Why the Buddhas of Bamian were destroyed?

It would have been possible to save the Bamian Buddhas from destruction. But it was not an important enough issue for the western powers to intervene over. And the outsiders who did consider the Buddhas important were not prepared to contemplate the kind of intervention that might have worked. The Buddhas were abandoned, argues our guest blogger Michael Semple(*) who has been in the midst of these events.

Buddhas of Bamian

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Taleban officials, acting under the direct authority of their leader Mullah Omar, and with encouragement from their international and Pakistani jihadi allies, detonated the explosives under the Buddhas ten years ago. They thus take the blame for the destruction of these monuments. But there are some co-accused. The international community, through its disengagement and lack of seriousness in rendering effective assistance in Afghanistan, takes the blame for failing to prevent the destruction of the Buddhas. As the rock-cut figures were clearly a piece of world heritage, the failure to prevent the destruction was a lapse in duty of care. Of course, the world protested – both during the run up to the destruction and afterwards. But this was rhetorical. At no stage did any serious international actor ask what has to be done to save the Buddhas. There were options available. But they would have required a different kind of engagement from the rhetorical protests. And apparently no sufficiently vital interest was at sake to push people who counted into finding the means to achieve the objective.

At the time that the Taleban declared war on the Buddhas, I was serving as a United Nations Regional Coordination Officer, with responsibility including Bamian. I interacted with many of the Taleban figures involved, as well as the armed resistance to the Taleban and the ordinary people of Bamian who were horrified at what was being done literally over their heads. I also briefed the range of international players who expressed concern on the issue, including UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan who visited Islamabad just as we received confirmation that the deed had been done. From what I saw during that episode I was convinced that we could help Afghans to save the Buddhas. But it would have required rather more lateral thinking that strait-jacketed diplomacy was capable of.

The first point to make is that many Afghans, including figures inside the Taleban Movement, took pride in the Buddhas as a part of their heritage and were fully opposed to the idea of destroying them. In 1997, when Taleban commander Abdul Wahed led a Taleban column attacking Bamian, then held by the Shia alliance Hezb-e Wahdat, he declared his intention to destroy the Buddhas. The Director of Archaeology of the Hazarajat regional government (such an entity operated, de facto) got on the phone to the BBC and triggered an international media alert. However it was sacrifices by Afghan young men on the front line against the Taleban which, that time, kept the barbarians out of Bamian. The Hazara front line held, the Taleban failed to capture Bamian and Abdul Wahed was forced to bide his time.

In 1998 when the Taleban did shoot their way into the Bamian valley, Abdul Wahed established a presence in the town and prepared to deliver on his threat. He had holes drilled around the head of the small Buddha ready for the placing of explosives.

However Mullah Omar appointed Maulawi Muhammad Islam of Ru-ye Doab as Bamian governor. As a Tatar from neighbouring Samangan Province, the Maulawi had connections with all the commanders of Bamian from the jihad era. Whatever his other sins, Bamian was also a part of Maulawi Islam’s heritage. His deputies described to me how, when they saw what Abdul Wahed was doing, they contacted Mullah Omar in Kandahar and he gave the order to stop further drilling. That time round the combination of local mujahedin commanders within the Taleban structure and a supportive Mullah Omar saved the Buddhas before the world was even aware of the threat. In those days about the worse thing that happened was that a group of Taleban burnt tyres on top of the great Buddha. I managed to photograph the blackened head in early summer of 1999, when inspecting the havoc which the Taleban had wreaked on the civilian infrastructure. Thousands of houses and numerous Shia places of worship had been burnt down. Taleban had deliberately devastated the town after a brief Hezb-e Wahdat-led rebellion. But the Buddhas escaped with a black eye.

In the autumn of 2000, in one of my meetings with the Taleban authorities in Bamian, among other projects which they proposed, they requested United Nations assistance to reconstruct the network of drainage ditches around the top of the niches in which the Buddhas rested. They were concerned at the prospect of erosion damage if the ditches were not maintained. I agreed to pass on the various projects (our bit of the UN of course did not have any money!) meanwhile I recall quipping that in the current atmosphere Buddas were troublesome and so it might be better to brick up the niches and pretend to the Kandahari brothers that the Buddhas had left. The Taleban leadership was by then lumbering along the path of confrontation, with moves to browbeat the UN and rather fantastic ordinances and prohibitions to control the population. However, war had not yet been declared on idols.

