Afghanistan is a very rich country, in terms of it’s archeological past. The remains of multiple empires and the detritus that accumulates for being such an important trade route are evident every where you look. I would venture that if one would dig a hole in any inhabited area in Afghanistan, you would discover historic and pre-historic artifacts of great value.
However, it violates both Afghan and US law to take, buy or otherwise acquire such artifacts and attempt to leave the country with them. According to the CENTCOM Website:
CENTCOM’s Historical/Cultural Advisory Group defines antiquities as “all artistic relics and monuments, moveable or immoveable, made before 1748, including all articles of historic or prehistoric value and any natural objects modified by human agency prior to the above date.”[i] United States’ law and General Order 1A applies to all Afghan laws concerning antiquities and cultural artifacts. [i] Islamic State of Afghanistan Law on the Protection of Historical and Cultural Properties, dtd 21 May 2004, http://www.cemml.colostate.edu/cultural/09476/pdf/afghan-antiquities-law-2004.pdf
Coins and other artifacts on a US/ISAF base for sale
Funny thing, though; if you go to US or International Security Forces (ISAF) base in Afghanistan, there is a commercial area where you may purchase any number of real and/or fake artifacts. And if you take those artifacts to the local Army Post Office, they will gladly assist you in exporting those items, as long as they are not in violation of any other postal regulations.
In some areas of Afghanistan, the perception that Westerners are there to “steal the Afghan cultural heritage” is a well-known meme. So one could argue that dealing in both real and alleged antiquities is working against Western goals in Afghanistan, in that it creates a negative perception of Westerners.
On the other hand, I’ve heard more than once from Afghans that they do not trust the Government to preserve the Afghan cultural heritage, either due to lack of capacity to do so, or distrust in the government officials; assuming that they would steal or destroy artifacts. In fact, many important artifacts were preserved during the Taliban years by being “stolen” by Western collectors, and were recently repatriated to the Afghanistan National Museum.
In addition, there is a financial quandary to be considered. These “stolen” pieces of antiquity are most often either manufactured by enterprising individuals and aged to made to look older, or they are excavated by local Afghans and then sold to marketers. Either way, they represent money flowing into Afghan pockets on a direct capitalistic exchange and NOT to a largely corrupt government in the form of aid. And, to be sure, the supply of fakes is unlimited, and the supply of real antiquities has been barely touched.
I have to admit that I purchased a few bronze coins that I believe are genuine, from the Ghaznavid era. And I have to also admit that I see the pros and cons of both sides of the antiquity argument. I think it demonstrates exactly how gray this issue really is.