Beyond the Compound: U.S. Cultural Heritage Policy in Afghanistan

Joanie Meharry, independent scholar in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies

In an isolated valley in Logar province, located about 25 miles south-east of Kabul, an armed convoy moves in to secure a makeshift landing pad. On board the helicopter is a group of American cultural specialists and international journalists coming from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to visit the 4th-5th century Buddhist monastery of Mes Aynak (“little copper well”). Further down the road, a team of Afghan soldiers guard the entrance to the archaeological site with rocket-propelled grenades.

Logar Valley, Afghanistan

Not long ago, the sight of an American helicopter in Mes Aynak would have been a rare one indeed. Culture had not played a significant role in the U.S. Embassy’s functions in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. For many years, culture had been handled by short-term officers in the Public Affairs Department, affording little continuity with each handover. And security regulations had inhibited frequent visits to major cultural and historical sites.

Since 2010, there has been a decisive change.  The U.S. Embassy’s recently appointed Cultural Heritage Program Manager, an archaeologist educated at New York University, routinely travels to Mes Aynak to monitor the excavation alongside Afghan officials.

The Mes Aynak archaeological site is scheduled to be razed within the next three years by China Metallurgical Group, a Beijing-based mining corporation, after an initial US$3 billion agreement was struck with the Afghan government to develop a copper mine about a 1,000 yards away. Yet the deal is the beginning of a critical opportunity to expand the untapped mineral wealth of the country – so vast it is speculated by American geologists to be worth US$1 trillion.

The Afghan government agreed to a three-year excavation of the site by a team of Afghan archaeologists from the National Institute of Archaeology and French archaeologists from the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA) to salvage the finds before the site is destroyed. The Buddhist monastery is now also one of the most secure archaeological sites in Afghanistan as a result of the government’s plan to limit further looting.

Mes Aynak’s treasures under guard

While Mes Aynak is perhaps the most pressing example of Afghanistan’s endangered cultural heritage, the U.S. Cultural Heritage Manager also makes frequent rounds to monitor equally significant cultural and historical sites in Bamiyan, Ghazni, Herat, and Kabul. The position was specifically created last year to place a U.S. focus on the cultural heritage sector in Afghanistan, which has received increasing levels of attention from policymakers after the looting of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad in 2003.

Across Afghanistan, thousands of unguarded archaeological sites are threatened by natural deterioration, destruction, and looting. Antiquities that demonstrate the ancient Chinese, Greek, Indian, and Persian influences in Afghanistan are consistently pillaged and smuggled onto the international art market. In many instances, the plunder is overseen by organized gangs, hiring impoverished villagers who are struggling to meet their basic needs.

So as the largest international force in Afghanistan, how is the U.S. choosing to help protect and promote the country’s cultural heritage? In previous years, U.S. policymakers have suggested funding large-scale, immediate-impact projects in order to help win the insurgency. However, Afghan cultural specialists are adamant that long-term, training-based projects will be of greater benefit to the future of Afghanistan. The embassy is now employing a broader approach towards cultural heritage focused on these essential points:

Assessing need. The U.S. Embassy is funding a wide range of projects to address basic but critical issues. Recent plans have ranged from publishing children’s books for schools in Ghazni, to documenting archaeological finds from Balkh, and erecting signs in Dari and Pashtu at the major cultural and historical sites across the country, which have been hitherto unmarked. Centrally located sites will also have signs with English. In Mes Aynak, the embassy is planning to build a conservation and storage facility in order to house the most recent Buddhist finds. The temporary space will be constructed less than a mile away from the site in order to store artifacts that cannot be transported to the National Museum in Kabul.

Investing Afghan. At the heart of each of these projects there is an emphasis on the training and mentoring of Afghans. Not all of the projects are currently organized by Afghans, yet investing in the education of Afghans, particularly the younger generation, is the surest way to build capacity in the country.

Providing continuity. The Cultural Heritage Manager will be training a replacement before continuing in the position from Washington, DC. In this way, the initiatives the current manager begins are more likely to be carried out by a successor. Making good on promises is the simplest way to build trust with Afghan counterparts.

Thinking long-term. The U.S. is now funding both short-term and long-term projects. In March, the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl W. Eikenberry, promised a minimum US$5 million donation to contribute to the construction of a new National Museum of Afghanistan. The U.S. also pledged at least US$2 million to fund a three-year museum partnership with an American institution in order to facilitate training and capacity building for the National Museum staff. From Afghanistan, the Minister of Information and Culture, Makhdoom Raheen, has promised US$2 million, to be built with the  proceeds from a touring exhibition of the country’s most valuable antiquities. The Ministry of Defense (MOD) has donated the land for the new site. Finally the World Bank is set to contribute US$1 million, with a minimum total of US$10 million to be spent for the new National Museum.

The exhibition, Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, has travelled to Europe, the United States, and Canada and is presently on display at the British Museum. It has been particularly successful in London; by opening night some 100,000 people had reserved tickets for the spring season. If the plan to build the new National Museum in Kabul is successful, the rare antiquities from Ai Khanum, Begram, Tepe Fullol, and Tillya Tepe will be able to return to Afghanistan as a permanent exhibition. Thus, the new museum will be a valuable future investment as it draws in visitors and creates outreach programs to inspire a greater appreciation for the country’s cultural heritage.

While the above initiatives are encouraging, the future of Afghan cultural heritage preservation is intimately tied to the Obama administration’s strategic vision for US-Afghan relations that will unfold in the coming months.


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