Grappling with a no-win situation in Iraq, the US government and the rest of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) need a resurgent Taliban movement in Afghanistan as much as they need a hole in the head.

In this context, recent items in the New York Times and the publication of a document on heritage preservation by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) [1] put increased focus on the issue of reestablishing the Bamiyan Buddha statues, which were destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001. As with the Iraq situation, a harrowing failure to address the economics of the situation before delivering other policy objectives renders the task impossible before the first foundation stone is laid.

Cultures exist only so long as the economies needed to support them function. The destruction of an economy always produces with it the destruction of the culture. In that context, the plundering of valuable art pieces appears more as background noise than any indication of a separate problem.

In April 2003, as US forces entered Baghdad, chaos resulting from the disbanding of the Iraqi army and the Ba’ath Party allowed the introduction of perverse incentives. Faced with a loss of jobs, money and prestige, police quickly became poachers. Unscrupulous art dealers around the world smacked their lips at the prospect of getting their grubby hands on Mesopotamian antiques, many of which have since not been sighted, let alone recovered.

Much as failing economies lead to lost cultures, successful economies help to reverse the trend. In both Russia and China, newly minted millionaires and billionaires have spent much time in auction houses, recovering antiques taken away in the past. Most of the Faberge eggs and Ming vases lost during tumultuous times have since been redeposited in those countries, thanks to the efforts of indigenous wealthy.

In much the same way, the recovery of Afghanistan’s heritage is a matter for future generations of Afghans to achieve, rather than a subject matter for multilateral agencies to thrust solutions upon. I do not doubt that these agencies have a role to play, only that their presence and actions cannot be overestimated.

Why Bamiyan was destroyed

Addressing the question of the Bamiyan Buddha statues requires a trek through history.

The most recent history is easy enough – the Taliban, apparently acting on the instructions of their Wahhabi sponsors in Saudi Arabia, destroyed the statues in March 2001 as a way of cleansing the land from the acts of infidels. In so doing, they merely repeated the history of Christian and Islamic conquests around the world, where military victories usually led to the destruction of local landmarks. The main objective of such plunder, other than the pure monetary gains to be accrued from the destruction of temples et al, was to remove any signs of any older culture existing. This allowed a rewriting of history, suggesting that the invaders had “brought” civilization to the area.

It is a conceit of Abrahamic religions to insist on the primacy of civilization, starting as it did with the rejection of Egypt’s pagan culture by Moses. That the Egyptians had built an astounding civilization well before the Hittite invasions became a sundry matter, studied only for its decline. Similar fates soon befell other Asian civilizations, with the Chinese succumbing last. Even so, the decline of such civilizations had begun well before the invasion – for example, Buddhism thrived in India after it was adopted by the Emperor Ashok. It challenged the primacy of the Hindu system, but failed to provide an alternative economic framework. Indeed, by rejecting certain tasks as demeaning, Buddhism had the perverse effect of rendering a “lower” caste status to laborers and farmers in Hindu society.

As it migrated north toward China and the rest of Asia, the Buddhist religion initially was the mainstay of the masses, but slowly was absorbed by the trading community. Thus the center of Bamiyan as a Buddhist city evolved naturally from its position on the Silk Road. Invasions that weakened the city and transferred ownership of trading routes to Arabs, Turks and then Mongols logically led to the hollowing out of the society. Thus as Islamic invaders razed the libraries of Taxila and Genghis Khan first destroyed the city of Bamiyan (but left the statues standing), only the last rites to Buddhism needed to be performed.

The local angle

The issue of plunder occupies greater importance when the support of local communities becomes evident. In most cases, transfer of power becomes the catalyst.

The experience in Indochina, for example, showed that as communists took power, their attention was preoccupied by the means of production. This left symbolic structures such as temples at the mercy of unscrupulous officials, who could logically argue that selling Buddha statues freed up capital for industrial uses. That avarice and corruption accompanied such activities was a matter frequently glossed upon.

People pushed to the very extreme through economic hardships are prone to be radicalized and engage in illogical actions. The overwhelming support for communism in predominantly Hindu Nepal offers a recent example of the trend.

In much the same way, the Taliban encountered no local opposition to their attempt to destroy the Bamiyan statues. The city was the center of the Hazara tribe, while Pashtuns dominated the Taliban. The other side of the economic story was of course the excessive dependence on opium cultivation around the area, which the Taliban used as their primary currency. In essence, by 2001 the destruction of the local community had been accomplished; the statues were felled only as an afterthought.

All for one

The multinational approach to Afghanistan is flawed on many counts, but mainly because different agencies assume they are dealing with separate problems when in fact they are dealing with one. NATO forces are dealing with a resurgent Taliban movement, while various agencies are dealing with the mushrooming problems of opium cultivation, women’s rights, health, education, and the preservation of culture.

What business can you provide for people who make their money on opium cultivation? The only alternative that carries sufficiently high margins is tourism, which is particularly suited to the rugged landscape of Afghanistan and its phenomenal history, even if many of the most interesting sites were destroyed by a succession of invaders. In a situation where the tourism industry assumes primacy, local populations have to protect their economic interests, which they achieve by maintaining a more open society.

This has certainly been the experience in Turkey and Egypt, where radical Islamists are kept at bay not so much by the “war on terror” as by good old-fashioned neighborhood policemen. Terrorists committing heinous acts at Luxor were, for example, prevented from reenacting their methods because of the immediate negative economic impact. Terrorists cannot operate without support from local communities – and failing to recognize this factor makes the process of reconstruction arduous if not impossible.

The primary strategy for the various multilateral agencies is thus to provide suitable incentives for the locals to step in and protect their own heritage. Convince the Afghans that a million tourists will visit any new Bamiyan site, and new Buddha statues will not only spring up, they will be more majestic than the ones destroyed. It might seem like an awfully long-term project, but the idea presents the only proven method of aligning local interests with those of the global community.

1. UNESCO Courier, December, and “From ruins of Afghan Buddhas, a history grows”, New York Times, December 6.