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University of Chicago Joins London in Blaming Afghan Government for Looting Cultural Heritage

On Feb. 22, a BBC news wire titled “Afghanistan: Archaeological Sites ‘Bulldozed for Looting'.” Speaking to BBC, Prof. Gil Stein and his team of researchers from the University of Chicago’s Center for Cultural Heritage Preservation, without making any proof available, blamed the current Afghan government for “continuing” the looting and destruction of archaeological sites in the country.

Since 2018, satellite imagery has been used by Chicago researchers to monitor some 29,000 identified archaeological sites of Afghanistan. Stein’s team said 162 ancient settlements were “devastated at an astonishing rate of one a week” between 2018 and 2021, “and the practice continued at 37 sites after that, under the Taliban.”

According to BBC, “The researchers are not publishing the exact locations to avoid giving information to potential looters,” thereby making fact checking impossible. Stein believes the sites may be being looted by people who are wealthy and powerful enough to be able to obtain earth-moving equipment, and to move it to rural areas “with nobody interfering.”

Stein carefully neglects any mention of ISIS whose role in such type of looting is well documented. In 2016, the UN reported that ISIS and other individuals have generated income from the looting and smuggling of cultural property from archaeological sites and museums in Iraq and Syria. That income may be being used to support terrorist organizations in planning and carrying out attacks. In July 2015, the U.S. Department of State announced that a few months earlier, during a raid in eastern Syria to capture ISIS leader Abu Sayyaf, U.S. Special Operations Forces recovered a cache of hundreds of archaeological and historical objects, including objects cataloged as belonging to the Mosul Museum in Iraq. Documents obtained during the same raid demonstrate that ISIS is organized to sponsor looting and trafficking of antiquities for profit.

In April 2023, Le Monde, based on research by the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan (DAFA) and the Institute of Digital Heritage (Iconem), wrote that “ISIS extensively destroyed the ancient site of Delbarjin in northern Afghanistan between 2019 and 2021, with the help of professional experts in the field.” ISIS had inflicted irreparable damage on the largest ancient city center in northern Afghanistan using the methods it had earlier used in Iraq and Syria. The report said, “The destruction could only have been done by highly organized networks that operate as representatives of or under the control of ISIS,” wrote Le Monde.

According to BBC, “The Taliban’s Acting Deputy Minister for Information and Culture Atiqullah Azizi rejected the claims that looting is taking place, saying an 800-strong unit has been assigned to look after historic sites. He told the BBC some organizations had sent images to the ministry regarding ‘bulldozer movements and people moving soil,’ but said that ‘we sent various teams to check the sites and I can reassure you that there hasn’t been a single incident in any of those sites.’ The Taliban’s Defense Ministry also said three people were arrested in September, accused of trying to smuggle a stash of antiquities worth about $27 million, including statues, mummies, a golden crown, a book and swords. It says the items were handed over to the national museum and the investigation is continuing.”

When BBC shared Azizi’s response with Professor Stein, the latter said “he couldn’t speculate as to why he denied the looting claims, but added: ‘We can show there was continuity even across two very different political regimes.’”

Both Stein’s and BBC’s accusations arrive right after the Afghan government, via its Deputy Minister of Culture and Art, released a statement on Jan. 31 confirming its definitive commitment to protect all tangible and intangible cultural heritage, a statement widely circulated by the Schiller Institute, which the Institute delivered on Feb. 22 to the highest officials of UNESCO at their headquarters in Paris. Prof. Gil Stein made no response to a request in January to sign the petition of the Schiller Institute to lift sanctions on cooperation with Afghanistan.