Small Wars Journal

Cultural Heritage Preservation and Its Role for Paving the Way Toward Peace

Fri, 08/07/2015 - 10:30am


Cultural Heritage Preservation and Its Role for Paving the Way Toward Peace

Marc A. Abramiuk and Wilem S. Wong

Approaching archaeological site designation CHCP-12 with Marines in Garmser District (Helmand Province, Afghanistan). Visible in the distant foreground of this image is the top of a large retaining wall behind which protrudes a massive structure with a series of smaller walls on its summit.


The purposeful destruction and ransacking of cultural properties has been with us probably for as long as there has been war.  Among the several reasons cultural properties are deliberately destroyed in war, two in particular come to mind:  the first is for loot, [i] and the second is to erase the cultural significance the properties may have for one of the engaged parties. These reasons are not mutually exclusive, for the actors involved might be driven by both of the aforementioned motives.  For example, the Taliban in Afghanistan and ISIS in Iraq and Syria aim to loot as well as erase any vestige of an unfamiliar early Islamic past or pre-Islamic past.  The consequence has been the destruction of these nations’ patrimonies.  Such destruction, it is argued in this paper, has ramifications that go far beyond the first-order effect it has for scientists and historians who study cultural properties.  The destruction of cultural properties effectively eliminates the fixtures behind which local communities can rally and thereby use to support some semblance of stability.  In what follows, we propose that there is a significant role that the military can play in curtailing the destruction of cultural properties[ii] which has far-reaching effects for conflicts in general.

The purpose of the 1954 Hague Convention was to establish rules of conduct that would protect cultural properties during war. The problem that we are faced with today, however, is that such rules are not being followed.  One reason is that many actors involved in war today, such as the Taliban or ISIS, are administratively organized in a manner in which responsibility for such destructive actions carries little weight, since it is diffused across a group rather than directed at individuals in the group.  As a result, refusal to adhere to the rules of the Convention carries few, if any, realizable repercussions for the perpetrators.  But perhaps the more significant problem is that such rules governing battle etiquette are a western construct that few outside the US and Europe care to recognize.  Indeed, it is precisely the western values embodied in these rules that many anti-government actors today imagine themselves resisting and in some cases upturning.  As for the local civilians who could be regarded as mostly neutral in their loyalty, they are often ambivalent to protecting cultural properties which they too see as serving western interests and values.

Defenseless though cultural properties may be during wartime, they are not passive “actors,” as preservation advocates—ourselves included—would like to think.  At war, cultural properties become strategic objectives, and it is naïve to think that they do not pose an existential threat to certain groups and that in desperate circumstances that they will be spared by these groups.   Although salvage operations can play an important role in protecting cultural properties just before they are destroyed, [iii] in this paper, we propose an aggressive preemptive strategy in which cultural properties are used to build community solidarity well before threats of war become realized. 

The idea we put forward is that cultural properties constitute a special kind of actor (“special” in so far as they are vulnerable and merit our protection), but an actor nonetheless.  Seen in this light, the role of cultural properties acquires much more centrality in the theater of war than it is conventionally depicted as having.  According to this view, although salvage operations are important, there are preventative actions that can be taken well ahead of considering salvaging.  Drawing from our work in Afghanistan, we provide an operational example of this preventative strategy which we undertook as lead social scientist and team leader, respectively, for HTT AF07[iv] in 2011.  We then discuss what some of the anticipated outcomes of that work meant for developing regional solidarity and, by implication, additional protective measures for cultural properties. 

Central Helmand Archaeological Study

By 2011, the illicit trade of antiquities looted from archaeological sites in Afghanistan was on the rise and becoming a backing source for insurgents as well as terrorists throughout Afghanistan.[v]  Operation Enduring Freedom not only had to contend with devising ways of reducing the poppy industry, which was bankrolling the Taliban, but with curtailing funding derived from the looting of archaeological sites.  Although certain efforts were going on at that time to freeze financial accounts linked to insurgents and religious extremists, these labors were only effective at preventing money laundering and cash transactions between non-state actors.  Ultimately they were proving ineffective in preventing these actors from being subsidized.[vi]   This is because many non-state actors were being subsidized not through cash transactions but through a traditional promissory system known as hawala.  Accordingly, artifacts looted from archaeological sites likely would have served as one of many honorary forms of collateral being jostled about to support insurgents and terrorists.  By promising rather than transacting, insurgents like the Taliban could avoid the conventional bank system where illicit monies might be more easily detected and vigilantly monitored by authorities.

Appreciating that the central Helmand River valley was replete with archaeological sites that were unrecorded, unmonitored and therefore at risk, HTT AF07 took preemptive measures to prevent them from being exploited by insurgents.  The result was the Central Helmand Archaeological Study (CHAS), a study facilitated by and in support of the U.S. Marine Corps in conjunction with the Afghan government.  The CHAS was one of several ambitious studies undertaken by HTT AF07 under the auspices of RCT-1 and RCT-5.  Its goal was to cut off a prospective funding source deemed to be the artifact trade, while protecting archaeological sites at risk of being damaged.  Furthermore, it strove to connect the various peoples of eastern Rig and Garmser Districts through their territories’ copious archaeological sites. 

In the course of the fieldwork phase of the CHAS, HTT AF07 identified and recorded thirteen archaeological sites.  None of the sites surveyed exhibited any unquestionable traces of looting.  Holes if any were to be found were insignificant and could have been the result of animals burrowing just as much as people digging opportunistically with rudimentary equipment. 

On the surface, all sites appear to be early Islamic, the large preponderance of which are medieval, most likely fortresses dating to the Ghaznavid period (A.D. 977-1186). These determinations were made based on certain characteristic retaining wall features, general layout, and ceramics diagnostic to the period. Although, we could not determine whether underlying the early Islamic period phase there were earlier phases, we do know that the sites identified were used in later periods.  As we were informed by locals, several of the sites were used as burial mounds as recently as two generations ago.  Also, based on the cartridges and other debris dating to the 1980s that littered the summits of some of the sites, it seems that some of the sites were used as vantage points or combat posts for the Soviets and Mujahedeen. 

Implications of results for curtailing looting

Whatever the precise chronology turns out to be for the sites that HTT AF07 identified and recorded, the issue is perhaps incidental to the operational relevance of the cultural property protection work undertaken by HTT AF07 and to which we now turn.  In 2011, early Islamic artifacts were in substantial demand by collectors and therefore carried significant value on the black market.[vii] Thus, the fact that an early Islamic phase was identified in the course of the site surveys undertaken by HTT AF07 now meant that there was a legitimate risk of these sites’ exploitation in subsidizing the insurgency.

With the potential looting risk now made clear through the site survey, HTT AF07 proceeded to the next step of the study which was to present the details on the sites and their importance to the Marines at the regimental and battalion levels.  In particular, details on the sites’ locations were critical so that the Marines could periodically monitor the sites and, in so doing, deter their looting and destruction.  In relaying the required information and advocating a plan for these sites’ policing, the CHAS took a preemptive role by depriving looters access to the sites, thereby removing a major motive for systematically destroying these sites, namely economic incentive. In other words, by removing the economic incentive, the systems for subsidizing the insurgency and consequently the recurrent damage done to archaeological sites were weakened.  Potential operational funds that could be acquired immediately through transactions and deposited into and disbursed from bank accounts, as well as potential funds that could be funneled through alternative funding mechanisms (e.g., hawala) would effectively be curtailed.       

Engaging with the population and its proposed effects on the insurgency

The CHAS provided the platform to thwart looting which could have funded insurgent activities; however, it also provided a starting point for engaging with the local population to foster community solidarity and resistance to insurgent recruiting and intimidation.  Regarding this latter point, it follows that protecting these archaeological sites served a dual reinforcing function, both as a cultural preservation measure and unavoidably as a counter-insurgency measure.  

Taliban influence was still weighing heavily on the people of the central Helmand River valley and this was deemed by HTT AF07 to be the result of two issues: 1) a lack of cohesion beyond the tribal or village unit (e.g., little district-wide, provincial-wide, or nation-wide sense of solidarity) and, 2) the ambivalence of a tribe’s or a village’s sympathies—whether it be for the Taliban or the Afghan Government.  These issues both contributed to a sense of alienation requiring that the village or tribe survive on its own by aligning with whatever influence was strongest or in the group’s best interest.  This state of affairs was especially detrimental at a time at which insurgents and religious extremists, through their decentralized make-up, close ties to local communities, and adept use of social media were able to influence not only local sentiment but western media outlets in a bid to appeal to those who might join their ranks.   

To defend against a swelling insurgency and its destructive consequences, a proposed extension of CHAS involved community outreach to show the local communities the value in preserving their cultural properties rather than being intimidated by the Taliban into engaging in destructive behavior.  Falling directly in line with counter information operations strategies that seek themes that resonate with local communities,[viii] it was believed that through such outreach archaeological sites would begin to be seen as part of the communities rather than abstracted from them. 

The first proposed step in engaging with the local communities would necessarily involve incorporating the Afghan Government in the engagement process so that communities would see that it was not their tribe or village alone that was pitted against the Taliban.  Indeed, HTT AF07 made certain headway in this regard by offering to act as a bridge between the MoIC based in Kabul and the local district governing bodies of Helmand Province.  The intent of this offer was to help educate local Afghans about their shared cultural heritage, and to encourage locals to invest in their cultural heritage.  Through investing in their cultural heritage it was hoped that locals could begin building a much needed sense of solidarity within the central Helmand River valley that might serve to deter internal dissidents as well as foreign fighters from posing a threat to local communities. Although unfortunately HTT AF07 made little progress on this latter front, in retrospect, it is believed that over the long term the proposed strategy might have been realized with more lobbying and more resources than HTT AF07 had at the time.   

Implications for the Middle East

It is our contention that a lesson can be drawn from the problematic situation that HTT AF07 dealt with in Afghanistan in 2011 which, in turn, can be used to relate to ongoing events in Iraq and Syria. In Iraq and Syria, archaeological sites are being demolished because of their symbolic significance as well as for their loot.  Armed extremist groups, such as ISIS, in their attempts at intimidation and demonstration of their radical values, have gone to significant lengths to destroy numerous archaeological sites throughout the region.  Some of the sites that were damaged are internationally renowned.  Examples of such sites include Hatra and Palmyra, both UNESCO World Heritage sites, and Nimrud, a World Heritage site nominee. [ix]

The indiscriminate destruction of cultural properties seen in Iraq and Syria is different than the situation observed by HTT AF07 in Helmand where looting and destruction were anticipated and effectively prevented. Thus, while the lesson drawn from our experience in Helmand on the issue of direct intervention might not be applicable in the context of Iraq and Syria, we feel that our proposal for engaging with the population is extremely relevant to the situation in Iraq and Syria.  As discussed in the previous section, HTT AF07 anticipated that in order to prevent site destruction from recurring, significant work would be needed to foster cultural heritage appreciation.  One way HTT AF07 proposed to do this was to advocate direct, vertical engagement between the national government and district-level local communities.  In the case of Iraq and Syria, we believe that a similar direct, vertical engagement strategy is warranted. 

To exemplify how a direct, vertical engagement strategy might work on armed extremist groups, we look at ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  ISIS poses a serious threat to the citizens of Iraq and Syria as well as to these nations’ cultural properties.  ISIS recruits members from abroad by the thousands through their extensive social networks, while also exerting an influence over locals much like the Taliban managed to accomplish at their height in Afghanistan.  This is to say that, like the Taliban in Afghanistan, most ISIS members rely on local sympathy and apathy to achieve their cause.  The problem that lies at the heart of these cases is the fundamental disconnection between the government and the people.  Any hope at resolution therefore entails encouraging the government to engage with locals regarding their regional history and making them feel a part of this history rather than disenfranchised from it. 

UNESCO plays an enormous role in elevating the recognition of sites.  However, international recognition is a doubled-edged sword.  In times of relative peace, an international spotlight on archaeological sites can help attract tourism and research which can, in turn, positively affect the economic conditions of the region, as well as draw international interest in protecting the sites.   However, at times of war, this two-edged sword can cut the other way.  International recognition is something that many locals cannot relate to because they cannot legitimately and economically benefit from it, particularly when violence is erupting.  It goes without saying then that international stature of certain archaeological sites in the midst of such conditions does little to encourage locals to value their heritage.  Rather, it could have the opposite effect and serve to alienate locals, especially when locals see that more attention is being paid to archaeological sites than to them. 


United Nation Security Council resolutions 2139 and 2199 are recent manifestations of the international community’s response to the ongoing volatility that has embraced Syria and Iraq. [x] The latter of these resolutions is directly relevant to the issue discussed in the paper, as it constitutes an attempt to cut off funding to groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS derived from, among other activities, the antiquities trade.  In resolution 2199, UNESCO encourages its member states to cooperate with INTERPOL and UNODC (via their databases, IMoLIN/AMLID) in identifying illicit dealing in art and antiquities, and reporting these violations while seeking to prosecute the offenders.[xi]

In addition to these direct efforts at stymying the subsidization of these groups, the fight for ideas (i.e., information operations) is underway.  The electronic publications of Al-Qaeda’s Inspire and ISIS’ Dabiq disseminate many views, one of which is the espousal of flagrant disregard for cultural properties, as these properties are deemed idolatry.   Such views pose a significant challenge to moderate Muslims and western countries[xii] and several counter narratives have been launched in response.  

One recent counter-narrative initiated by UNESCO, for example, is #UNITE4HERITAGE, which is a program that seeks to support the protection and preservation of cultural property in Iraq and Syria.  However, although UNESCO[xiii] and, in particular, #UNITE4HERITAGE[xiv] publicize local efforts to preserve cultural properties, one still gets the sense that the audience for which such news is intended is the global community at large rather than the local community.  This is a step in the right direction, but more can be done to connect local people to their cultural properties, and awaken in them a sense that these properties are their heritage and should be preserved.

What is missing from this picture, we feel, are the efforts on the ground at the local level that could be significantly enhanced by enlisting the help of specialized non-combat troops in the armed forces.  This is to say that the armed forces have the logistical capabilities in opening up channels to locals who live near the cultural properties that are at risk.  They, furthermore, have the know-how to assist UNESCO in reaching out to the people on the ground through their direct engagement with host nations, inter-governmental organizations, and inter-agency partners.  On this latter point, the United States Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (USACAPOC), for example, can play a vital role in offering up the military personnel with military as well as civilian acquired skillsets and expertise to assist in circulating information to locals where it is needed most.  Finally, this command would be ideally positioned to garner the resources for recruiting specialists in order to assist with salvage operations, as well as to identify and protect cultural properties that are at risk, as HTT AF07 did in Afghanistan.  Comprised of what would most appropriately be described as citizen-soldiers, these personnel would bring their critical subject matter expertise in archaeology, museum studies, and restoration in line with the existing regional alignment of military forces in assigned geographical areas.  One proposal that seems natural is to recruit modern day “monuments men” (currently scarce) to fill commission officer vacancies in the Civil Affairs branch of the U.S. Army Reserve. [xv]  

UNESCO’s high-level vision for cultural heritage is certainly necessary, but village-level, grass-roots engagement is more critical than ever in Iraq and Syria at this time. Small numbers of specialized armed forces members from UN affiliated states can make this difference.  In the situation of Iraq, it is important that the face of this engagement should be that of the Iraqi government and that the beneficiaries of this engagement be Iraqis.  As for Syria, the on-going civil war for the last four years will see no winners if both sides cannot agree to at least protect and preserve their common cultural heritage.  The cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria should not be more important to the international community than it is to the citizens of these nations.  The cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria is something which all citizens of these nations should feel they have a stake in protecting.  Only then will they be able to stand together with common purpose, thus breaking the cycle of perpetual division and antagonism that is responsible for an expanding conflict that is increasingly taking a toll on people as well as things. 

End Notes

[i] Marine Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, who was responsible for creating a task force to recover stolen artifacts from archaeological sites and from Baghdad’s National Museum in Iraq, has made abundantly clear that antiquities fund insurgents.  See “Artifact Smuggling Aids Iraq Insurgents,” Marine Corps Community for USMC Marine Veterans, Leatherneck News, 03/19/2008 (

[ii] Civil Affairs advise higher echelon commanders (corps or division commander and staff) on protection of culturally significant sites. [Headquarters, Department of the Army (28 Jan 2014) FM 3-57 C1, “Civil Affairs Operations,” p. 2-36, 2-120]

[iii] Civil Affairs core tasks (Population and Resources Control) are to protect and secure strategically important institutions, such as government buildings and archives, museums, religious sites, courthouses, and communication facilities.  [Headquarters, Department of the Army (31 Oct 2011) FM 3-57, “Civil Affairs Operations,” p. 3-6, 3-24]

[iv] HTT AF07 was a Human Terrain Team (HTT) deployed in southern and central Helmand province, Afghanistan to conduct unclassified open source and field research, as well as analyze sociocultural information in support of the commander’s military decision making process (MDMP). [Wong, W. (2013, Summer) “Securing the Peace on the Global War on Terrorism.” Inside Homeland Security, volume 11, issue 2, pp. 49–51.]

[v] Dutch documentary, “Blood Antiquities,” directed by Peter Brems and Wim Van den Eynde (2009)

[vi] The freezing of financial accounts of enemy combatants to curtail their operational funds may also assists in the prevention of money laundering.  [Headquarters, Department of the Army (31 Oct 2011) FM 3-57, “Civil Affairs Operations,” p. 3-6, 3-24]

[vii] Personal communication with the DoS representative for Cultural Heritage, Dr. Laura Tedesco, and Deputy Minister of MoIC Omar Sultan (MOIC, Kabul, 08/14/2011).

[viii] Information Operations offer counter-narratives that strongly resonate with communities and which help communities resist insurgent or religious extremist propaganda and intimidation. [Headquarters, Department of the Army (31 Oct 2011) FM 3-57, “Civil Affairs Operations,” p. 3-28, 3-135]

xiii UN Security Council Resolution 2199 is a legally binding measure that prohibits the trade of cultural artifacts illegally removed from Syria since 2011 and Iraq since 1990.  ( UN Security Council Resolution 2193 ( statements/index.asp?nid=7521).

 xv United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime ( /imolin_amlid.html)

 xiv “UNESCO Director-General to Brief UN Security Council on the Protection of Cultural Heritage.” (

on the protection of cultural _heritage).

[xiv] An example can be found at the following link:

[xv] “2014-2015 Civil Affairs Issue Papers: The Future of Civil Affairs” (


About the Author(s)

Marc Abramiuk, Ph.D., is a professional archaeologist and social anthropologist who works in defense, development, cultural resource management, and education.  Reconnaissance and salvage, particularly in logistically challenging environments, are his archaeological fieldwork specialties.  His research interests on which he has published extensively include cognitive archaeology and applied anthropology among others.

Wilem S. Wong, CFE, CAMS, is a Major in the United States Army Reserve (USAR) and a Sergeant of Police, New York City Police Department (NYPD). E-mail: