The notion of an independent Afghanistan has always been dubious, not only because the nation was never officially part of the British empire—and therefore had no formal country to become independent from—but also because, in the years since, Afghanistan has been a victim of foreign influence, decades of intrusion by our neighbors, two deadly occupations, and decades of nonstop violence.
Last year, Independence Day started with rockets being fired into the Presidential Palace, likely by the so-called Islamic State. At the time, those 14 rockets hurtling towards the Arg (“citadel”) were seen, even by teenagers in a well-known Kabul private school, as yet more proof that we have never really tasted true independence in the century since Amanullah Khan helped defeat the British forces.
But this year the idea of independence is especially laughable.
Our former president, Ashraf Ghani, fled the country four days before Independence Day, a celebration he took special pride in commemorating during his seven years in office. Ghani’s disappearance led to the Taliban walking into Kabul and turning the Islamic Republic into an Islamic Emirate. It robbed people of an orderly transition from one system to another or a say in that transition. Ghani, who had repeatedly called for elections—despite facing accusations of fraud in back-to-back presidential polls—robbed the people of a choice and a democratic solution to a long-stalled peace process.
The former president alleges he left against his will, having to be pushed onto a helicopter, but whatever the case, he bolted after his government lost control of more than two dozen provinces in a matter of 11 days. Worse yet, neither he nor anyone in his government ever acknowledged those losses.
When we journalists tried to call for confirmation that X province had fallen, we couldn’t turn to a governor or a police chief to go on the record, we had to rely on “officials,” “government sources,” “local residents,” and “journalists” to verify the humiliating loss of another territory to the Taliban. For millions of Afghans, that “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil” attitude was typical of the last 20 years in Afghanistan, when accusations of corruption at the highest levels of government were rife.
For the past four days, the Afghan people have been living in the Taliban’s 2021 version of their Islamic Emirate. Those four days have seen reports of the group firing on protesters in the Eastern city of Jalalabad, where Amanullah is buried, after those protesters replaced the Taliban’s black-on-white flag with the traditional black, red, and green one. At least three people were killed in that city that has long been the home of Afghanistan’s most fervid and joyful Independence Day celebrations.
This Independence Day also comes to a country with no official government. The Taliban say their Islamic Emirate is now in charge, but it still lacks a structure. People have very little sense of whom to go to for help, or what offices and bodies can still provide services to the 32 million Afghans.
And this year has also seen the long-standing questions of personal freedoms that have plagued the districts and villages for decades come to the capital, currently under visible Taliban control. In years past, it was the people in the villages and districts who would question their personal freedoms. For decades, they were susceptible to intrusive and abusive night raids into their homes—by the Americans and their Afghan intelligence allies. They had to fear death from above, as aerial strikes, including from drones, left them dreading the nightfall. They also had to face the potential of being sent off to Guantánamo or, worse yet, the notorious Bagram Prison, often on dubious charges.
Now, in the days since Ghani left the country open for a Taliban takeover, people in Kabul are wondering about their personal freedoms. Women are afraid to go to the store to buy groceries for their children, because they do not know if the Taliban will stop them for not having a male companion. Others worry that their attire could draw the ire, and possibly violence, of the group. Overnight, these fears have turned the capital into an almost entirely male city.
Men, too, have fears about their freedoms. They wonder if they can choose the clothes they want to wear or will forever have to don the traditional piran tomban in an effort to avoid raising the eyebrows of the Taliban fighters who roll around the city in Humvees and Rangers that belonged to the very security forces that used to target them. Some have been seen around in jeans, T-shirts, and track suits, but they are few and far between.
As one colleague put it, “It’s great that we don’t have any more suicide bombings and theft, but you also have to be able to live your life.”
He, and others, have described the current situation of uncertainty as “suffocating” and a “dark cloud” hanging over their heads.
Even those of us who feel relatively comfortable going out have to wonder how long we will have to start each day worrying if this will be the day we do something to incite the anger of a Talib. Or worse yet, if this will be the day the group visibly goes against the calm, measured statements they have put out to the media about a “general amnesty” and wanting an “inclusive” society.
So, once again, the Afghan people have awoken to an Independence Day dripping with irony, contradictions, and unease. In years past, we wondered if the day would be disturbed by yet another bombing or rocket attack, but this year we wonder if we can even celebrate the holiday.
… Or if there’s any reason to celebrate at all.