In May, Taliban fighters in northwest Afghanistan attacked security posts that were providing protection for the ancient Minaret of Jam. The 12th-century minaret, known for its intricate brick construction and ancient Arabic calligraphy, is one of only two sites in Afghanistan that hold UNESCO World Heritage status. The attackers killed 18 members of the government security forces and cut off access to the minaret, the status of which is unknown.
So it is alarming that cultural heritage does not seem to be on the agenda for the peace talks with the Taliban. As a cultural heritage organization, we are concerned about the Taliban’s intentions for the incomparable treasures of world history in Afghanistan. Along with our fellow stakeholder groups representing the Afghan government, women, and civil society, we are particularly concerned about being excluded from discussions between the United States, Taliban, and other actors who are determining the framework for peace negotiations.
Our concerns are justified. The Taliban years in power were dark, grim, and joyless. Education was minimal and restricted to boys. Afghan culture suffered. Museums were plundered. Artworks and artifacts were destroyed or sold on the black market. Very few Afghans would like a return of that era.
To everyone’s concerns, the Taliban’s spokesmen give the same answer: we’ve changed. Their seizure of the Minaret of Jam does not inspire confidence that this claim is true.
We’ve seen this nightmare before. Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the National Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad was thoroughly looted. An estimated 15,000 artifacts representing 7,000 years of humanity’s history was lost or destroyed due to the failure of Iraqis and occupying U.S. planners to protect this critical repository. By the time the museum finally reopened 12 years later, just half of the missing artifacts had been recovered. By comparison, this was fortunate. When Baghdad’s National Library burned in 2003, it resulted in the complete destruction of thousands of years of irreplaceable books and manuscripts.
As an infantry officer who served three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, I witnessed the threat that conflict poses to cultural heritage. In 2005, while leading a patrol in north Baghdad, I was astonished to come across the 3,000-year-old Babylonian-era ziggurat of Aqar Quf towering above the landscape as a breathtaking reminder of the origins of humanity in Mesopotamia. Locals told us the Ziggurat’s museum had been looted and its supporting restaurant and offices destroyed.
More recently, ISIS carried out a campaign of historical and ethnic cleansing that resulted in extensive damage to the ancient city of Palmyra, in Syria, and the destruction of the tombs of the prophets Jonah and Daniel, in Iraq. At the height of their power, the Islamic State made anywhere from tens of millions to as much as $100 million a year in the illicit trade of antiquities, according to the Wall Street Journal.
In Afghanistan, the extent of cultural heritage at risk cannot be overstated. For thousands of years, Afghanistan has stood at the crossroads of history. As a trade route on the ancient silk road, Afghanistan connected the flow of commerce, religion and culture from Western Asia to Africa and Europe. It marked the rise and fall of great civilizations, the blossoming of Buddhism and Hinduism, and the advent of Islam. The history of Afghanistan is also marked by conflict, and in ancient times the Armies of Alexander the Great, the Mongols, and Tamerlane marched across its lands.
The result is a tapestry into which has been woven the great peoples, cultures, and religions that tell the story of all humanity. Afghanistan’s landscape is dotted with Buddhist monasteries, and the remains of Greek cities and Zoroastrian fire-temples. Many of the major cities were once ancient Persian satraps. Magnificent shrines and mosques built by an empire founded by Tamerlane can be found in Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat. Afghanistan’s contributions to intangible cultural heritage, such as the poets Maulana Jalāl ad-Dīn Rūmī, and Rabia Balkhi, continue to influence worldwide audiences.
These treasures, a birthright of the Afghan people, have already suffered a significant loss. Countless historical sites have been damaged or destroyed as a result of fighting over the last 40 years. The National Museum of Afghanistan was once one of the most significant centers for Central Asian art worldwide. An estimated 70 percent of the collection’s 100,000 pieces were destroyed or looted during the civil war that began in 1979. The ruins of Ai-Khanoum, once known as “Alexandria on the Oxus” and one of the most notable examples of Hellenistic culture surviving in Afghanistan, was used as a battlefield by the Soviets and mujaheddin fighters. Little remains of the site today.
Perhaps even more painful is the deliberate destruction of priceless artifacts by the Taliban during their brief period of rule. In March 2001, the Taliban attacked the sixth century Buddhas at Bamiyan using a mix of artillery, anti-tank rounds, and dynamite. Many, including renowned Muslim theologians as well as delegations from the U.N., had pleaded with the Taliban to desist and made the case that there was no Islamic justification for their destruction. Despite the intercession of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, the three states that officially recognized the Taliban government, the Taliban destroyed the monuments.
UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura called it a “crime against culture” and stated, “It is abominable to witness the cold and calculated destruction of cultural properties which were the heritage of the Afghan people, and, indeed, of the whole of humanity.”
If a peace agreement grants the Taliban a role in the government of Afghanistan, we again face the prospect of historical ethnic and cultural cleansing. For all these reasons, negotiations must include the issue of cultural heritage. Here are our recommendations:
First, Afghanistan must agree to uphold its multiple commitments to cultural heritage protection under international law. Afghanistan ratified the 1972 UNESCO Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. It also acceded to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, as well as the Convention’s First (1954) and Second (1999) Protocols. This imposes specific legal obligations on Afghanistan to protect and preserve both tangible and intangible cultural heritage, during periods of both conflict and peace.
Second, include corruption. Afghanistan ranks 177th out of 180 countries surveyed in one index. The issue must be addressed across Afghanistan’s public sector, including cultural heritage. The diversion of funds meant for conservation work arguably has been just as damaging as combat and extremism to historic treasures, including the neglected and collapsing Minaret of Jam.
Third, following a peace agreement, the risks to all of Afghanistan’s cultural sites and treasures must be assessed, as the country seeks to boost its economy. Without careful management, the rush to develop sectors such as mining could be detrimental. Already mineral deposits have been found to be co-located with archaeological and other cultural heritage sites. These sites must be preserved, as they offer the potential for jobs and tourism revenue. While it may seem farfetched now, there is precedence for a tourism economy developing in a post-conflict Afghanistan. Following the Vietnam war, Americans might have found it equally hard to believe that by 2018 over 15 million tourists would visit Vietnam annually, representing over 6 percent of that country’s GDP.
Fourth, parties should commit to prevent smuggling artifacts out of Afghanistan for sale on the black market. Like with the Islamic State, insurgent groups in Afghanistan long have profited from the illegal trade in ancient artifacts. Criminal trade in artifacts leads to an increase in violent crime, has a destabilizing effect on local governance, and in most cases leads to a permanent loss of the smuggled artifacts.
Finally, NGOs and civil society organizations should be protected, and included for resources, expertise, and experience that governments lack. These organizations also act as watchdogs, ensuring transparency and accountability. In Afghanistan, they frequently have been targeted by the Taliban.
If the Taliban’s attitude towards education, history, and culture has truly changed, then perhaps as part of a future Afghan government they can play a positive role in preserving Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. No matter who is in charge, cultural heritage must be included in any future peace negotiations. There is an ancient Pashtun proverb that warns, “Forget the past, but look out in the future.” It is a reminder that while the past cannot be changed, the past’s mistakes shouldn’t be repeated.