Don’t Trust the Taliban With Afghanistan’s Cultural Preservation

 In Afghanistan, Defense, Smart Cities, Air, Iraq

The group con­tin­ues to attack sites and antiq­ui­ties. Here are five ways peace nego­tia­tors can ensure that Afghanistan’s past will con­tribute to its future.

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 governmentwomen, 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.

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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 dynamiteMany, 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.

Source: Defense One

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