The rapid reconquest of Afghanistan by the Taliban is a startling development that threatens to plunge the country and region into a humanitarian catastrophe. The military organization ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 through 2001, and in that time imposed a brutal theocratic regime that saw the persecution of women and girls and the wholesale slaughter and repression of non-Pashtun ethnic groups and those deemed apostates. Notably, the Taliban also conducted a far-reaching campaign of iconoclasm that attempted to scrub Afghanistan clean of its pre-Islamic past, a policy that culminated in the demolition of the famed Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001 and the ransacking of ancient artifacts held in the National Museum of Afghanistan.
As reported by The Art Newspaper, international heritage and culture organizations are actively monitoring the situation on the ground and the status of their partners across the country; namely the thousands of Afghans who have taken on the responsibility of managing and conserving their cultural heritage sites.
Afghanistan is both an ancient and modern crossroads of civilization and the country’s reserve of historical artifacts is accordingly large. There, at the western end of the Himalayas range, the region acted as a vital hub and conduit of commerce, religion, and culture, across Eurasia. It is on this route that successive waves of invaders—from the Persian Empire under Darius I, through the campaigns of Alexander the Great, the Caliphate during the reign of Omar, and further waves ranging from the Mongols to the Sikhs—left their mark.
Of growing concern to many, according to National Geographic, is the collection of over 80,000 artifacts held at the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul. Many of the artifacts had only been repatriated in the last decade, following the wholesale sell-off of artifacts during the Afghanistan Civil War. Looting appears to have taken hold of the capital, though reports indicate that at the time of writing it has not yet reached the National Museum.
The Taliban have expressly stated that they will protect, monitor, and preserve artifacts and cultural sites across the country. But, as noted by National Geographic, cultural heritage staff are being threatened by Taliban officials for collaborating with international organizations. Many are also skeptical of the Taliban’s commitment to that pledge considering the irrevocable damage to historic sites under their rule.