— Sharif Hassan (@MSharif1990) November 1, 2021
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
November 10, 2021
A video recorded recently in Afghanistan shows Taliban gunmen using the remnants of the Bamiyan Buddhas for target practice.
The video is raising serious concerns about a pledge by the Taliban leadership to protect Afghanistan’s cultural and historical treasures.
Posted on social media, it shows members of the Taliban firing rocket-propelled grenades into one of the niches where giant Buddha statues had stood for more than 1,400 years until the Taliban reduced them to rubble in 2001.
At least seven Taliban gunmen can be seen grouped beside two vehicles during the incident.
From a distance, they can be heard reciting Taliban slogans and laughing as the hidden cameraman films them. Five rocket-propelled grenades are fired during the 37-second video clip.
As the camera pans from the shooters to their target, one rocket-propelled grenade can be seen exploding against the back wall of the niche where the head of a giant Buddha had once been — sending out a cloud of fresh debris.
The video is particularly disconcerting because militants under the command of the Taliban-appointed provincial governor in Bamiyan, Mullah Shireen Akhund, have been tasked with guarding the historic site.
Mullah Shireen Akhund was a member of the Taliban negotiating team in Doha that had promised to protect the site.
He also had been the Taliban insurgency’s intelligence chief under the group’s Kandahar-based Southern Command, led by Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob — the son of the late Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar.
Ahmadullah Wasiq, the deputy head of the Taliban-led government’s cultural commission, says the Taliban leadership in Kabul has ordered that there shall be no further destruction at the site of the Bamiyan Buddhas.
“If anyone commits this illegal act, the security organs of the Islamic Emirate will stop them, ” Wasiq told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi. “They will be handed over and brought to justice. ”
But when questioned about the video that shows Taliban fighters using the Bamiyan niches for target practice, Wasiq would not comment about who was responsible.
He also declined to comment on whether the Taliban has launched an investigation into the fresh destruction at Bamiyan.
In February, before the Taliban seized control across Afghanistan amid the withdrawal of U.S.-led international forces, the Taliban leadership in Doha issued a statement vowing to protect Afghanistan’s cultural heritage.
But most historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists have taken a wait-and-see attitude about how the new Taliban regime will treat Afghanistan’s historic relics.
Some have questioned the ability of the Taliban leadership to control rogue militants across the country who are loyal to various factional leaders.
Critics say the Taliban’s promises are nothing more than an effort to present a public image that is more moderate than its brutal regime was from 1996 to 2001.
That regime horrified the world in 2001 when it used antiaircraft artillery, anti-tank mines, dynamite, and other explosives to destroy Bamiyan’s two giant standing Buddha statues — declaring that they were “un-Islamic. ”
More recently, since the group seized control of Kabul in August, there have been concerns about the appointment of Mohammad Hassan Akhund as the Taliban’s prime minister.
In 2001, when Akhund was deputy prime minister of the Taliban’s first government, he had publicly endorsed the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas.
Blacklisted as a terrorist by the United Nations, he also has been accused of orchestrating the three weeks of demolition work that obliterated the famous Buddha statues.
Ali Olomi, a historian at Penn State Abington University, says Akhund was “one of the architects of the destruction of the Buddha statues.”
Crossroads Of History
Continued abuses at the site of the Bamiyan Buddhas aren’t the only cause for historians and archaeologists to be anxious.
Afghanistan has been at the crossroads of many civilizations that have left their mark over thousands of years — from ancient Greece and Persia to China, India, and Central Asia.
Hinduism is thought to have flourished in the region as long ago as the Bronze Age before the expansion of an ancient Iranian people known as the Medes from the seventh century B.C.
Later, Buddhism and the Zoroastrian faith of the ancient Persians took root there, as well as a Bactrian colony of the ancient Greeks after Alexander the Great’s army marched over the Hindu Kush Mountains in the fourth century B.C.
From the third through seventh centuries, territory in Afghanistan formed part of the Sassanid Empire — the last Persian imperial dynasty before the Muslim conquest of the mid-seventh century.
They were followed by the Abbasid caliphs — the supreme heads of the Islamic world from the eighth to the 13th centuries; the Ghaznavids, a Persianized Muslim dynasty of Central Asian Turkic origin; the Mongols, the Timurids, the Mughals, and the Durrani Empire of the 18th and 19th centuries.
UNESCO has inscribed two locations in Afghanistan on its list of World Heritage sites as important contributions to human history and civilization.
One is the landscape and archaeology of the entire Bamiyan Valley where the great Buddha statues were destroyed.
The other is the Minaret of Jam in the valley of the Hari-rud River some 200 kilometers east of Herat. This “tower of victory” was built in 1194 by the Ghurid sultan.
Before the Taliban seized power in August, four other sites were on Afghanistan’s tentative list for nomination as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
They include Band-e Amir in Bamiyan Province, a natural site and national park in the Hindu Kush Mountains known for its six deep-blue lakes.
