As Afghanistan undergoes yet another power transition in its long and bloody history, its Talibani regime finds itself pitted against an entire generation of Afghans who have only known life under a US-backed government. They have aspirations for a nation-state more like a Western democracy than the rigid Sharia-governed emirate that the Taliban envision.
This complex divide of competing ideologies has manifest itself in the form of a battle of flags, wherein the Taliban intends to obliterate the use of the national tricolour — that traces its roots to King Amanullah — and replace it with their own.
On Thursday, a procession of cars and people near Kabul's airport carried long black, red and green banners in honour of the Afghan flag — a banner that is becoming a symbol of defiance. At least one person was killed at a rally, in the eastern city of Jalalabad, after demonstrators lowered the Taliban’s flag and replaced it with the Afghan national flag. Defiant protesters waved Afghan flags at scattered rallies to mark the country's independence day on Thursday. The Jalalabad incident energised a social media storm, which, in turn, created a unique opportunity for young Afghans rallying behind the national flag.
But the country hasn't always been inspired by the same flag, in fact, its flag has changed at least 18 times since the Emirate of Afghanistan became fully independent from Britain more than 100 years ago.
We looked at the history and symbolism attached to this flag.
What does the Afghan flag signify?
Afghanistan’s current flag consists of three equal vertical bands of black, red, and green. The black colour represents the dark past when its foreign policy was under the control of the British Empire, the red represents the bloodshed for independence, and the green colour represents the hope for a prosperous Islamic future. In the centre of the flag is an emblem that consists of a mosque with a flag on each side. The year 1298 (1919 in Gregorian calendar) is written on a scroll, which is when Afghanistan obtained control over its foreign affairs from the British Empire.
Underneath the date is the name “Afghanistan” written in Afghan Persian. The central image is circled by sheaves of wheat, representing prosperity and fertile grounds. On the top of the emblem is the phrase “Allahu Akbar” in Arabic (God is Great), and slightly above that are rays of sun leading up to the Islamic Declaration of Faith or “Shahada”: “There is no deity but God, and Mohammad is the messenger of God”.
The flag traces its origins to the Nadir dynasty that started in 1929 under Mohammed Nadir Shah, however, the closest version of the current flag came into use under his son Mohammed Zahir who brings in the mosque and adds it above the Hijri year Nadir’s rule began, surrounded by sheaves of wheat, as per Al Jazeera. It went through numerous transitions over the years with successive rulers removing the year of Nadir rule, introducing crossed swords to signify territorial strength and later even tweaking the tricolour structure in favour of a monochromatic red and later a tricolour with green, white and black colours.
A new version of the Zahir-era flag was finally reintroduced in 2002 when US brought in a transitional government headed by Hamid Karzai. The emblem is later changed to white from gold in 2004 and the emblem is made bigger to cover the black and red bands as well in 2013.
What does the Taliban flag signify?
The Taliban’s Islamic Emirate flag, which has been used as the dominant symbol of militants for two decades, is white and only carries the Shahada in bold black letters at the centre.
This represented “the purity of their faith" and the undeterred faith of their government in Islamic principles. The same verse is also on the Afghan Republic flag but features less prominently as the national flag acknowledges other aspects of Afghan history.
Afghan Independence and the national flag
Ironically enough, the Afghan state was never colonised but it was indeed a 'protected state' under the British between 1880 and 1919. The I-day marks the relinquishment from protected state status and the then Afghan ruler acquiring complete control of the nation state's foreign policy.
Since then Afghanistan has marked 102 Independence Day celebrations, each celebrated in shrouds of instability spurred by a different regime from the monarchy to the communists to the mujahidin to the Taliban and then again to a government propped up by western forces. Less than half of them occurred outside the shadow of war and bloodshed – yet they were celebrated nonetheless, each holding a different meaning for the citizens who have aspired for freedom and stability for a long time.
This year too, Independence Day was marked but the Taliban saw it as the day to celebrate their recapture of the capital and finally getting rid of the US control.
"Fortunately, today we are celebrating the anniversary of independence from Britain. We at the same time as a result of our jihadi resistance forced another arrogant power of the world, the United States, to fail and retreat from our holy territory of Afghanistan," NPR quoted the Taliban as saying.
On the other hand, the population, a good part of which has access to mobile phones, the internet, schools and even means of entertainment (all considered sinful abominations under the Taliban's previous rule), considered this the end of their freedom.
However, the national flag has now become a rallying point for a resistance movement of sorts against reversal of whatever little personal freedom the citizens have come to enjoy.