The Taliban’s slow rise to power in Afghanistan in the 1990s drew interest in the West but not much initial condemnation. The ultra-conservative religious militia’s 1996 takeover of the remote, landlocked Asian nation was seen as unsurprising and perhaps even just in a nation whose leaders had been perpetually corrupt for decades.
But then came the events of early 2001, which drew furious condemnation from Islamic and non-Islamic nations alike. Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar ordered the destruction of two carvings of Buddha, measuring 175 and 120 feet tall, which were hewn into a cliff face in the Bamiyan region in the third and fifth centuries. The destruction was compared to Nazi book-burning and blasted by the U.S. State Department as an assault on “the world’s cultural legacy.” Six months later, after it became known that Afghanistan was where Osama bin Laden had plotted the horrific terror attacks of 9/11, the view that the Taliban was barbaric was already in place. Within months, a U.S.-led coalition drove the Taliban out of Kabul and a new government was installed.
Now, 20 years later, President Donald Trump seems to want to follow in the Taliban’s footsteps. Over the weekend, he said that if Iran attacked America or Americans in response to the U.S. drone assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, he would order attacks on 52 Iranian sites — including cultural sites. He chose 52, he explained, because Iran had held 52 Americans hostage in 1979-80.
A case can be made that killing a mass murderer like Soleimani was justified. But a case cannot be made that destroying iconic cultural sites in Iran — including the 24 cited by the United Nations for their cultural value to the world — is justified. Besides being a gross violation of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property, such destruction would mark America with a stench that would never be forgotten. The hope that Trump would be normalized and constrained as his presidency wore on has never seemed more foolish.
— The San Diego Union-Tribune