The city of Balkh in ancient Bactria near the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif was a center of the Zoroastrian faith and Buddhism. It later became a political and cultural center after the Muslim conquest in the eighth century.
The western Afghan city of Herat is on the tentative list for its famous citadel, ancient monuments, the mausoleum of the Musalla complex, and the Great Mosque of Herat, which was built in the 13th century.
Bagh-e Babur, also known as Babur’s Gardens, is a 16th-century royal garden from the Timurid era that covers 11 hectares within the city of Kabul. It has attracted more than 400,000 visitors per year after restoration work by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture that began in 2003.
Afghanistan’s intangible heritage has been receiving growing attention with proposed UNESCO nominations for 2022 that include the Behzad style of miniature painting, the Atan-i Milli national dance, and the Afghan rabab — a stringed lute that was played in Afghanistan’s ancient royal courts and is considered a precursor to the Indian sarod.
Ann Williams, an archaeologist and longtime writer for National Geographic magazine, says she also is deeply concerned about the vulnerability of “an astounding Buddhist site” in Logar Province known as Mes Aynak.
“It also happens to be sitting on a copper deposit worth a fortune, ” says Williams, who wrote a chapter about Mes Aynak in her recently published book Lost Cities, Ancient Tombs: 100 Discoveries That Changed the World.
The archaeological sites of Mes Aynak contain a vast complex of fortified ancient Buddhist monasteries, a citadel, a Zoroastrian fire temple, ancient copper works, smelting workshops, a mint, miners’ homes, and market areas.
Artifacts have been recovered there from the Bronze Age, including some dating back more than 3,000 years.
In 2007, the internationally recognized Afghan government granted a 30-year lease to the China Metallurgical Group to mine copper there.
That $3 billion contract in the biggest foreign investment and private business venture in Afghanistan’s history.
Full-scale mining operations would destroy all of the archaeological sites. But that work was put on hold to give archaeologists time to try to save Mes Aynak’s cultural treasures.
It remains unclear whether the Taliban will allow the mining work to proceed in order to receive desperately needed income from China.
But the Taliban has previously denounced the archaeological work there as “promoting Buddhism.”
Williams concludes that Mes Ayak is now “threatened by both looters and commercial copper-mining pressures” under the new Taliban regime.
“Archaeologists have labored to rescue as much as they can, but who knows how much more will be lost,” Williams says. “It breaks my heart.”
Critics who doubt the Taliban’s resolve to protect Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic treasures note that the Taliban had made similar promises before it destroy the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001.
That same year, angry Taliban fighters with hammers also stormed into the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul.
They went from room to room, destroying thousands of objects in the collection that they deemed as un-Islamic or idolatrous.
Museum workers spent the next two decades trying to piece those artifacts back together, with the museum’s recovery beginning in earnest in 2004.
The director of the National Museum, Mohammad Fahim Rahimi, saw encouraging signs from the Taliban in August shortly after the group stormed into Kabul.
With no international or Afghan security forces to guard the museum, Rahimi called on the Taliban to guard the priceless ancient treasures from looters.
The Taliban obliged in accordance with the leadership’s February declaration that ancient artifacts and relics “form a part of our country’s history, identity, and rich culture,” and that “all have an obligation to robustly protect, monitor, and preserve these artifacts.”
“All mujahedin must prevent excavation of antiquities and preserve all historic sites to safeguard them from damage, destruction, and decay,” the statement said.
Up to now, that has created an ironic scenario in which the Taliban continues to guard the restored relics that the group destroyed two decades earlier.
But the Taliban has not yet announced its long-term plans for the museum.
The fate of the museum’s collections also is unclear in cities like Ghazni, Herat, Bamiyan, and Mazar-e Sharif.
However, former UNESCO employees already have confirmed that about 1,000 priceless artifacts stored at warehouses in Bamiyan were stolen or destroyed shortly after the Taliban takeover.
Saifurrahman Mohammadi, a Taliban member appointed to the Taliban’s cultural affairs office in Bamiyan, blames that on looting before the Taliban arrived when troops of the previous Afghan government fled and left behind a security vacuum.
Francesco Bandarin, the former director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Center, says it is not difficult to imagine there could be “grave consequences” for the control and conservation of Afghanistan’s most important monuments and archaeological sites.
In an opinion piece published in late August by The Art Newspaper, Bandarin said Afghan heritage “is at serious risk of attacks and destruction as well as the collapse of the management structures built up in recent years to conserve and protect the country’s ancient past.”
“If the more extremist factions of the Taliban were to control Afghanistan’s next government, its notorious history of cultural destruction could be repeated,” Bandarin concluded.
Rahimi says he hopes the Taliban has learned that preserving ancient history is not against Islamic law.
“Nobody is worshipping these objects,” Rahimi says. “Everybody considers these objects as historical items showing our history.”
But if the Taliban shows over time that it has not changed its mentality, Rahimi says all of his museum’s work during the past two decades will be lost — not only the cultural objects, but the cherished values that Afghans have about their history and identity.
Written and reported by Ron Synovitz with reporting by RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi.