Could the Taliban Threaten Afghanistan’s Historical Artifacts?

Could the Taliban Threaten Afghanistan's Historical Artifacts?

( – Afghanistan’s most sensitive and historically-rich archaeological sites face an uncertain future. Experts worry Taliban forces may be planning to loot and destroy ancient locations, despite vowing to protect them from harm shortly after stepping into power. The new government did confirm an active search to locate, and allegedly, protect, the region’s famous Bactrian Treasure in mid-September. But are their good intentions legitimate?

A History of Destruction

It’s common to hear about the Taliban’s efforts to destroy cities, towns, villages, or even people. What doesn’t come to light nearly as often is its history of destroying heritage sites and historical artifacts discovered in areas all across the Middle Eastern region.

The most recent and serious incident took place during the period of time when Taliban forces last controlled Afghanistan, 1996 through 2001. The group sought out and destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan, a massive colossus carved into the cliffs at Mes Aynak.

At the time, the Taliban called the important sixth-centry carvings “offensive to Islam.” Soldiers used tank-based artillery and rockets to pulverize the cliff face into dust.

Authorities in the US also seize Afghan artifacts smuggled in via the black market every so often. Many of these come from the same sites the Taliban now vows to protect. However, it isn’t clear which group, if any, is responsible for looting the items and sneaking them out of the country.

Destruction Via Inaction

Direct thefts and harm are far from the only reason experts worry about the impacts of a Taliban-led government on historical sites. Inaction, specifically, neglecting to maintain sites, could also harm some of the nation’s most precious historical gems.

University of Chicago professor and Afghan Heritage Mapping Partnership leader Gil Stein uses satellite technology to monitor nearly 25,000 sensitive archeological sites. While he admits the images discredit the idea of stealing and looting, they also show widespread opium farming in many of the same areas.

Stein points out that poppy farming is big business for Afghan farmers and the Taliban government leaders who support them. If they’re already generating millions of dollars in income by allowing farmers to run roughshod over archaeological sites, they’re unlikely to bother with looting. They probably won’t destroy the fields, either.

Is Afghanistan’s History Truly Safe?

The trouble with promises and attention to farming is simple: it probably isn’t enough to actually protect Afghanistan’s history.

Many of these important historical zones need special maintenance, lest they simply crumble into the dirt from time itself. Farming, and a lack of access to the resources necessary to shore up historical locations, renders this nearly impossible.

It’s also difficult to determine whether the Taliban will truly follow through on its promises. The reclusive group heavily restricts the flow of information to outside experts, sometimes killing scientists simply for speaking out.

Afghanistan’s Cultural Commission Deputy Hamdullah Wasiq says fears about harm or theft of the Bactrian Treasure remain unfounded. He says the Taliban-led government already maintains control over the collection, which contains a number of jewels and approximately 21,145 pieces of gold. Wasiq claims the Taliban also recognizes its spiritual importance, and intends to take steps to “protect it.” Still, there’s no way to predict if they’ll follow through.

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