Friday, October 31, 2008

Iraq Redux: No help for site protection in Afghanistan either

The plight of Afghanistan's archaeological sites has been even more underreported than that of Iraq's, but losses there have been enormous -- literally tons of artifacts. Now the Afghans are making a push for attention, announcing a new campaign. The initiative calls for building 10 provincial museums, training more archaeologists, repatriating stolen treasures, making a red-list of [looted] art works, and educating young Afghans about the importance of their culture.

All these are important steps, but just as with recent State Department and Defense Department initiatives in Iraq, they are unlikely to stanch the looting of sites. To do so requires investing not only -- or even primarily -- in archaeological training or museum-building or recovery efforts, but in local, on-site anti-looting measures. Unfortunately, according to deputy culture minister, Omar Sultan,

attempts to hire extra guards to protect sites have failed because the authorities were unable to pay them more than $10 (£6) a month, or even equip them with telephones and cars. The security vacuum has allowed illegal smugglers to prosper. Working at night, gangs of Afghans in the pay of warlords and plunderers have turned swaths of the country into the moonscapes that now stand as testimony to the cultural desecration.

"People are hungry and they're desperate, and smugglers play on that," said Sultan, a Greek-trained archaeologist. "There are heroes in Afghanistan who have worked without any credit to save our treasures. But I worry that if this continues, looters will take everything - such is the scale of the organised crime."

He is appealing for international funding to provide stronger protection for important sites and better equipment to guards.
The $10/month per guard figure says it all. At that rate, for $1.2 million a year, one could hire 10,000 guards (or 5000 if one doubled the salary); throw in another $800,000 for equipment and one is at $2 million per annum for a level of site protection that would almost certainly put an end to most looting. That is a piddling sum compared with what we are spending on the war there. International funding to secure Afghanistan's heritage (not to mention providing jobs and buy-in to their own country's cultural assets) would be wonderful, but to my knowledge no countries have contributed anything to the fund that UNESCO established for such purposes. Where then can the Afghans expect to find this funding? Are foundations listening? Antiquities collectors, dealers, museums? If such a relatively small sum is not going to be forthcoming voluntarily from either the collecting community or from the military or State Department, should lawmakers not be considering measures to raise the needed sums by taxing the market for antiquities?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Good news/bad news: New Iraq Cultural Heritage Project

The good news: in its waning days, the Bush administration seems finally to have ponied up substantial money ($13 million) to assist Iraq in conserving and preserving its cultural heritage.

The bad news: the new initiative, the Iraq Cultural Heritage Project, appears at first glance at least to focus solely on professional development for conservators and other museum professionals, rather than also including some funding to improve security on Iraq's archaeological sites. In fact, the ICHP is premised on the assumption that there is no need to improve security on the sites, since supposedly this has already been accomplished, as part of the overall improvement in security in Iraq. As Laura Bush puts it in her remarks announcing the Project, "Recent security gains and increased stability have set the stage now for a more vigorous effort to promote Iraq's cultural history."

It is true that there have been recent security gains and increased stability. The gains and increases have brought civilian casualty rates down to 2004 levels. But we know that in 2004 Iraq's archaeological sites were being looted. What we do not know is how successful the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage's site police, developed since 2004, have been in tamping down the looting. We only know that this new initiative offers no assistance to SBAH's site protection efforts.

That is disappointing, but hardly surprising. The State Department's fact sheet on the new Project touts its having spent several million dollars since 2003 in support of "numerous activities relating to the protection and preservation of Iraq’s cultural heritage," including "emergency response to the looting of the Iraq National Museum, training of Iraqi museum professionals, support for archaeological site protection, and instituting legal measures to mitigate illicit trafficking in Iraq’s looted cultural property." The results, it is claimed, include "improved archaeological site security in Iraq." But there is no further information available on how much has been spent, on what site protection programs, with what results. And of course, without time-series aerial photos (which the State Department surely could force the military to share with archaeologists), we cannot know if archaeological site security has improved at all, much less whether the efforts by State have had anything to do with improving site security.

Will the State Department now take the next step and announce an initiative to assist the Iraqis in securing their sites against a future that may well be much less stable and secure than today's? Or will the Iraq Cultural Heritage Project serve as a cover for washing our hands of the problem?

Monday, October 06, 2008

The Museums Will Be Protected Next Time Round

The military has just released FM 3.07, its new field manual on Stability Operations.  Those concerned that the lessons of the looting of the Iraq National Museum might not have been learned will be pleased to find that among the "Essential Stability Tasks" is that of protecting key personnel and facilities. The eight tasks under this heading include the requirements to "protect and secure places of religious worship and cultural sites," and to "protect and secure strategically important institutions (such as government buildings;medical and public health infrastructure; the central bank, national treasury, and integral commercial banks; museums; and religious sites)."

A bare mention, but nonetheless extremely important, and arguably far more consequential than the ratification of the 1954 Hague Convention. It means that cultural heritage protection is now embedded in the task matrix that operational planners will take as the starting point for future war planning. This is a victory for all those who have been working inside and outside the military and defense establishment to make sure that the U.S. never again acts with the indifference towards cultural heritage that it did in April 2003. 

The field manual also mentions cultural heritage protection in a very prominent place: the epigraph to Chapter 5 quotes Harry L. Coles and Albert K. Weinberg's history of Civil Affairs, Civil Affairs: Soldiers Become Governors:

Because of the ideological aspect of the struggle and because the United States acted as  a member of a coalition of Allies, U.S. military leaders sometimes had to add to their traditional roles as soldiers those of the statesman and the politician. They were beset by the problems of resolving conflicting national interests and of reconciling political idealism and military exigency. On another level—in feeding hungry populations, in tackling intricate financial and economic problems, and in protecting the cultural heritage of a rich and ancient civilization—they had to exercise skills that are also normally considered civilian rather than military.

Whether this quotation means that Civil Affairs will develop the capacity to protect the cultural heritage of a rich and ancient civilization is not clear. Certainly, the record in Iraq and Afghanistan does not reflect any major beefing up of capacity in that regard yet. But with Corine Wegener and others pushing hard on this, we may well also see a great improvement in the military's ability to protect sites and museums during transitions.

What still needs to be done is to help the military to think -- now, not when it is too late -- about what tactics and tools it can and should be prepared to use to secure and protect museums and archaeological sites (as well as other cultural sites).