The first sign of this war on idols came when news leaked out of the Kabul Museum that a party of senior Taleban had forced their way in and sledge-hammered part of the museum’s collection of ancient statues. There was much speculation over whether this was genuine iconoclasm or a cover for smuggling antiques. However it inspired the first level of international response. Concerned Afghans tipped off an enthusiastic NGO, the Society for Preservation of Afghan Cultural Heritage (SPACH) which managed to trigger a troika of European ambassadors to travel from Islamabad to Kabul to intercede with the Taleban authorities. They stayed for nearly a week. But we knew that there was trouble when affable Taleban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawakel came back with the response that he required the clearance of higher authorities to be allowed to visit the museum. Meanwhile, Mullah Omar signed off on a rapidly composed new ordinance which provided the Taleban version of legal cover for the idol-smashing. Now the Buddhas of Bamian really were in trouble.

Things turned bad during the winter of 2000/01. For me, the most horrendous sign that the Taleban were prepared to sanction atrocities from the top came with the Yakaolang massacre in January 2001. During 1999 and 2000 those of us who were on the ground had documented a sort of war against the civilian population, including the burning of houses in areas deemed hostile, the summary execution of groups of prisoners and mass round-ups into detention. But in Yakaolang, a district centre west of Bamian town, with Mullah Omar’s sanction, the Taleban commander operated a firing squad and had one hundred and sixty-six Hazara civilians machine-gunned.

Next the Taleban rhetoric started against idols in general and the Bamian Buddhas in particular. It was widely discussed and commented on. Everyone knew it was coming. Various Taleban friends also described meetings they participated in, in which some tried to argue in favour of saving the heritage again, until it became clear that, unlike 1998, this time the leadership had decided to sanction an assault on the Buddhas.

But there still were Afghans who could have been helped to intervene. The centre of Bamian was indeed garrisoned by the Taleban. The garrison consisted of mixed forces of local mujahedin, mainly Sunni Tajiks (from Bamian province) and a few Hazaras who had sided with the Emirate, plus core Taleban troops from Helmand and Kandahar. But there was also a resistance front operating in the vicinity. The Hazaras had struggled to rekindle armed resistance after the defeat in 1999. By early 2001, the tenuous supply lines had been re-established. Ustad Abdul Karim Khalili – now the Second Vice President of Afghanistan – was back in the field at the head of an out-gunned and out-numbered army which, when under pressure, had to disappear into the mist. But in winter/spring 2001 they were keeping Bamian under threat and even managed to capture it briefly for a couple of days. The Tajik Taleban commanders laughed loudly as they described to me how they had lost Bamian. They described it as going home for the weekend. When they saw the Tajiks retreating, the Kandahari forces, fearing having their throats cut by the wild Hazaras, had pulled out in panic. Hezb-e Wahdat moved in. The Tajiks and Kandaharis contacted Defence Minister Mullah Obaidullah, asking for more supplies. He obliged them. And the Hazara forces discretely pulled out again before the Taleban returned.

A reverse replay of this was all that was needed to save the Buddhas. The Tajik commanders pointed out that Khalil’s front-line was not far from the centre of the valley where the Buddhas were located. It just required someone to orchestrate a modest advance from Khalili, a choreographed retreat by the Tajiks, another panic among the Kandaharis – and the Buddhas could be left in no-man’s land, looking down on the two parties. The Taleban could promise to Mullah Omar that they would blow up the Buddhas whenever they got the chance. And they would wait, in classic Afghan style, for something to happen which would get them all out of the stand off. Parking the issue, it is called in the jargon.

As part of my duties in aid coordination I met regularly with Ustad Khalili. His cooperation was essential to our efforts to assist the displaced population in the growing area which his resistance forces controlled. I asked him if he thought that such a choreographed move might be possible. He knew the Tajik commanders I had talked to and said yes. He was happy with the idea.

