Iraq Afghanistan Egypt (Bright Star) United States Department of Defense

Home Major Focus Areas Protecting Cultural Property Iraq Laws, Treaties & Enforcement Test Your Knowledge
Cultural Property Protection
Iraq Cultural Property Law, 2002
The Impact of War on Iraq's Cultural Heritage

The factors that shape operational planning, strategy, and tactics constantly evolve in response to the nature of each operation, the different regions in which we deploy, and changing societal priorities and expectations.

In short, the only thing that remains the same is the need to change. As General Peter Schoomaker wisely said in 2004: "This is a game of wits and will. You've got to be learning constantly to survive."

Within the context of military operations, a wide range of cultural heritage and cultural property issues have gained media attention and high prominence in the public's imagination that few could have predicted a few short years ago:

• unintentional but avoidable damage to archaeological, historical or religious sites or monuments by U.S. forces, which may occur during combat operations, during bed-down procedures or post-conflict reconstruction projects;

• intentional damage to these same sites and monuments by adversaries to achieve momentary tactical advantage; and

• the looting of archaeological sites, monuments or cultural institutions by civilians in response to the temporary collapse of civilian authority.

As we know, cultural property is constantly at risk in countries and regions around the world — even in the United States — where no conflict or military operations exist.

Looting for profit, illegal "treasure hunting," and the organized plunder of archaeological sites in search of saleable artifacts is a worldwide problem. According to Interpol, among the top five organized crime activities worldwide is the smuggling and trade in illicit antiquities. The situation is already grave. The moment that military operations come into play, the risk to cultural property increases ... and the public relations risk to U.S. forces operating in culture-rich countries and regions escalates.

For this reason, the advice and recomendations featured here will play an increasingly important role when operating in culturally sensitive regions such as Iraq, Afghanistan and (during the Bright Star Exercise) Egypt.

Every conflict-prone region has vulnerable cultural sites, monuments and institutions that may be placed at risk in future conflicts and operations. Analyzing this challenge and mitigating risks is an important part in operational planning and training.

Effective analysis begins with a theory — observations and conclusions— that inform the actions we take with respect to safeguarding cultural property in future operations.


1. In asymmetric or Fourth Generation Warfare, using cultural or religious sites and monuments for military purposes or intentionally attacking these sites to incite, inflame and demoralize has become the tactic du jour.

Since U.S. forces possess overwhelming conventional military superiority in all situations, our adversaries have no choice but to respond with unconventional means. Ignoring international law or defying commonly-accepted norms (such as employing human shields) has become commonplace among our adversaries.

Another tactic is to rely on U.S. willingness to respect international agreements (our reluctance to attack opponents who occupy a cultural or religious monument or make first military use of such sites) to achieve a temporary tactical advantage.

In culturally-rich or religiously-dominated societies, insurgent groups increasingly employ 4GW tactics that have nothing to do with "winning" in the classical sense. One example of this trend is the intentional destruction of cultural or religious monuments to simultaneously shock and demoralize and silence the majority, and enflaming the minority among the population that must reveal themselves in order to seek reprisal. Attack and counter-attack in response to the initial cultural atrocity expands the field of battle and chaos that allows insurgencies to thrive.
The bombing of the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra by Al Qaida in Iraq (February, 2006), the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban (March, 2003), and the levelling of the historic center of Dubrovnik by Serbian forces (1991-2). All three instances appeared, at first glance, to be pointless exercises in human depravity, icon-smashing or cultural obliteration. Yet if we examine the tactic from the perpetrators' point of view, we begin to see its true purpose.

Few historic sites and monuments in Iraq, Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia are more highly revered than those mentioned, thus guaranteeing the maximum degree of demoralization and hopelessness (among the majority) and sense of rage (among the few whom the perpetrators wished to draw out and target) would be generated by obliterating these sites.

A primary goal of the weaker party in any asymmetric or 4GW situation is to surprise, de-stabilize, enrage and demoralize one's opponent rather than confront the opponent directly. High-profile cultural property crime serves as a useful (and low risk) tactic.

These cultural equivalents of first degree murder convey the insurgent's essential message: "we are capable of anything and will prove it by destroying what the indigenous population and our opponents cherish the most." If left unchecked, this tactic may continue until the last great monument in the theater of operation is destroyed, or effective countermeasures to stop the destruction are implemented.


2. Many conflict-prone regions have vulnerable cultural heritage resources and a history of site looting and artifact smuggling and trafficking that is far from trivial. 

"Culturally-rich" and "economically challenged" are common descriptors for all of the most conflict-prone nations and regions in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America — all of which have experienced high levels of archaeological site looting and cultural property crime over the past half century, fed by the billion-dollar global market for illicit antiquities.

An immense global phenomenon, antiquities mining and smuggling is not a standalone activity. It mingles and co-exists with other criminal sub-cultures.

In West Africa, for example, looted artifacts, weapons, "blood" diamonds and, increasingly, narcotics all follow the same smuggling routes to and from Europe.

In Afghanistan, poppy cultivation and antiquities smuggling are linked activities; tariffs are paid to local warlords or Taliban commanders in the south who sanction the activity, and artifacts are often shipped out on the same trucks as poppy.

In China, counterfeit goods and illicit cultural property are smuggled in containers side-by-side with all manner of legitimate merchandise. Artifacts in Iraq often turn up in the hands of weapons smugglers. And in the extremist dominated NWFP (Northwest Frontier Provinces) of Pakistan, Gandharan Buddhist artifacts have been looted from the ancient sanctuaries, stockpiled and warehoused near Peshawar, where they are smuggled out in small batches so as not to overwhelm the market and cause prices in Europe or the U.S. to collapse.

The tap root beneath every unstable society is illegal enterprise, which requires: (a) desperate people; and (b) a readily-available and scalable source of illicit revenue (illicit drugs is often the first choice, followed by diamonds or weapons ... illicit antiquities and other cultural property is not far behind).

Like narcotics or diamonds, illicit antiquities function as a high-value (and highly profitable) means of storing and transporting wealth. Artifacts are difficult to trace, relatively anonymous, and change hands in source countries for a fraction of their ultimate value at a gallery of auction house in London of New York.

The farther an artifact travels towards its ultimate point of sale, the higher the profit. Thus a powerful economic incentive exists to transport illicit cultural property along with other forms of contraband.

Analyzing the relationships between the illicit antiquities trade and other forms of organized crime that feed insurgencies and destabilize fragile societies, and training U.S. forces to recognize and check this threat as early as possible in an operational environment can eliminate one source of oxygen that fuels insurgency and conflict.


3. In culturally-rich societies, looting is often the first response to civil unrest or armed conflict; it's a crime of opportunity that, if left unchecked, leads to more widespread forms of criminality and chaos; halting this activity is not only a treaty obligation, it restores order and shortens our time in the field.

Armed conflict and regime change creates predictable opportunities for chaos and theft. Soon after the Soviets withdrew from Kabul, mujahedeen set upon the Kabul Museum. Hours after the fall of Baghdad, the Iraq Museum was breached.

As these episodes illustrate, the first victims of wartime chaos is often cultural property that criminals can seize and turn into cash. Allowing such looting to occur, for a day or two in cities, or for months or years in the countryside, feeds insurgency and perpetuates a sense of resignation or distrust or resistance toward civilian authority. This ultimately prolongs the time we must spend in theater.


4. Sensitivity to indigenous cultures breeds mutual respect and supports our mission by winning hearts and minds. "Cultural intelligence" has been a buzz word in the military for years. We know, in Arab societies, the importance of removing sunglasses when addressing an elder, never showing the soles of one's feet, never using one's left hand, and not speaking to women or entering mosques without clear permission. But true cultural intelligence — in every region in which U.S. forces serve — can go one step further. Understanding basic history and the names and locations of the most famous cultural and religious monuments do matter.


5. Minimizing damage to cultural property helps U.S. forces win the public relations war at home. Media reports of damage to cultural property due to deliberate action (camping directly on a famous site such as Babylon), or lack of response (not stopping the looting of the Iraq Museum quickly), whether exaggerated or not, perpetuate the incorrect assumption that U.S. forces are indifferent to non-military concerns. Effective cultural heritage training with proven tactics, techniques and procedures, will limit damage to cultural assets and burnish the image of the U.S. around the world.


6. Respecting the treaties, laws and regulations that relate to cultural property is a necessary function. International laws, source country cultural heritage laws, U.S. law (on the state and federal level) and military regulations are clear on the subject of cultural property protection: harsh consequences occur whenever service personnel take what doesn't belong to them.

Enforcement agencies are in business to interdict and prosecute anyone who commits a cultural property crime. The publicity that accompanies cases of this type enhance customs inspectors' or prosecutors' career. Reminding ourselves of the many forces arrayed to prevent this type of crime not only protects individual service personnel. It reinforces unit discipline, builds trust in our relationship with allies and host governments, and thereby supports the mission.


7. Altruism is a potent motivator. Service personnel wear the uniform because they want to do the right thing. With proper training, equipment and leadership, they will excel in their important mission.

Putting theory into practice requires tactics, techniques and procedures that accommodate battlefield realities, respect the rules of engagement and maintain force protection. These issues are covered the next section of this tutorial.


Click to enlarge