KABUL -- The Paghman Hill Castle was a year in the making, cost more than $10 million, and was meant to host one of the biggest events of the year in Afghanistan -- the international festival marking Norouz, the Persian New Year.
But in a move that has been widely criticized, the Afghan government abruptly ditched its original plan to hold the one-day event at a specially-built castle in Paghman, a picturesque resort town outside Kabul. Instead, the festival has been moved to the grounds of the capital's heavily fortified presidential palace.
The government’s official reason for the move was that work on the castle was incomplete. Many in Kabul have accused the government of negligence and poor mismanagement. Others have said the real reason for the decision is the government’s inability to provide security for the event, despite Kabul’s insistence that security concerns did not factor into its decision.
The international Norouz festival is hosting around 700 local and foreign leaders from 11 countries, including the leaders of the Central Asian republics and of Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Azerbaijan. The high-level delegations in attendance will hold high-level talks on regional security and trade on March 27, after which they will attend the Norouz festivities in the presidential gardens.
The festivities include traditional performances by dancers from all 11 countries represented at the event. There will also be a live concert performed by local musicians as well as an arts and craft convention, and foods that traditionally accompany the holiday will be served to guests.
Security is extremely tight in Kabul, where several thousand soldiers and police are on high alert. Many of the main roads in the capital have been closed or cordoned off, and people have been advised to stay at home.
Originally, the festivities were planned to be held at the three-story Paghman Hill Castle and a vast garden that had been constructed. The castle and surrounding areas are now expected to be used as a presidential retreat and a location to host foreign guests.
The Afghan government has offered a muddled explanation for why the celebration in Paghman was canceled.
Gul Agha Ahmadi, the head of the government-appointed Committee for Norouz Celebrations, which is organizing the festival, has said the government moved the venue because construction of the castle was incomplete. Ahmadi denied security concerns were behind the sudden shift of venue.
The government’s decision comes after a recent spate of deadly militants attacks that have left dozens dead across the country. Violence has soared ahead of the April 5 presidential election that militants have vowed to disrupt.
But the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing Affairs, which oversees the project, declared last week that the venue was complete and “ready to welcome our guests.”
Afghan lawmakers and citizens have vented their anger at the government’s decision to relocate the event.
Sayed Mohammad, a resident of Kabul, said the Norouz event is a chance for the country to showcase its rich culture and traditions, but that in moving the venue the government has brought embarrassment to the country.
“It’s a disgrace," Mohammad said. "The government should have organized the event properly. They should have organized the security so these [foreign guests] could come to [Paghman].”
Ghulam Hussain Naseri, a member of parliament, was also critical of the last-minute change of venue. “The Norouz festival in Paghman has been planned since last year," he said on March 25. “The government should have thought about possible security problems way before. This shows their negligence.”
Abdul Aziz, another Kabul resident, called the government’s official reason for suddenly changing the venue a sham. He said the government is simply incapable of providing security.
“The government keeps saying we will ensure security," Aziz said. "They say we have the military and the police and will ensure 100-percent security. But they can’t -- there are attacks everywhere on every day.”