It is Afghanistan. There was of course a question of money. Afghan commanders and armies rarely move without money. Who was going to pay to get the Tajik commanders to fall into line? I never went into the costing or the mechanics of who in the command chains needed to receive money to shift the frontline by a kilometre or so. I guessed that they were talking in the range of a hundred thousand dollars. We thought that was a lot of money in those days – but after September we realised it was peanuts. It seemed plausible that a cash injection would be part of any successful deal. I was careful not to ask too many questions on that as the UN certainly did not have the money and in Afghanistan the wise man should never boost expectations.

When the Taleban really did start to prepare to blow up the Buddhas, the rhetorical international operation, for all and sundry to be seen to be condemning it, started. The most sincere effort was, I believe, that of a Japanese parliamentary delegation. Three parliamentarians based themselves in Islamabad and started a shuttle diplomacy to Kandahar where they met with the same Mutawakil who had failed to get permission to visit Kabul Museum. Mullah Omar enjoyed teasing them, international supplicants whom he could string along with impunity. I had multiple sessions discussing with this pure-hearted delegation. They kept on thinking of new theological arguments to persuade the mullahs, even as they shifted their demands, just to be allowed to pay respect one last time before the demolition. And at one rather pathetic moment, even before the destruction, the delegation asked my assessment of the prospects of Japanese technology being able to piece the Buddhas together again.

But the issue was not about theology. Politics were destroying the Buddhas. An isolated regime, which had foisted itself on its own population and was being encouraged by al-Qaida to take on the world, had found a brilliant source of international publicity where it could strike a successful pose of defiance. Our condemnation made it all the more important for the confrontationist leadership to go ahead with the destruction. The public arguments were barely relevant.

Parliamentarians do not have executive authority or budgets. I explained to the delegation how the Afghans could be helped to subvert Mullah Omar’s authority and dodge their way out of having to blow up the Buddhas. And I passed on Khalili’s number to the embassy’s political officer and explained that if they really wanted to save the Buddhas the only option was to cut a deal with both sides.

Many other people claimed to be interested. The Pakistan Government did its bit. The UNESCO envoy worked the case. Various Arab figures spoke out and visited. But it all amounted to so much hot air. If they had wanted to get something done in Afghanistan, they would have had to analyse the motives and capabilities of the different parties involved and come up with a strategy which worked with the grain of Afghan society, rather than against it. A strategy which worked rather than looked good was needed.

The Buddhas could have been saved. If we failed to stop the demolition it was because no one cared to deploy the means necessary to save them. This failure occurred partly because those who cared, like the deeply sincere Japanese, remained stuck in a rhetorical engagement. They simply did not address Afghan reality. They appealed to the altruism or logic of Mullah Omar, while failing to engage and support the pragmatism of the Afghans who had the power to help, but would not risk doing so on their own. And of course the failure also occurred because other powers, who had a proven capacity to intervene in Afghanistan, were barely even on the case.

During the days that the Taleban were blowing up the Buddhas, I spent much of my time sitting in a Taleban base in Kabul, listening to the radio reports and graphic descriptions coming in from their men in Bamian. I was frustrated that as a humble mid-level UN staffer, neither I nor, even more, my organisation had been able to do anything. But the old mujahedin around me who, for intricate reasons, had been re-branded as Taleban felt exactly the same regret. They identified with these monuments far more than us outsiders. Needless to say, my regrets were not just for the Buddhas. Their destruction symbolises the thousands of lives lost and homes destroyed in Afghanistan when we either do nothing or do the wrong thing, remaining wedded to approaches which seem good in international fora but which do not actually work on the ground in Afghanistan. Me thinks the risk has not gone away.

(*) Michael Semple has worked in Afghanistan pre- and post-Taleban, with NGOs and the UN. Currebtly, he is a Fellow at Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard Kennedy School. This text was originally written in response to a query from author Sandy Gall as to why no one saved the Buddhas. We publish it with the permission of the author.

Michael can be reached via email:  michael_semple@hks.harvard.edu