edges. Tightly wound black leg wraps gave their dancing steps some stiffness. They did not spin wildly, and kept their heads calm, but marked the beat with their hands. Maybe farmers dance like this during thanksgiving.
The next morning, sport formations paraded by, scouts, football, handball and tennis players, fencers, hockey teams, riders, hunters. Ministers and state secretaries who are members of any sport association marched in their ranks. Almost all of them are sportsmen…
In 1936, the King received the wives of the chiefs of mission after the sportsmen’s parade in his lounge and conversed with them at tea. This was a small step forward, a bit of the Muhammadan wall crumbling a bit…
A football match takes place between an Afghan and an Indian team who play with verve and are enthusiastically followed by the spectators. At the hour of prayer, the match is interrupted, the ministers withdraw from the stands, the players prostrate themselves. The mullahs are still powerful. Then the match continues. In the tennis matches, also the gentlemen and ladies of the diplomatic mission participate. The officers’ club has wonderful pitches, besides an excellent casino.
An exhibition shows agricultural and craft products of the country. Particularly impressive are the creations of the Applied Arts School, among them the carpenters’ class which is German-led and can be proud of its achievements… The German architect displays an exhibition of his models of new government buildings, for schools, hospitals, the administration and for a permanent mausoleum for King Nader.
The biggest attraction for us would be the Turkestani buzkashi… This match does not take place on the Tchaman Huzuri but at the feet of Siah Sang hill, in a sandy depression. This place has been a battleground, and the British have saturated it with their blood. On 13 December 1879, the Black Stones saw the galloping attack of the 9thLancers and the 5th Punjab Cavalry against the Afghan Ghazis. The leader of the attack, Captain Butson, turned in his saddle and shouted “Forward, a cheer to the 9thLancers!” – and sunk from his horse, hit in his heart, and some British rider followed him to the grave.
Today, it is a peaceful fight…
Refreshments are offered because today is a hot and dusty day, the ground at the foot of the hill is burnt dry. We are requested not to descend from the hill to the ground’s fence as it is not clear how far the riders will be carried away by the heat of the fight. Hopefully, there will be no heavy injuries, although falls and injuries are unavoidable. First aid men are on the watch.
Both groups, Turkmen and Uzbeks, take their positions, the former in wide fur caps, the latter with turbans. Unmoving, the sit mounted on their horses, expressionless their Mongol, black bearded faces.
The prime Minister addresses them, calmly, cordially; he is an embodiment of authority and dignity.
A mullah says prayer in the middle of the pitch, alone under the gleaming sun.
The trophy [the buz] is handed out; then a signal, and the hunt is on…
The prize of 10,000 Afghani is split half between the two groups, not much for 250 men who have come a long way with their horses from the north of the country. But they are guests of the government and I believe they enjoyed attending, to show their art and to see – within their experience – the sparkling capital of Kabul.
But the Afghan people’s favourite enticement was the movies. Finally, in 1936, the government had acquired the consent of the mullahs, and for the first time after a long break a cinema theatre opened its gate, for now in the open airs. Amanullah’s silent movie theatre in Paghman had closed with his overthrow. A German technician has now established a cinema for sound films with German equipment; he also runs the movies. American and Indian movies are on display, German ones are on their way [there will be Nazi Wochenschau news reels], and the crowds amass at the counters so that the police has to regulate them…
On the way back, we slowly drive through a big crowd and an illuminated city.
(8) Reinhard Schlagintweit (2016), Afghanistan, 1958-61, Berlin: Tethys, pp 41-2 (English translation of the excerpt by Thomas Ruttig).
(9) The Darulaman Palace is a European-style palace that King Amanullah constructed as a symbol of Afghan independence in the 1920s (more details here). It has been destroyed time and again during the protracted war in Afghanistan (watch a video produced by the Afghan government of this palace over time here).
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020