KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan capital was rocked with explosions and gunfire on Wednesday, but for once it wasn't the insurgency looking for attention.
This time, it was the military — celebrating Mujahideen Victory Day, the date in 1992 when the combined forces that, with the generous help of the United States, had earlier chased out the Soviets finally toppled the Communist-backed regime of Mohammad Najibullah.
Kabul was almost eerily empty during the day, save for the high police presence. Foreigners were locked down in their compounds; the U.S. Embassy sent out a warning to its citizens to stay away from public gatherings, due to fear of terrorist attacks.
The main activity in the city was centered on Ghazi stadium, where mujahideen, or "jihadi" leaders — some of whom figure prominently in lists of war criminals compiled by human rights groups — reviewed parades of army and police, along with national music and dance. All the major television stations, the majority of which belong to jihadi leaders, carried the celebration live. Independent stations broadcast furious debates about the significance of the day.
Known in Afghanistan simply as “Asht-e- Saur” — the date and month of the Afghan calendar when Najibullah’s forces scattered and he took refuge in a U.N. compound — the holiday is one of the more divisive ones in a country full of historical controversies.
The fighters who in the late 1980s battled the Soviets and, later, the Afghan government forces loyal to Moscow, demand recognition of their contribution and sacrifice. They are proud of their achievement in defeating one of the world’s two superpowers, at tremendous cost to themselves and their compatriots.
“We are celebrating this day because of the blood of 1.5 million martyrs,” said Wahid Mojda, a political analyst who during the Soviet years belonged to the largest mujahideen faction, Hezb-e-Islami. “No one political group or jihadi faction can claim ownership of this day; rather it is the anniversary of the end of a 14-year struggle against Communist oppression.”
Mojda, like many Afghans, traces the beginning of Afghanistan’s agony to Apr. 27, 1978, when a Communist coup overthrew the government of Daud Khan, killing him and his family, and precipitating a series of bloody uprisings that ended in the Soviet invasion of December, 1979.
“The tragedy began in 1978,” said one young journalist and political analyst based in Kabul. “But there little that is good about Asht-e-Saur.”
Najibullah’s defeat ushered in four years of brutal civil war, as the major mujahideen groups who had combined forces against a common enemy suddenly turned on each other in a bitter battle for control of the country. Tens of thousands perished, hundreds of thousands were displaced, and the ethnic and regional differences that still plague the country today boiled over into violence that literally tore the country apart.
Kabul was nearly destroyed by the conflict; major factions divided neighborhoods up among themselves. One young Afghan, who now works for the U.N., recalled his tribulations during the civil war.
“I went out to buy bread for my family,” he said with a bitter smile. “But the bread store was on a street controlled by [General Abdul Rashid] Dostum’s men. We lived in a neighborhood controlled by forces loyal to [titular President Burhanuddin] Rabbani. They would not let us take even bread from one section to the other.”
Two of the major jihadi commanders, Ahmad Shah Massoud and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, fought each other over control of the capital. From separate mountains they lobbed rockets at each other and at opposing troops, killing civilians and destroying whole sections of the city.
The archrivals were technically members of the same government: Hekmatyar was prime minister in the Rabbani government; Massoud was defense minister.
With the arrival of the foreign forces in 2001, Massoud, who was assassinated two days before 9/11, became a national hero. Hekmatyar, whose virulently anti-Western sentiments and fundamentalist Islamic philosophy gave him common cause with the Taliban, was branded by the U.S. as an international terrorist with a hefty price on his head.
The readiness of the international community to bring certain jihadi leaders back into power is still seen by many as a major miscalculation of the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
“One of the biggest mistakes of the international community right at the beginning was to embrace partners who did not enjoy the support of the Afghan people,” said Janan Mosazai, a young political analyst and candidate for Parliament.
Many Afghans, still suffering from the after-effects of the civil war, bitterly resent the glorification of the mujahideen that Asht-e-Saur represents.
Even Mojda agrees that there is some justification for those sentiments.
“Many people would argue that the civil war and all the deaths and destruction were the result of the actions of the mujahideen,” he said.
The viewing stands at Ghazi stadium were full of jihadi leaders, labeled war criminals by groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Afghanistan’s own Independent Human Rights Commission.
Jihadi leaders also dominate the government; First Vice President and former warlord Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim was on the podium at Ghazi Stadium, as was his colleague, Second Vice President Mohammad Qarim Khalili.
The parliament is so heavily weighted in favor of jihadi leaders that they were able to pass an amnesty law for themselves, giving all mujahideen blanket immunity for any crimes committed during the years of war.
One major figure was conspicuously missing from Ghazi Stadium, and, indeed, from Kabul on Wednesday. President Hamid Karzai left on Monday for a trip to India; his absence significantly downgraded the importance of the holiday in the eyes of many Afghans.
“He is trying to signal to Hekmatyar and the Taliban that he is no longer so dependent on the jihadi leaders,” said Roman Habib, a journalist in Kabul. “This is to leave room for peace talks with Hezb-e-Islami and the Taliban later on.”
Karzai is calling a Peace Jirga for late May, to develop a framework for reconciliation with the armed opposition.
But the president may have had another reason for sitting out the celebration. During the Asht-e-Saur military parade in 2008, unknown assailants attempted to kill him; snipers fired on him and his advisers from an apartment across the street from the city’s major parade ground in Eid Gah mosque. Three people were killed and a dozen injured, but Karzai escaped unhurt.
Since 2008, the Asht-e-Saur festivities have moved to Ghazi stadium, a much more circumspect location.
Regardless of the controversy, there are those who insist that Asht-e-Saur remain in the public consciousness. Afghans are keenly aware that the Soviet’s defeat in Afghanistan led to the decline and fall of the entire Soviet system.
“Strong nations never forget their victories,” said Mojda. “We brought about the end of an empire. Many nations received their independence. Whatever else happened, this day represented a victory not only for Afghans, but for the whole world. It is the right of the people of Afghanistan to celebrate. It should never be forgotten.”