During the run-up to Afghanistan's October 9 presidential election, warlords have been identified as a major threat to the country's political stability. Less publicized is the fact that warlords also pose a danger to the country's cultural heritage. Government officials say warlords are looting artifacts from archeological sites across the country to help finance their private armies.
Dr. Sayed Raheen, Afghanistan's minister of information and culture, says the problem of looting archeological treasures is widespread, adding that the government, with its meager resources, is virtually powerless to bring a stop to the practice.
"Afghanistan is one big museum. ... There are hundreds of sites," Raheen said in a recent interview. "Unfortunately, we are unable to prevent looting."
Given the continuing strong international demand for archeological artifacts, Afghanistan's cultural sites have been exploited for over a decade as a source of income. However, the problem has now reached a point where Raheen is now reluctant to visit archeological sites out of concern that he would expose them to pillaging. "When I have visited a site, robbers start digging right there after I have left. They think that if the minister ... visited this particular spot, then something must be there," he said.
Many sites, such as an ancient Greek settlement near Ai Khanoum in northern Afghanistan, have already been completely plundered. Ancient Balkh, another northern site, is currently seeing much illegal digging, according to Ana Rodriguez of the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage, an NGO.
The Ministry of Information and Culture has recruited a 500-strong security force to secure cultural heritage sites. But Raheen was quick to admit that the number of security officers was inadequate to provide security for all sites. He said the force also lacked equipment to do its job properly. "Even the salary is inadequate," Raheen added.
Those that try to prevent looting are often subjected to retribution. In one instance in 2003, four police officers were murdered when dispatched to protect an archeological site. Raheen said that he has received numerous reports of cases in which those who have provided information about looting have subsequently suffered severe beatings at the hands of alleged warlord loyalists.
The hardest-hit provinces at the moment are Logar, Kapisa, Takhar and Balkh, according to Raheen, who didn't want to name any of the warlords suspected of involvement in the trafficking of antiquities. "That's not government policy," he said. Warlords derive much of their funds through the cultivation and trafficking of narcotics, experts and officials say. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Antiquities trafficking is nonetheless an important funding source, observers say.
While warlords play an important role in the looting, they and their militias are far from the only ones involved. A foreign specialist in the field, who spoke on condition of anonymity, asserted that large numbers of Afghans in rural regions are deeply involved in illegal digging. When they are not working directly for a warlord, the specialist said, many Afghans in rural locales, eager to augment their meager earnings in agriculture, scour the local countryside on their own for artifacts that they can sell to Pakistani smugglers. An international network of antiquities smugglers extends to virtually every village in Afghanistan, the specialist claimed.
The government's ineffectiveness in combating antiquities trafficking is in part connected with official corruption, the foreign specialist said. Some officials provide illicit excavators and smugglers with information in return for bribes. "More money is to be made in assisting the looting than in protecting the sites," the specialist claimed. Raheen, however, vehemently denied that corruption was a significant element in the looting issue.
In the absence of effective government measures to contain the cultural crisis, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has launched an awareness campaign, urging locals not to loot and to warn authorities if they observe illegal excavation. "You've got to do something," says Masanori Nagaoka, a UNESCO consultant for culture in Afghanistan.
Although Raheen thinks such a campaign is "good," he doesn't believe villagers "can do anything about it." He indicated that warlords at this time are just too powerful, and too many people, including regional authorities, have been intimidated. "They're wild warlords," Raheen said.
Daan van der Schriek is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi.