Neither the West nor the select Islamic nations voicing their
condemnation should be surprised by the Taliban's laying waste to
Afghanistan's cultural heritage. These Islamic fundamentalist
"students of the Koran" - as impervious to their people's needs as
they are to international indignation - are completing a process
that Muslim iconoclasts and wars of the past failed to do.
The ruin of Afghanistan's culture is nothing new. The colossal
1,700-year-old Bamiyan Buddhas were first defaced by the cannons of
Mogul soldiers during the 18th century. Following the Soviet pullout
from Afghanistan in 1989, bored and undisciplined mujahideen, or
holy warriors, took potshots at the relics and covered the
surrounding ancient wall paintings with graffiti. Refugee fires
from the sandstone cliff caves that flank the statues also
inflicted severe damage.
The past two decades of fighting have done much to wreck
Afghanistan's patrimony. The Soviets, the mujahideen, and more
recently, the Taliban have all contributed to the wanton vandalism
of the Kabul Museum plus many of the country's rich archaeological
locations, such as the ancient Buddhist site at Hadda outside
Jalalabad, whose carvings have been chiseled away. Numerous, too,
are the artifacts that have ended up in the bazaars of neighboring
But never before has there been any attempt to demolish
systematically the pre-Islamic elements of Afghanistan's heritage.
Even while traveling as a journalist in Afghanistan during the
height of the war, I found a sense of pride among most Afghans in
their country's diverse cultural past, even among Muslim extremists
who are now members of the Taliban.
A historic crossroads reflecting the likes of Alexander the
Great, Cyrus the Great, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, and Babur,
Afghanistan boasts antique vestiges dating back more than 20
centuries. Before the outbreak of hostilities in 1978, the Afghans
clearly relied on such archaeological treasures as a tourist
For the Taliban, the decision to destroy Afghanistan's heritage
may be an attempt to punish the international community for
imposing sanctions. It may also be that the "students" simply don't
care what others think. As a primarily Pashtun movement with
strongholds in southern and eastern Afghanistan, the Taliban are
characterized by ignorance and limited education. Most of the so-
called "students" can't read or write.
Its leaders, notably Mullah Muhammad Omar, have perpetrated
socio-religious notions that have little to do with traditional
Afghan culture. Despite the Taliban's assertions that it is Islamic
to destroy the Buddhas, there has always been a strong tradition in
much of the Muslim world to respect the ruins of the past and to
accept the presence of other faiths.
Without foreign interference by Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and
others, Afghanistan's war - and consequently the Taliban - would
have petered out long ago. …