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?

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