The Perils of Development: Afghanistan’s Threatened Treasures

Armed conflict devastates a country, straining its institutions to their limits and beyond, shattering the foundations of its economy, and causing immeasurable human suffering and loss. It also calls into question the country’s very ability to exist, posing fundamental questions about its worth and capabilities. Why is this happening to us? Will we survive this? How will we ever go forward after such a blow? These are questions that inevitably accompany a losing war or even one with an ambiguous outcome.

If the conflict does not last too long, if the damage does not exceed the capacity of the country to repair itself, and if the population can maintain its cohesion and some sense of hope, then a country can reemerge even from significant devastation. Once the dust has settled, it might even learn a productive lesson from what has happened and emerge stronger than it was before the conflict. Such an outcome will depend on many factors, but key among them is one that we often ignore, take for granted, or underestimate: culture.

All would-be nation-builders know that a country emerging from conflict needs an army, a police force, schools, a constitution and laws, elections and a new government. But to get traction and become part of a new and healthy national fabric, these elements can’t just float in space as good ideas imported from the outside and funded by the benign victor or a generous international community. They have to be grafted onto something with durability and longevity, and that something is the country’s culture. Culture says: “Our ancestors have survived this and more, and so can we.” It says: “However demolished and lowly we may appear at this moment, we have something of value to contribute to the world.” And it says: “We belong together, and jointly we must overcome what happened and move forward in a better way.”

Related Essay

Pakistan’s Balochistan Problem

We have removed “Pakistan’s Balochistan Problem” by Aurangzaib Alamgir from this space after confirming that the author copied, without attribution, significant portions of an article by Mr. Eddie Walsh of Georgetown University, that appeared previously an Al Jazeera article entitled, “Should the US support an independent Balochistan”. We thank Mr. Walsh for alerting us and we extend our apologies to him for inadvertently publishing an article that plagiarized his work.

The problem is that culture itself does not emerge unscathed from a conflict. Quite the opposite: war inflicts heavy damage both to tangible symbols of heritage such as historic buildings or monuments and to the intangible expressions such as traditions, ethical norms, literature, and art.

During extreme moments, when basic physical survival is at risk and people are dying in the streets, culture can seem a luxury item. But it is more than opera tickets and reading groups; it is the totality of qualities, beliefs, values, symbols, and practices, large and small, that together add up to a unique way of life, to the collective being and personality of a group, country, or population. For social entities, culture represents survival in linear time, a link to the past, a vision for the future, and a compelling reason to continue to walk that path together.

As the physical manifestations of culture, heritage sites particularly are often targeted during war precisely because of their psychological, religious, and economic saliency, and because of the demoralization caused by their destruction. Bomb a mosque, cathedral, medieval fortress, or Renaissance theater that holds pride of place in someone’s history, and you strike a killing blow.

People instinctively know how tragic the loss of their culture is; that is why an attack on a cherished edifice causes a visceral reaction, just as it explains the impulse of revolutionary crowds, who seem driven as their first action after victory to topple the statues or monuments honoring the overthrown dictator and the authoritarian rule that oppressed them. This impulse is deeply anchored in human behavior—visitors to ancient Egyptian tombs and monuments can view the scratched-out names of controversial queens and pharaohs who, upon being displaced, were subjected to a process of obliteration aimed at erasing them and their entire epoch from history. And certainly Islamic extremists today understand the significance of monuments, which is why they try to destroy anything that speaks of achievements prior to Islam, or challenges their own intended cultural primacy. The Taliban was not just acting from casual malice in 2001 when they dynamited the glorious Buddha statues carved into the cliffs of the Bamiyan Valley in central Afghanistan. These had to go because in their very magnitude and permanence they stood as a powerful silent rebuke to the lack of cultural accomplishments or abilities of Mullah Omar’s ragtag band of terrorists and the worldview they espouse.


It follows that the importance of culture and its related artifacts should be better recognized, and should become more intrinsic to the nation-building enterprises of the modern era. Post-conflict reconstruction efforts would in all likelihood be more effective if they took into account the significant ways in which a country’s culture—including its heritage sites—impacts its ability to get back on its feet. There are at least three strong reasons for this connection.

First, culture can transmit a powerful message of resiliency. The shaping of a post-conflict narrative can critically affect the way a population thinks of its new position. Is there an honest effort to see what went wrong? Or does the narrative instead place all the blame on some outside evil or on some hapless minority group? Is the narrative backward-looking, glorifying a long-gone era and seeking ways to turn back the clock, or does it look optimistically to the future and derive from past greatness the confidence that new frontiers can be encountered in new ways?

Shaping and disseminating a constructive narrative should be a core task of nation building, both as a source of strength and direction and to put the new order on proper foundations. The fact that this process began at the zero hour in the case of defeated Nazi Germany, for instance, almost certainly contributed to the successful, democratic Germany of today.

Second, culture is an extraordinarily strong cement, establishing a bond that binds a country and a people together. This, more than their beauty or their architectural design, is what gives key monuments their deep symbolic value. The case of Warsaw Castle during World War II is instructive. The German military studded this castle, a landmark building of the city of Warsaw, with plugs of dynamite, essentially turning it into an inanimate hostage for Polish submission. In punishment for the Warsaw uprising, the Germans made good on the threat, reducing the building to rubble. One of the Poles’ first acts, after the war, was to restore the castle to its former glory. This was an expensive and difficult undertaking, and arguably there were other things they could have spent this money on, but they were not just rebuilding a structure; they were rebuilding their national experience, and asserting its proud survival.

Similarly, when Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral, a religious site since at least the twelfth century, caught fire during the final days of World War II, hundreds of already exhausted and demoralized civilians rushed to form a bucket brigade in a desperate attempt to save the building, not because they were ordered to do so but because this edifice was regarded as the beleaguered city’s symbolic heart. It had grown from a tiny chapel; it had been damaged by Turkish cannonry during the Ottoman siege of the seventeenth century but been repaired and given a new bell made from the melted metal of enemy cannons. It was associated with mysterious legends and superstitions; for most Viennese, it personified them and their city.

There is another side to this coin: In Afghanistan today, many Afghans describe the daily discouragement they feel at the sight of the shattered hulk of the formerly resplendent Darulaman Palace, once the city’s visual jewel, now a constant reminder of how elusive peace and normalcy yet remain.

This psychological value of historical monuments is what places them at peril. Targeting them is the quintessential gesture of asymmetric conflict—destruction being so much faster, cheaper, and easier than either the original construction, often the work of decades or even centuries, or any reconstruction, which often requires materials or craftsmanship that is almost impossible to replicate in a later age. When Islamic extremists eradicated World Heritage shrines in Mali and called for the destruction of the pyramids in Egypt, they knew exactly the power of the threat they were wielding.

Finally and most pragmatically, culture and its physical expressions also represent a significant economic opportunity for countries emerging from conflict and seeking to rebuild their economies. Tourism can be a strong source of jobs and revenue, representing up to a quarter of the entire national income for some countries. In its gradations from eco-tourism, typically taking place away from the more dangerous urban centers and requiring little infrastructure, to the more regular influx of visitors for which stability is necessary, it supports a hospitality industry in hotels and restaurants, the production and sale of crafts and souvenirs, travel and tour guides, and a variety of other occupations that create development and generate revenue. In this regard, a country’s past can quite literally hold the key to its future. 


These issues of conflict and culture are dramatically unfolding today in many places around the world, but for an illustrative example, we can look to Afghanistan. In the eyes of the world, this is an austere, remote, and violent outpost at the margins of civilization. And indeed, its many recent decades of upheaval can cloak the fact that this benighted nation has a rich and diverse culture with many high points and epochs of glory. Its history weaves together Zoroastrian and Buddhist strands along with Islam; it suffered multiple conquests and was home to several great empires but was also shaped by the ideas of Ataturk and other radical social reformers. Despite having pious Muslims in the majority, the population took great pride in the Buddha statues of Bamiyan and mourned their destruction. Far more than a provincial monument, this was a national icon, portrayed on Afghan banknotes. It is no accident that after the overthrow of the Taliban, President Hamid Karzai traveled to the site and, in front of a large rally, dramatically swore to rebuild them.

The struggle between the traditional and the new continues in the country today, on many levels. In Kabul, renowned anthropologist Nancy Dupree has fought a losing battle against the replacement of the city’s traditional, classic architecture with the opulent, Pakistani-style luxe mansions of drug lords, warlords, and other nouveaux riches. If England’s Turquoise Mountain Foundation had not rescued one small neighborhood in Kabul for preservation and restoration, nothing would be left of the Old City.

A violent insurgency, along with decades of warfare, has made Afghanistan a minefield that visitors now wisely avoid. But along with trade and agriculture, tourism—and its earlier manifestation, pilgrimage—has historically been one of the pillars of this nation’s economy. In the seventh century, the traveling monk Xuanzang composed one of the earliest “tour guides” to the country. It included colorful descriptions of the clothing, food, and manners of the people of Bamiyan and Kapisa provinces, as well as a depiction of their outstanding monuments and religious sites. When the Arab scholar Ibn al-Nadim visited during the tenth century, he found this stream of religious tourism to be continuing uninterrupted, and reported that “the people of India [he meant the Buddhists] go on pilgrimages to these two idols, bearing offerings of incense and fragrant woods.”

The steady stream of visitors who traveled across Afghanistan during the early 1970s along the “hippie trail” are evidence that subsets of tourists will come even if the infrastructure is rudimentary and travel is hazardous. Today, despite the absence of safe roads and a functioning airport, and with the constant possibility of sudden violence, and without the earlier religious or flower-power mystique, well over one hundred thousand Afghan tourists visit Bamiyan Province every year. Other hardy groups are braving the suicide bombs and roadside firefights to view the spectacular landscape of Afghanistan’s first national park, Band-e-Amir, to ski in the Bamiyan Valley, or to purchase the distinctive pottery of the hillside town of Istalif, outside Kabul. Catering to this dauntless crew, Lonely Planet has published an up-to-date travel guide that includes security advice.

But if this cultural heritage holds out some fragile promise for Afghanistan if and when conflict ceases, some of the nation-building efforts already taking place, such as the one at Mes Aynak, remain insensitive to cultural heritage and threaten the Afghan future.


Only forty kilometers from the capital city and easily accessible by road, Mes Aynak is a cultural treasure that could draw large numbers of visitors to Afghanistan in the future—if it manages to survive. Having endured wars, climate change, religious upheavals, looters, and the steady deterioration of passing centuries, it now faces its most dangerous adversaries: greed, impatience, and governmental incompetence.

Mes Aynak is a sprawling and spectacular conglomeration of Buddhist monasteries and residential and commercial areas, Bronze Age remains, and the ancient fortifications that formerly guarded what clearly once was an expansive and prosperous city. Archaeologists regard it as potentially comparable to Pompeii, if properly preserved and excavated. Geographically, the site is situated on the ancient Silk Road, weaving together elements from three civilizations—China, India, and Iran. It is a treasure house of the art and architecture and the influences of these civilizations on Afghanistan; excavation could reveal much about the transcontinental traffic of scientific and religious ideas and how these managed to flow in the ages before modern transit and communications. Mes Aynak also represents a colossal potential paradigm shift in Afghanistan’s image, testifying to an era when this region—now considered backward and remote—was a global center of industry, technology, innovation, architecture, art, and commerce.

Recent excavations of a single monastery revealed detailed wall paintings of previous civilizations and depictions of daily life that give insight into movements of people and cultures across Central Asia. The gilt paint that coated statutes that were discovered in this dig give evidence of the wealth of the Aynak plain. Numerous other stupas—dome-shaped structures that traditionally house Buddhist icons, jewelry, and relics—have also been discovered at Aynak. Those on the surface had been previously looted of the treasures inside, but the archaeologists hope to find many more beneath the ground, still intact.

But beneath the same ground, fatefully, is a copper deposit: and not just any copper deposit. Believed to be one of the largest in the world, the Aynak deposit prompted Afghanistan’s largest foreign investment project to date. In its excitement over the fabulous riches about to stream its way from mining revenue, the government of Afghanistan impulsively chose to sacrifice Mes Aynak, signing off on a mining plan as ill considered as it is unrealistic—one that in effect acquiesced in the demolition of the historic area. In its rush to cooperate with what initially looked like a lucrative offer from the Chinese mining company MCC, the government has condoned the omission of steps that a more developed country with more experienced authorities and better functioning rule of law would have insisted upon: a proper survey of the archaeological site to determine where the most important structures are located (high-tech methods allow this to be done quickly by aerial means, not requiring ground excavation), followed by a meeting of experienced professionals from the fields of mining and archaeology to review technical options and develop a way forward that satisfies both the commercial and the cultural interests of the locale.

To silence the incipient clamor from the worldwide cultural heritage community, a small group of emergency archaeologists—a subspecialty of archaeology not actually intended for a site of such magnitude—were brought in and instructed to quickly conduct minimal salvage work. They were told that they had six months before blasting would commence in the so-called Red Zone, the core area of Mes Aynak, at which time anything they had not been able to dig out and cart away would be buried, either directly or as a consequence of the powerful underground vibrations from mining detonations.

It was a charade of cultural evaluation. Salvage archaeology is customarily applied in dense urban areas when new construction, for example of a subway station, accidentally unearths buried antiquities; under such circumstances, there is no possibility of preservation-in-place, so findings are photographed, documented, and removed. This is not the approach of choice for an entire buried city whose history goes back three thousand years and which is situated on an uninhabited plain.

Salvage archaeology is a polite term for what actually amounts to demolition archaeology. Laboring under an unforgiving deadline, the workers at Mes Aynak hurriedly dismantled anything that was portable, and thereby unwittingly became accomplices to the destruction of a people’s legacy. The well-intentioned archaeologists of Mes Aynak are painfully aware of the contrast between the job they could have done and the one that has actually taken place. A French scholar who is part of the team says, “It’s as though you were a surgeon sent to do battlefield medicine, and later you learn that it wasn’t a battlefield situation at all, and you could have taken your patients to a proper hospital where you would not have had to amputate their limbs.”

The mining contract was signed in 2009; ever since then, mining has supposedly been “imminent.” But planning and launching a project of this size and complexity is not a small matter. It takes at least three and more usually five years of preparatory work before mining can begin. As of today, ground has scarcely been broken and there is little indication that it will be anytime soon. No roads have been paved, no electricity brought in, no feasibility studies prepared. A dormitory for Chinese workers was constructed early on, but only a small group was sent, and last year even most of these abruptly went back home. Rumors and conspiracy theories abound, ranging from the accusation that the Chinese are just nailing down mineral options with no intention of actually developing the resources, or that they want to await the outcome of next year’s Afghan election, or that they underestimated the infrastructure costs associated with this location but don’t want to admit it for fear of losing the contract. The bottom line is that the archaeologists could already be looking back on three years of solid excavation and exploration, with another three to five years before them. Yet they are still under orders to work from one fictitious six-month deadline to the next—salvaging rather than preserving.

A group of international experts who reviewed the project last year found that even the commencement of mining did not need to mean the end of archaeological work, and that large portions of the site could be preserved for future generations. They highlighted the existence of new technologies, lower-impact mining methods that include, for example, special explosives that were developed for mountainous areas to prevent avalanches. This is great news—but it would require a collaborative and transparent team effort of all stakeholders, and this in turn would require a directive from the Afghan government, which in the throes of its many other dramas appears determined to ignore this issue.

That will probably not be possible for much longer. History is not the only thing at risk in Aynak; so, too, are the health and livelihood of the country’s human inhabitants. The Aynak mine lies near Afghanistan’s populous capital, Kabul, and also sits atop two significant ground-water basins. Copper mining—especially open-pit copper mining—is dangerous because it utilizes toxic chemicals and heavy metals that leach into the ground water and soil, and because it deploys large amounts of explosives for blasting. Serious health risks—ranging from asthma and lung disease to cancer and brain damage—are associated with the chemicals used during such mining operations. Moreover, copper mines are known to be technically challenging and costly to operate in an environmentally responsible manner. And cleanup costs are very high because of the massive changes to the terrain and the toxicity of the mining process.

Water depletion is another significant risk associated with copper mines. Aynak’s agriculture requires large amounts of water from rivers, wells, and aquifers—which would likely be siphoned off by the mine. And significant quantities of topsoil—roughly one hundred tons per ton of copper—must be moved to mine. Removing such large amounts of topsoil risks landslides, reduced soil fertility, and other distortions to the meteorological balance of the area.

The limited capacity and resources of the Afghanistan Environmental Protection Agency exacerbate these risks. This agency has failed to date to obtain an Environmental Impact Assessment from the Chinese company MCC for its mining operations at Aynak, despite that assessment being a legal requirement under Afghan law.


Nowhere is the importance of culture and cultural heritage to nation building more clear than in Afghanistan—a country with a rich and diverse past that is currently beset by corruption, weak institutions, insecurity, and deadly violence. To date, little has been done to give Afghans hope for the future through a positive narrative that lauds their rich history and wealth of cultural sites.

This is not an academic issue. With the US military drawdown accelerating and presidential elections looming, Afghanistan risks relapse to civil war if Afghan society does not come together and unite behind a hope for a better future. Culture is far from a panacea to Afghanistan’s myriad challenges, but as events at Mes Aynak suggest, it is a critical piece of the nation-building puzzle that demands immediate attention.

Afghanistan would be wise to learn from the examples of the Balkans. In 1996, when the brutal genocidal war there finally came to an end, the city of Sarajevo had suffered immense losses. The cease-fire was announced in the middle of the winter; fuel had run out long ago, and people were freezing and starving. Life would not get better for some time, and nothing would bring back the many dead. In that hour, the city decided to hold a concert. A third of the orchestra’s musicians had been killed, and their seats remained empty. The audience wore coats and blankets against the chill of the unheated building. A Serb conductor stood before the Bosnian, Croat, and Serb players, to mark the moment when the city once again could hear music instead of gunfire.

Cheryl Benard is the president of the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage. Eli Sugarman is the senior director of the business consulting firm Gryphon Partners.


Photo Credit: Goosemountains bei Flickr

OG Image: