The Taliban fighters arrived with hammers and hatred. What they left behind is laid out on tables at the National Museum of Afghanistan, 18 years later: shattered pieces of ancient Buddha figurines, smashed because they were judged to be against Islam.
Museum workers in Kabul have been trying to fit them together again as a nervous country waits for the Taliban and the U.S. to reach a deal on ending America’s longest war. The agreement is expected to lead to intra-Afghan talks in which the extremist group would play a role in shaping Afghanistan’s future.
As the workers pick with gloved hands through hundreds of neatly arranged shards labeled “ears,” ”hands,” ”foreheads” and “eyes,” that future feels especially fragile.
Few details have emerged from several rounds of U.S.-Taliban negotiations held over the past year, and no one knows what a Taliban return to the capital, Kabul, might look like. The country still sees near-daily attacks not only by the long-established Taliban, who now control about half of Afghanistan, but also from a brutal local affiliate of the Islamic State group.
The Taliban’s five-year rule imposed a harsh form of Islamic law, denying girls education, banning music and banishing women to their homes. It ended shortly after the U.S.-led invasion following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks to rout the Taliban, who had harbored al-Qaida and its leader Osama bin Laden.
Sherazuddin Saifi remembers the day the Taliban arrived at the national museum in 2001, a period of cultural rampage in which the world’s largest standing Buddha statues in Bamyan province were dynamited, to global horror.
For several days, the Taliban set upon the Kabul museum’s trove of artifacts from Afghanistan’s millennia-old history as a crossroads of cultures: Greek, Persian, Chinese and other. They selected offending items that showed human forms, even early Islamic ones, shattered them with hammers or smashed them against the floor.
“We could not prevent…