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Of all the treasures in Afghanistan, the most famous by far are the two colossal Buddhas of Bamiyan Province. Carved out of a rocky cliff-face in the fourth or fifth centuries A.D., the statues have gazed out benevolently over the old Silk Road route below for centuries. According to scholars, the Bamiyan masterpieces influenced later Buddhist sculptures all over the world, including the well-known 10th-century Chinese Buddha at Kyoto’s Seiryoji Temple.

In a shock announcement this week, however, Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers reversed earlier promises and ordered the destruction of all the statues in the country, including the giant Buddhas, as “offensive to Islam.” They and hundreds of smaller religious statues “have been used as idols and deities by nonbelievers before this [and] they may be turned into idols in the future, too,” the decree said.

Told of the international reaction of sadness, anger and disbelief, Afghanistan’s supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, reportedly shrugged. To the Taliban, who have imposed a puritanical mixture of conservative Islamic beliefs and tribal customs on the country since seizing power in 1996, there is now apparently nothing to argue about. Mr. Omar dismissed objections from Buddhist countries such as Thailand and Sri Lanka, confirming that it was precisely as symbols of religious belief and objects of worship that the statues were inimical to Islam. But he also dismissed the outrage of secular organizations for preservation, including UNESCO, saying that if the statues are not regarded as religious, they are of no interest at all: “Then all we are breaking is stones,” he said.

This response is profoundly disheartening. The mute, breathtaking, ancient figures of Bamiyan are anything but mere stones. Whatever one’s personal religious beliefs, it is impossible not to see them as humanity’s monuments, not just Buddhism’s, and certainly not just Afghanistan’s. As a concerned Japanese scholar said Tuesday, “Even though the statues are in Afghanistan, they are really world heritage sites now.”

Unfortunately, the first part of that sentence is truer at present than the second. The Taliban do have effective control over the country’s entire historical heritage and for complex reasons cannot now be trusted not to follow through on their threat and destroy the lot. Why, when they had earlier pledged to protect it, and had actually prevented one zealous local Taliban commander from dynamiting the bigger Buddha, have they suddenly changed course? The motives, obviously, far transcend religion.

Consider the timing. Only last week, the New York-based Human Rights Watch released evidence that in January Taliban troops had massacred some 300 unarmed civilians in a region of Afghanistan long opposed to Taliban rule. This came on the heels of a statement of concern by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan about earlier reports of violent intimidation against minority populations. Also last week, U.N. officials warned that up to 1 million Afghans displaced from their homes by civil war, drought and the country’s economic collapse are at imminent risk of dying of hunger and cold — in fact, are already dying. Overshadowing all this bad news are the ongoing effects, both real and bitterly imagined, of sanctions imposed by the United Nations in response to Afghanistan’s refusal to hand over terrorist Osama bin Laden.

It can hardly be a coincidence that the Taliban chose this week to drop their bombshell. Part defiance, part frustration and, yes, part religious conviction, the announcement may well have been timed to do two things: to distract the Afghans from their miseries and to distract the rest of the world from the ruling militia’s own burgeoning crimes and failures.

They can hardly succeed. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, this plan will only harden antipathy to the fundamentalist cabal in Kabul and, ironically, end up highlighting what may not have been grasped earlier: the extent of the cultural devastation already inflicted on Afghanistan. According to preservationists, the Bamiyan Buddhas have suffered more damage since 1998 than they did in the preceding millennium and a half. Numerous other statues have been destroyed. The superb national museum in Kabul has been damaged by rockets and plundered. This week’s wholesale destruction will just compound international concern, not divert it.

Not that the Taliban care. They are in the grip of a malignant, desperate fury that puts them beyond the world’s comprehension, let alone its influence. But, with luck, this plan to vandalize their country’s treasures will have the unintended effect of rousing Afghans themselves to protest — not for religion’s sake, but for the sake of their image as a rational people.

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