GENEVA — 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 Pakistan.
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 attraction.
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. The lack of Western interest in the fate of the Afghan people at the end of the Soviet war also has had a big impact. The United States provided an estimated $6 billion worth of assistance to the resistance, but then virtually dismissed Afghanistan from its concerns, leaving the Pakistanis to take up the slack. Since then, Pakistani interests have done everything possible to bolster Pashtun-based Islamic groups.
Most educated Afghans have long since fled the country. Only a handful remain to run the Taliban administration in Kabul. Backed by often arrogant armed fighters from Pashtun areas to the south, the Taliban have relied heavily on international aid to help keep basic services running, but have done little for ordinary Afghans. This has not stopped them from loudly criticizing the outside world for caring more for old stones than hungry Afghans. While aid for the victims of Afghanistan's dire drought has certainly not been as forthcoming as it should be, the Taliban have mainly themselves to blame.
Apart from select Taliban officials who have good relations with the UN and other agencies, the movement's leadership has actively prevented aid groups from carrying out work that benefits all Afghans, such as the creation of an effective health and educational system. Their discrimination against women, particularly widows, is blatantly cruel. And their dogmatic interpretation of the Koran is used to justify any form of repression, including massacres, against the Shia Hazaras and other non-Pashtun ethnic minorities.
The Taliban are believed to control more than 90 percent of the country, and they are still seeking to subjugate the rest. Compared with the infighting and lawlessness that existed in many areas following the mujahideen takeover from the communists in 1992, the Taliban brought peace to many areas. As a result, the movement still commands considerable grass-roots support among the Pashtuns. But its current excesses, particularly in Kabul, are proving too much even for war-weary Afghans.
The US has blown cold with regard to the Taliban's harboring of alleged terrorist Osama bin Laden. Together with other Western countries, however, it has turned largely a blind eye to Pakistan's support of the Taliban. Rather than just bemoaning the fate of Buddhist statues, the West should examine its own role in this country's continuing tragedy. Only by bringing a halt to foreign fueling of this 23-year-old conflict can Afghans hope to see an end to the turmoil that is keeping them in a state far worse than the ruins being destroyed.
Edward Girardet covered the Afghan war for the Monitor, starting in 1979. He is editor of CROSSLINES Global Report and AFGHANISTAN in the 'Essential Field Guide to Humanitarian and Conflict Zones.' He directs Media Action International in Geneva.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor