Thursday, March 26, 2015

Regional Conference Aims to Shut Down ISIS Funding from Antiquities Looting and Trafficking

This upcoming meeting may well be the most important conference of the many being held these days on the looting of archaeological sites in the Middle East. One hopes that it includes some pointed discussion of the use of emirates as conduits and destination countries for smuggled artifacts. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Kerry in Sept. 2014: "our heritage is literally in peril in this moment, and we believe it is imperative that we act now"

John Kerry at the Metropolitan Museum, Sept. 22, 2014:

I want you to know that President Obama and our Administration are laser-focused on protecting the cultural heritage of countries all around the world. That is why we’re funding a landmark effort with the American Schools of Oriental Research to document the condition of cultural heritage sites in Syria. And we’re providing additional support to extend this effort into Iraq. We’re also doubling down on our support for Iraqi conservation experts and providing them with critical training on emergency documentation and disaster preparedness and response at the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage.
Through the National Science Foundation, we’re partnering with the American Association for the Advancement of Science on a project that uses geospatial technologies to track the destruction of the historical sites in Syria. They just released a big study that proves the destruction of these sites publicly. And this is yet another wakeup call, and those who deny the evidence or choose excuses over action are playing with fire as a consequence.
Our heritage is literally in peril in this moment, and we believe it is imperative that we act now.
Stirring words. But I noted at the time that Kerry's rhetoric was unaccompanied by any specifics about what action the administration would take, and I worried that it would be limited to the entirely necessary but utterly insufficient actions Kerry was touting -- documenting and monitoring the destruction -- when what was needed was action to stop the destruction likely to occur going forward. Documenting and monitoring won't do that; carefully designed military action arguably will, if only for major sites located in isolated areas.

If it was imperative that we act now in September 2014, what about today?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Cuno: partage is the solution to antiquities at risk

As one might have expected, James Cuno uses the disasters unfolding now in Iraq to beat the drum once again for restoring the old system of partage. He is right, of course, to say that we should be thankful that even though ISIS destroyed the Assyrian statues in the Mosul Museum and at Nineveh some statues remain safe in museums inaccessible to ISIS' sledgehammers. And surely he is also correct to argue that the most prudent policy for protecting cultural heritage from disasters is to distribute them around the world rather than concentrating them in one place.

The problem with partage as a solution is (at least) three-fold:
a) it ignores other ways in which antiquities might be -- and indeed are being -- dispersed, ways that would not be permanent (i.e., temporary transfers to safer countries as precautionary measures, as Iran is now offering to do, or long-term exchanges), and that would be much more palatable to countries that wish to retain ownership of cultural property they deem part of their cultural patrimony.

b) it does nothing to protect the razing of archaeological sites and the smashing of non-portable antiquities.

c) it does nothing to stop the looting of portable antiquities from museums or the market-driven digging-up of archaeological sites by looters. 

b) and c) would be less troubling if we were not now in the middle of a terrible crisis in which major sites are reportedly being looted and bulldozed. Failing to address those issues and fixating instead on a change in policy that even if enacted now would have zero impact on either b) or c) is insensitive.

It is fine to call for partage as one among several possible long-term solutions based on the principle of dispersion-for-safety's-sake. But what Cuno should also be doing is offering or at least calling for solutions to the immediate problems of stopping the razing of sites and the looting of both sites and museums, and putting some of the Getty's considerable resources into getting the job done.

Gen. Dempsey willing to "consider" acting to stop ISIS attacks on archaeological sites

 Gen. Dempsey opens the door a crack to possible action.

Protecting archaeological sites will always come low on the priority list, unless either the military is told it must act (hello, Obama, hello?) or there is a good military reason. In most instances there won't be a good military reason. In the case of ISIS riding gangs of zealots out far into the deserts on bulldozers and excavators that we are shooting at elsewhere, however, there is clearly a military benefit to be gained. It would be like shooting fish in a barrel. So it is hard to see why Gen. Dempsey is only willing to consider the idea of going after them, instead of doing so.

But generals will do what they are told. So one can only conclude that Obama and Kerry (who gave a fine speech at the Metropolitan Museum on the topic, empty words it seems) haven't put the pressure on. Which is disgraceful.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A caveat about reports of site razings

We still have no imagery of the bulldozing of Nimrud, or Hatra, or Dur Sharrukin, as reported by Iraqi heritage officials, and hence no confirmation of how extensive the damage is (or even whether that damage has actually occurred). Reputable media outlets from CNN to the New York Times to NPR have spread the stories, and the documented iconoclasm at the Mosul Museum and Nineveh certainly lends them credibility. But without optical proof, we can't be certain.  

Should these sites turn out to be more or less intact after all, the error will no doubt be seized upon by the same looting deniers who declared no harm had been done at the Iraq Museum in 2003 because first reports mistakenly said the museum had been completely looted and it later turned out that "only" 15,000 artifacts were stolen, and who later pointed to the absence of looting on 8 sites as proof that there was no looting to speak of at the thousands of other sites in Iraq.

We should know the truth soon enough, once the site monitoring groups at Penn and the AAAS get done looking at the latest satellite imagery. But the very fact that we don't know what the facts are, and that we have to wait days to get them, is more important than whatever the facts turn out to be. For it is a sign that the US military is not taking seriously the need to prevent ISIS from getting to major sites. Doing so would have meant setting up a realtime monitoring regime covering not just the sites but the roads leading to the sites, so that bulldozers and trucks heading out to a site would be spotted, targeted and destroyed on the way to, not from, the sites. No such realtime monitoring system exists, it seems. That's a big problem. The Penn Cultural Heritage Center and AAAS projects are crucial for tracking the long-term effect of clandestine digging and must continue to be supported, but they were not designed for the quick turnaround needed to deal with this particular challenge. That's the military's job.

So if it does turn out that Hatra and Dur Sharrukin are not yet victims of bulldozing or dynamiting, we should thank God for our good luck, consider this a second wake-up call after the televised ISIS iconoclasm at Nineveh, and redouble our effort to force the military to step up with an operational plan -- realtime monitoring plus operational capacity to neutralize the bulldozers before and not after they get to the site -- before what happened at Nineveh is repeated.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Sorry, not my table: US military dodges responsibility to do something about site destruction in Iraq

This from the US News and World Report:
“Our forces in Iraq are there to advise and assist Iraqis,” a defense official tells U.S. News on the condition of anonymity. “We have no commanders there who are responsible for sectors on the ground.”
A spokesman for the Combined Joint Task Force, or CJTF, overseeing the operation confirmed the limitations on how it can help stem the Islamic State group’s destructive acts.
“The CJTF is taking these reports very seriously. Daesh actions such as this underscore the necessity to defeat Daesh. The CJTF and our partners on the ground are committed to ending the atrocities committed by Daesh,” the spokesman says, responding to questions by email from a U.S. military base in Kuwait.
“Stopping smuggling, money laundering and other criminal activities committed by Daesh are also part of the broader coalition effort, but it is not under the auspices of CJTF.”
 Always nice to hear that reports are being taken seriously. That makes everyone feel so much better. But the question is whether the US has commanders who order airstrikes against targets on the ground, including bulldozers, backhoes, and other excavating equipment being used to raze sites. The answer is, obviously, yes. Here's a report from yesterday:
In Iraq, two air strikes near Al Huwijah destroyed six excavators and hit a tactical unit. Near Fallujah, four strikes hit two tactical units, a fighting position and destroyed three vehicles. Other strikes near Haditha, Kirkuk and Mosul also struck tactical units, fighting positions, excavators, vehicles and other targets.
 "Excavators" are being hit. Just not the excavators headed for archaeological sites. 

That the same article in which the CJTF demurs also includes another rousing statement from Secretary of State Kerry affirming our deep regard for cultural heritage only adds insult to injury. The Obama administration needs to crack some heads, or they will be as culpable of negligence as the military.

What one military manual says about site protection

From ATP 3-39.30, "Security and Mobility Support", Oct. 2014:

Protect Key Personnel and Facilities 1-47. When required, military forces may extend protection and support to key civilian personnel to ensure their continued contribution to the overall operation. In the interest of transparency, military forces specifically request and carefully negotiate this protection. Similarly, the long-term success of any intervention often relies on the ability of external actors to protect and maintain critical infrastructure until the HN can resume that responsibility. Protection of key facilities may be either an immediate or long-term requirement. The list of essential tasks may include an initial response and transformation, described as follows:
 l An initial response in which military forces—
            n Protect government-sponsored civilian reconstruction and stabilization personnel. n Protect contractor and civilian reconstruction and stabilization personnel and resources. n Provide emergency logistic support, as required. n Protect and secure places of religious worship and cultural sites. n Protect and secure critical infrastructure, natural resources, civil registries, and property ownership documents. n Protect and secure strategically important institutions (such as government buildings; medical treatment facilities and public health infrastructure; the central bank, national treasury, and integral commercial banks; museums; and religious sites). n Protect and secure military depots, equipment, ammunition dumps, and means of communications. n Identify, secure, protect, and coordinate disposition for stockpiles of munitions and CBRN materiel and precursors, facilities, and adversaries with technical expertise. l A transformation in which military forces build HN capacity to protect— n Civilian reconstruction and stabilization personnel. n Public infrastructure and institutions. n Military infrastructure.
 This doesn't specifically call for airstrikes, and it is troubling that the document is tasking site protection to the Army military police, whose capacity to take active measures may be limited. But someone in the military chain of command should have been on top of the threat that ISIS posed to archaeological sites. That no action was taken indicates negligence.

A trip down (bad) memory lane: recommendations from 2006 for military action to protect archaeological sites

Back in 2006, in response to the disastrous looting of Iraq's national museum and the consequent untrammeled looting of sites around the country over a period of years during and following the American occupation, I pulled together experts from the military, the Pentagon, the heritage conservation community, and the museum world to see if we could figure out what had gone wrong and develop some recommendations for steps that could be taken to do better in the future. We gathered our findings and recommendations in a published volume, Antiquities Under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection after the Iraq War. A number of the recommendations were in fact adopted.

I thought I'd look back at the list of recommendations to see if any of them anticipated the need to deal with the problem we are seeing today at Nimrud and it appears Hatra. The answer (pp. 284-5) is yes:

During any transitional period, in the likely event that the antiquities ministry is unable to operate effectively without backup provided by a central authority, the military should take one or more of the following steps, after consultation with the antiquities ministry:
i. Preclude road access to selected sites by sowing the road with tire-puncturing tacks.
ii. If feasible, make a show of force at strategically selected sites, confiscating, disabling, or destroying a few of the vehicles used by potential looters as a deterrent to future potential looters.
vi. Create monitoring systems to identify sites under assault or threat of assault by looters.
It's too late for Nimrud, and probably for Hatra as well. One can only hope that now that Iraq's government is publicly begging for this kind of military action, our feckless leaders will lift their fingers enough to see that such tiny but crucial actions be undertaken.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

First Nimrud, now Hatra: Why no military response?

The bulldozing of Nimrud should not have caught the international community by surprise, yet it occurred without, so far as we know, any moves to thwart it by taking countermeasures against the bulldozers and truckloads of ISIS zealots that drove out to the site. Perhaps bombing the vehicles or even just the roads might have been unfeasible given the location of Nimrud (the aerial photo below shows quite a few roads and cultivated fields around the site).

But as Abdulameer Hamdani has confirmed for me, Hatra is isolated in the desert with no population around it, and only one road in and out to the site (as the image below from confirms):

Which raises the question: If Hatra is indeed now being razed, why did the coalition not bomb the road or the bulldozers and truckloads of ISIS fanatics to prevent this from happening (and not incidentally to kill some of these murderous thugs)?

According to Hamdani, Assur is likely to be the next site in ISIS' crosshairs. Will the coalition stand idly by again?

UPDATE (MARCH 9, 2015)
I'm not the only one who thinks air strikes are needed:
Iraq Calls for Air Power to Protect Antiquities