Conserving Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage Under Taliban Rule

The Taliban’s sudden return to power in August 2021 has renewed cultural preservation experts’ fears for the preservation of Afghanistan’s rich cultural heritage. In 2001, the regime destroyed the monumental 1400-year-old Bamiyan Buddha statues, decrying them as “idolatrous.” Their destruction prompted uproar worldwide, but little has been done to curb the group’s ruinous actions. After being ousted in 2001, the Taliban returned to power in 2021 and now proclaims support for cultural heritage, perhaps in response to the global backlash against its demolition of the Bamiyan Buddha statues. But many question whether the Taliban is being truthful. Still more doubt they can uphold their professed commitment to cultural heritage, especially as critical international humanitarian aid to support Afghanistan is withheld as punishment for the Taliban’s infringement on women’s rights.

The stakes in this challenge are high. As a historic crossroads between the civilizations of the Near East, South Asia, China, and Central Asia, Afghanistan harbors countless archeological treasures. However, many artifacts have been lost, stolen, or destroyed in past conflicts—especially in the 1993 looting of the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul. More than two years into their latest rule, the Taliban find themselves charged with protecting profoundly valuable and vulnerable cultural heritage. Whether they will—or even can—support preservation efforts will determine if the remarkable extant Afghan heritage will survive.

A History of Heritage Loss

The Taliban’s dynamiting of the Bamiyan Buddha marked just one of many instances of cultural loss in Afghanistan’s history. In the 1960s, French archaeologists caused irreparable damage by using bulldozers to excavate Ai-Khanoum, an ancient Greek city. In 1989, Russia ended its 10-year occupation of Afghanistan. When its forces pulled out, civil war ensued. During the conflict, in 1993, a bomb aimed at the Ministry of Defense hit an unintended target across the road: the National Museum of Afghanistan. That opened up the walls to plunderers, who stole an estimated 70 percent of the museum’s collection over the following months, including statues from antiquity and the famous Begram ivories, thousands of decorative plaques and figures carved from ivory and bone.

The loss of cultural heritage persists today. In April 2023, a report revealed that Dilberjin, the largest ancient city in northern Afghanistan, had been significantly and systematically looted from 2019 to 2021. Looting and illegal excavations in the Bamiyan Valley, where the Bamiyan Buddhas had been located, have also been reported.

In 2022, two excavations of caves potentially containing rich cultural heritage took place in the Bamiyan Valley. Though no one has found anyone directly culpable, many suspect professional international smugglers. The perpetrators seemed familiar with excavation techniques and knew the locations of the caves and the general area well. These excavations were unsanctioned. The Bamiyan Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage site, meaning all digs in the area require the pre-approval of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Professional excavators like these have ferried looted artifacts to museums across the world, from Paris to San Francisco. The international demand for these treasures continues to fuel their excavation.

It is in this context of looting, excavations, and loss that the Taliban has assumed power and the responsibility of protecting Afghan cultural heritage. The dire state of preservation in Afghanistan makes their job all the more difficult and important.

Real Commitment?

The question of whether the Taliban will, in reality, try to fulfill their promise to preserve cultural heritage is exceedingly difficult to answer. Afghanistan does have laws in place that emphasize the necessity of protecting heritage and mandate the government plays a role in these efforts. The Afghan Constitution states that both the government and the people are responsible for protecting cultural heritage. It further stipulates that all artifacts on Afghan soil, known or unknown, are the property of the government and, therefore, any transfer of artifacts without the government’s permission is theft. The Penal Code of Afghanistan additionally makes a host of actions regarding cultural heritage illegal, such as failing to notify officials of new heritage discoveries and damaging sites. These laws de jure render the looting of heritage sites illegal and task the government with enforcing the requisite punishments.

It is unclear whether the Taliban will enforce these laws. The constitutional amendment regarding cultural heritage preservation was introduced in 2004 when the Taliban was not in power. Nevertheless, the Taliban do profess to be aligned in principle with these laws. “Cultural heritage is our national priority,” Taliban’s deputy minister of culture and arts Mawlawi Atiqullah Azizi said. The Taliban also claimed it will invest one to two percent of its GDP in a heritage fund if it runs out of foreign capital for heritage preservation. For context, the United States’ National Endowment of the Arts, an analogous fund, received roughly 0.012 percent of the country’s GDP in 2020. The absolute value of the American investment is much larger than the Taliban’s proposed investment, but the sheer portion that the Taliban say they will invest is notable.

The Taliban may also be using cultural heritage to improve their reputation abroad. Since the Taliban’s return to power, many countries have cut them off from much foreign aid. Supporting culture not only brings in funds for preserving heritage but could also promote foreign investment in other areas, such as Afghanistan’s mining sector or NGOs that help feed the many hungry Afghans, by recasting the Taliban in a kinder light. This strategy would not be new. For instance, investment in art has exploded in Saudi Arabia, funding an impressive slate of cultural events: an international film festival in its third edition, concert raves in the middle of the desert, and an Andy Warhol exhibition at the Maraya concert hall, the largest mirrored building in the world. This investment in culture has led some to applaud the burgeoning art scene and, implicitly, the government that has paid for it. Though oil-rich Saudi Arabia does not need funds like the Taliban does, its investment in art demonstrates how cultural heritage could improve the reputation of the Taliban and, in turn, the foreign aid flowing into the country.

But in Saudi Arabia, and in Afghanistan too, support for the arts and cultural heritage should be caveated by the real possibility that these promises are empty and these regimes are just falsely claiming support for cultural heritage to improve their reputation. In the case of Saudi Arabia, despite its growing art scene, the government is most notorious for its countless human rights violations. Some rights groups believe the regime’s support for the arts is not genuine, but rather an attempt to distract from its poor human rights record—which includes restrictions on freedom of expression, abuse of migrant workers, and diminishment of women’s rights.

Ultimately, it is hard to know whether the Taliban’s professed support of cultural heritage is genuine or not. What is undeniable, though, is that even if the Taliban truly hopes to preserve cultural heritage, they may not have the means to do so.

Funding Troubles

Putting a price tag on conserving Afghan heritage is hard. It is clear, however, that the Taliban is strapped for cash. Before its ousting in 2001, 80 percent of the Taliban’s budget was funded through foreign aid. Foreign support has since plummeted. Humanitarian aid is 75 percent less so far in 2023 compared to last year. The UN’s annual budget for aid to Afghanistan dropped from US$4.6 to US$3.2 billion over that same period. To be sure, there have been some signs that foreign investors still want to support cultural heritage in Afghanistan. The Swiss foundation Aliph recently gave the Aga Khan Trust for Culture US$1 million to preserve Mes Aynak, a 2,000-year-old Buddhist city that mining companies want to destroy to access the valuable minerals beneath.

However, that investment seems more like an outlier than part of a trend. In 2022, the Taliban submitted an application to include the Bagh-e Babur gardens on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The success of this endeavor could have potentially assured financial assistance from the UN to preserve the historic site. But UNESCO never responded. For the UN and many other potential donors, the Taliban’s rights violations are too great to ignore—supporting cultural heritage appears akin to condoning rights violations for most international bodies. The regime bars women from secondary schools and many public spaces. It institutes punishment for acts such as robbery and kidnapping. Investing in such a government seems to come at too high a moral cost for many. Moreover, it makes funding cultural heritage seem somewhat less pressing. Can it be right to invest in monuments when, for instance, women cannot go to a public park? Though cultural heritage is invaluable to countries’ identities, the humanitarian crisis at hand is critical and worsening.

In this light, it becomes difficult to see how the Taliban will be able to fund conservation efforts, despite their importance. If their professed support for preservation—genuine or not—convinces more foreign aid organizations to donate, then there may yet be hope for Afghanistan’s rich cultural heritage. So far, though, those efforts have failed, dragged down by the Taliban’s restrictive social rules. At the moment, it appears that only with the rollback of these regulations will organizations consider funding to preserve cultural heritage in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.