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Update: Afghanistan

But they had first to reckon with the devastation of Afghanistan. And then there was Mullah Omar in Kandahar. Omar's views on such American means to happiness as swimming pools were never clearly expressed. But they could be inferred from his fatwas against "American hairstyles" and pop music and his distaste for Kabul, whose foreign aid workers and seventies-style hotel spoke to him of unbridled vice and depravity.

It is perhaps safe to say that happiness wasn't Mullah Omar's dish. Nor was serenity, as once embodied by the Bamiyan Buddhas and the remaining Indo-Greek statues at the Kabul Museum, all of which Omar's henchmen vandalized with some relish. As Mullah Omar saw it, both happiness and serenity were unworthy goals for his band of virtuous Muslim soldiers.

Not that the pious Omar was any more respectful of the traditionally Islamic routes to well-being. The gardens of Islam, the oases of green that feature so prominently in the Koran's visions of paradise, once had no more glorious specimen in Afghanistan than Baghi Babur, which lies on a hillside overlooking Kabul. It was designed by Babur, the descendant of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane and the first Moghul emperor of India. Babur, who seized Kabul in 1504, liked the place for its views and peacefulness; he often sat among the mulberry and plane trees and dreamed his old dream of conquering Tamerlane's capital of Samarkand. He died in 1530 in Agra, India, a homesick old man thousands of miles from his beloved Central Asia. His family carried out his wish and brought his body to Kabul. The emperors who followed him—even greater connoisseurs of art, creators of the Taj Mahal and the terraced gardens of Kashmir—honored his memory by building a tomb and mosque in what they called "the theater of heaven, the light garden of the angel king."

For centuries Babur's garden and tomb quietly watched the steady procession of Afghanistan's unlamented rulers. Such adjectives as "beautiful" and "magnificent" were showered on them as late as 1976, in what must be the world's most melancholy guidebook, Nancy Hatch Dupree's An Historical Guide to Afghanistan. They even survived the decade-long war between the Soviets and the American proxies that began in 1979. The civil war that concluded with the Taliban's triumph in 1996 finally broke the peace of the angel-king's garden. The tomb itself miraculously survived the shelling that turned the mosque into a ruin; Taliban soldiers desperate for firewood later ravaged the garden.

The civil war also signaled the end of the National Museum in Kabul, which was first hit by a rocket in 1993. A second rocket followed not long afterward and then the looting began. The Greek coins excavated in Ai Khanoum, the site of the Greek colonies established by Alexander the Great; the many statues of the Buddha; the idols of Hindu gods—all of Afghanistan's pre-Islamic heritage was systematically carted off by rival warlords. Some of it was smuggled to Pakistan, from where it trickled out to greedy antiques collectors in Europe, America, and Japan. Once again, religious faith played little part here. That the cities of Herat and Ghazni had once belonged to a glorious phase of Islamic civilization did not make them immune to looters and smugglers.


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