Thursday, September 9, 2021

Have Afghanistan's Flag and Official Name Changed?

Flag of the Taliban's Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, featuring the Islamic Shahada text in black calligraphy over a plain white backdrop
Taliban flag of Afghanistan*

Flag of the (non-Taliban) Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, featuring a white-outlined seal over black, red, and green bars
Non-Taliban flag of Afghanistan

*Alternative versions of the Taliban flag include "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" or "Long Live the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" in Pashto as a smaller line of text at the bottom.

Taliban Takeover

As you probably heard, Afghanistan's Taliban rebel group successfully took over most of the country last month, with the previous national government and military collapsing as the rebels seized the national capital. 

Though the Taliban run what's now, for all practical purposes, the country's actual government, they haven't been officially accepted yet by any of the world's other countries. 

And the issue isn't politically settled so far, both Afghanistan's flag and its full official country name are a matter of dispute, with the Taliban promoting one version and the remnants of the pre-Taliban government promoting another.

Recognition Forthcoming?

The Taliban have actually been here before: They already ran most of Afghanistan for five years from 1996 to 2001, before being expelled from power by a US-led intervention. During that period, their administration was mostly rejected by the rest of the world, with the exception of official recognition from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Things could be different this time around - there's a sense that the Taliban's second victory is more final, since it marks the failure of a 20-year-long attempt by the world's largest military and economic power to keep it out of government. And more of the world's countries have been signaling that they might recognize the new Taliban administration.

Once the dust has cleared, it also seems possible that the world might choose to hand over Afghanistan's seat at the UN (and other international organizations) to the Taliban administration. At the moment, that seat is still held by the ambassador appointed by the pre-Taliban government. But unless anti-Taliban forces come together soon to form a credible competing administration, that will quickly start to look like an unsustainable fiction.

Has Afghanistan's flag changed?

Taliban Version
Flag of the Taliban's Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, featuring the Islamic Shahada text in black calligraphy over a plain white backdrop Country Name:  
• Afghanistan (English)
• Afġānistān (Pashto)
Official Name:  
• Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (English)
• Də Afġānistān Islāmī Imārat (Pashto)
Capital: Kabul

Based on actual practice, yes. The Taliban have always flown a different flag than Afghanistan's anti-Taliban government, and they've been making a point of flying it high amid their new takeover of the country. In theory, they could choose to keep the country's existing flag, only using the Taliban flag as a symbol of their own political movement - but since the other flag has been the symbol of their enemies on the battlefield for almost 20 years now, that seems unlikely.

The Taliban's flag, also used by the group from 1997 to 2001 when it ruled the country the first time, features a plain white background with the Arabic text of the "Shahada" - the Muslim religious oath "There is no god but God and Muhammad is God’s messenger" - in black calligraphy. The country's rival flag, flown by the pre-Taliban government and its supporters, also includes the Shahada, but in much smaller text within the country's national seal, which is laid over black, red, and green bars.

Legal Ambiguity: Which Flag is Official?

Compared to most flag changes PolGeoNow reports on, which are made through established legal processes by undisputed governments, this case is much fuzzier. True, it's clear that the Taliban administration forms the closest thing to a real, on-the-ground government that Afghanistan has right now. But on the other hand, that government's authority is not only disputed by much of the world, but still coming together even at home: the Taliban just this week announced who would lead its new government, after weeks of near-silence on how the actual work of governance would be done. 

Against that background of disarray, there apparently hasn't been any formal assertion from the Taliban that their flag is technically the sole official flag of Afghanistan. Once that changes - possibly very soon - the case for accepting the Taliban banner as the Afghan flag can be made much more firmly.

If the change of flag is confirmed and accepted, Afghanistan will be the first independent country to change its flag design since Mauritania in 2017 (not counting newly-standardized design specifications that are consistent with previous descriptions). One of the last country-level flag changes before that was made by Afghanistan itself, when the non-Taliban government adjusted the national seal to take up more of the flag in 2013.

Non-Taliban Version
Flag of the (non-Taliban) Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, featuring a white-outlined seal over black, red, and green bars Country Name:  
• Afghanistan (English)
• Afġānistān (Dari, Pashto)
Official Name:  
• Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (English)
• Jumhūrī-yi Islāmī-yi Afġānistān (Dari)
• Da Afġānistān Islāmī Jumhoryat (Pashto)
Capital: Kabul

Has Afghanistan's official country name changed?

The answer to this question is a bit simpler: The Taliban clearly say yes. Although Afghanistan's diplomats abroad are still working under the name Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, used by the pre-Taliban government, the new Taliban authorities have made a point of instead calling it the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

That name was also used by the Taliban during their previous period of rule. The word "emirate" means a place governed by an emir, an Arabic word that can mean "prince" or "commander", common within Islamic tradition.

Unlike the case of the flag, the Taliban have been pretty explicit about considering "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" the country's name, stating it directly after taking over the capital and including the full name in the recent formal announcement of their new administration.

Still, the Taliban's governance over Afghanistan remains controversial, and we can't follow our usual practice of looking to the UN to confirm an official change (at least, not until and unless the Taliban is handed Afghanistan's seat there). In cases of fully-recognized governments changing their own country names, the renaming usually flies easily (if not quickly) through the UN bureaucracy, and its appearance on updated lists of UN member countries is an almost surefire way to confirm that the change was completed through official channels. 

But with a government that's not represented at the UN, the best we can hope for is official documents from that government itself - and the recent announcement of new government ministers is currently the closest thing we have to that. If more information does show up, or the situation changes, PolGeoNow will be here to let you know!

Editor's Note: This article was revised on September 18, 2021 to include a mention of alternate versions of the Taliban flag (see flag illustration box at top).

For more news about past and future flag changes, you can view all flag change articles on PolGeoNow. For news on changes to countries' official names, view all country name change articles.

Graphics of the Taliban flag (source) and the non-Taliban Afghan flag (source) are in the public domain.