KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Singing, dancing and sobbing into each other's arms, warlord and royalist partners in today's reshaped Afghanistan raised their country's new flag Monday over the southern city that saw the Taliban's first and last stands.
On a sunny, music- and color-filled morning, sights of the celebration in Kandahar gelled as a snapshot of Afghanistan's hopes at this turning point — whether disappointed or fulfilled in the future.
"United under this flag!" local army chief Maj. Naik Mohammed cried, as Kandahar Gov. Gul Agha and two spiritual and monarchist leaders together tearfully raised the red, green and black banner hand-over-hand up a gold-knobbed flagpole.
Agha, a jowly ex-warlord, fell into embraces with Afghan clerics, fighters and community leaders under the flagpole, applauded by troops and dignitaries inside the city's police headquarters.
Afghan soldiers in new green uniforms, frowning with care at their role in the event, spurted plastic party foam out of aerosol cans on the celebrating leaders.
Agha sought out U.S. covert forces slipping in and out of the crowd, clasping one grey-bearded American in baseball cap and M-16 in a bear hug, fervently whispering something secret in the American's ear.
"The Afghan nation will live happily, safely, under the shade of this flag!" the army chief blared.
Afghan leaders first raised the flag — newly redesigned for a newly redesigned country — in Kabul two weeks ago. Monday marked its debut in Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city, the hub of the south, and the place martial cleric Mullah Mohammed Omar rallied up the Taliban.
The delay itself signaled the difficulty of linking country to capital, and of getting a government running, in a country with few roads, telephones or resources.
Kandahar's government and people until now have been flying old Afghan flags or variations — often, with individual tailors adding embroidered Quranic verses or flowers as suited their fancy.
In a day of firsts for Kandahar, pupils and teachers from a Kandahar girls' school took part in the ceremony — without a burqa. Men in the crowd — it was all men — all but gasped, at what all swore was the first time in two decades for such a sight in this religiously and socially conservative city.
The compound fell dead silent as a handful of teen-age girls in bright scarves and puffy layers of gold and silver embroidered velvets and silks took the stage.
"We are the voice of the new generation," the teen-agers sang, loud enough and clear, standing behind a line of female teachers in more dour black and blue scarves — but there, too, no burqas.
"We are the light after the darkness," the girls sang, staring shyly down before the rapt stares of hundreds of men. "We will light our country."
Soldiers and police took to a red carpet for traditional Afghan dances, a traffic officer in a gleaming new white uniform, white helmet and freshly dyed black beard leading the swaying, hip-swinging circle.
But high above the crowd, apparently overlooked in the makeover, was a sign on the compound's place of worship proclaiming its name: Mullah Mohammed Omar Mosque.
Kandahar, the first city of the Taliban, was the last to fall. Afghan and U.S. secret forces entered the city on Dec. 7 as Omar and his army melted away here.
Americans took the city, and its airport, as their largest base in the south. Whether the watchful influence of the Americans has anything to do with it, Kandahar so far has been free of the factional Afghan clashes that rocked the city in past years, and that have broken out in other provinces even under the new government.
In many ways, Monday's celebration showcased a city managing to pull its act together. When Afghan authorities first entered Kandahar, they took over a governor's house gutted even of chairs and booby-trapped by explosives hidden on the roofs.
On show Monday: hundreds of soldiers with arms in new uniforms, organization that extended to laying out pots of geraniums around the flagpole, and teachers who had gotten paid — although not much.