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The immortality of Independence Day

Farhad Peikar
From the monarchy to the Taliban, Afghan leaders see historic day as a key unifying force
19.08.2014  |  New York

On August 19, Afghanistan celebrates the 95th anniversary of the country’s independence from Great Britain, which ruled India and Pakistan from 1858- 1947 and directed Afghanistan's foreign affairs from 1880- 1919. Although historians contest the exact course of events leading to Afghan independence--as well as the scale of sovereignty achieved in 1919--the day resonates with all Afghans, regardless of their age, ethnic, religious, linguistic and even political backgrounds.

President Hamid Karzai poses alongside Afghan troops during a 2011 Independence Day celebration. The Afghan government toned down festivities in more recent years after several Taliban attacks targeted high-level officials.

Following the third Afghan-Anglo war in 1919, in which thousands were killed and wounded on both sides, Afghanistan turned a new page in its history. Both sides claimed victory in this last war between Afghan forces and British troops, backed by Sikhs and Gurkhas. At its end, Afghanistan managed to regain the right to conduct its own foreign affairs as a fully independent state through an accord signed by both sides. 

 In the decades that followed, successive Afghan governments- from monarchy to the mujahedeen and the Taliban - celebrated August 19 as the date that Afghanistan became sovereign.

“Afghanistan was the first country to destroy the eastern wall of the British Empire,” Amail Faizi, spokesman to President Hamid Karzai said in an August 18 congratulatory message. “Afterwards, other countries that were under British dominance started gaining their independence.”

 Political leaders from the United States, Russia, China as well as India and Pakistan sent letters to Karzai, wishing him and the Afghan people a happy independence. Similarly, Afghan politicians posted patriotic and congratulatory messages on their social media pages to commemorate the day, while ordinary Afghans expressed mixed feelings.

 “I would like to congratulate all Afghans, especially our security forces that bravely safeguard our freedom,” Nabi Azizi, a Facebook user wrote.

 “When did we become independent? All decisions are taken by the Americans,” Muhib Mandozai, a Facebook user wrote on his page, while another user, Mujeeb Khan, wrote “Afghanistan cannot be independent so long it relies on foreign financial aid.”

 Afghanistan’s financial dependence on foreign powers is now a hotly debated issue as NATO prepares to withdraw its military presence, but has in fact plagued the country for nearly a century. Afghan governments, including Amanullah Khan’s regime, relied heavily on foreign financial aid and expertise. In many instances, the country’s foreign affairs were handled by external states that directly influenced Kabul.

 Since 2002, the U.S. government alone has spent more than 100 billions of dollars to build Afghan institutions – in some cases from scratch. The country will need at least four billion dollars in aid each year to maintain itself for the years to come. In addition, Kabul will not be able to finance its 350,000 strong security personnel unless the U.S. and other Western countries provide over four billion dollars a year.

 The core question begging for an answer is why, despite the country's dependence on foreign support, do Afghan governments continue to place such emphasis on Independence Day?

 Afghans, like many other nations around the world, found their unity in expelling foreign invaders.  Afghanistan is a mosaic of tribes and ethnicities, but fighting British colonialism was a unifying factor. 

 Additionally, the end of British was for many Afghans a great victory after three wars that cost thousands of lives and property loss for an impoverished population.  Unaware of Russia and Great Britain’s “Great Game” in the region, many Afghans saw the accord as a national triumph. Of course, the story was different for the British rulers in India. They claimed that allowing the Afghan state to run its own affairs consolidated the empire’s border with Afghanistan on the Durand Line. Effectively, the accord turned the country into a buffer state between the British Empire and Tsarist Russia.

 Whatever the British interpretation of the accord, Afghans still consider it a proud historic moment. For this reason, the various ideological regimes that swept through the country tried to draw on this unifying sentiment to gain legitimacy and popular support.

The empires’ grandchildren

Under the monarchy, Independence Day was celebrated with weeklong events that included a military parade, concerts and food festivities. When the Soviet Union-backed regime took power, it put more emphasis on 7th of Saur (27 April) as the day the communist party’s victory in the country. However, all four communist presidents celebrated August 19 as the country’s Independence Day.

 When the Mujahedeen overtook Kabul in 1992, they celebrated April 18 as their victory day, but they also continued to recognize August 19 as the founding date for the country. The Taliban, too, celebrated Independence Day in 2000 with a military parade that showcased old Russian military gear and pickup trucks that they turned into their fast-moving military vehicles.

 Ironically, the ideological persuasions of both the mujahedeen and the Taliban differed vastly from those of King Amanullah Khan, under whose rule the country gained its Independence Day. Khan intended to turn Afghanistan into a Western-style secular democracy. His reform included introducing secular education, discouraging the veiling of women and requiring citizens to dress in Western outfits in Kabul and other big cities. Despite their various grievances against Khan, both the Mujahideen and the Taliban continued celebrating Independence Day on August 19 in the same historical style. 

 Today, Independence Day is celebrated by both President Hamid Karzai’s government and Taliban leaders, who have waged a bloody war since 2001 and contest each other's power daily. Karzai, whose government is almost fully funded by the US and its allies, has repeatedly demonstrated his desire for running his country’s foreign affairs independently. He has built friendly relations with Iran, America’s archrival in the region, and publicly backed the Russian annexation of Crimea, and has even congratulated President Bashar al-Assad for his victory in Syria presidential election - to list a few of his maverick moments.

 The current government stopped organizing large Independence Day military parades following a 2008 Taliban attack in Kabul. President Karzai escaped the attack unharmed, but three men, including a parliamentarian were killed. In recent years, due to security concerns, Independence Day has been celebrated in much smaller ceremonies, in which the president and other senior government officials lay wreaths of flowers at the Minaret of Independence, located inside the Ministry of Defense.

 In a statement issued on Monday, the Taliban congratulated Afghans on Independence Day and said that today’s situation was akin to what Afghans underwent 95 years ago to gain their independence. “If you pay a close attention, you can find no difference between their previous and current occupations of Afghanistan,” the statement asserted, referring to the presence of foreign forces in the country. The Taliban compared the British direction of the country's foreign affairs at the start of the twentieth century to the current 'occupation,' saying the foreign forces that operate in Afghanistan under the mandate of UN Security Council are the grandchildren of British forces and their allies.