Killing the Buddha in Pakistan’s Swat Valley

The Swat District in Pakistan’s Northwestern Frontier Province, dominated by the Swat Valley, watered by the River Swat, surrounded by snow-capped mountains rising as high as 20,000 feet, has been compared to Switzerland in its breathtaking beauty. Only 684 square miles in area (two-thirds the size of Rhode Island), with a population of 1.5 million, it has little commercial agriculture or industry but is rich in history as well as natural scenery. Until recently, it has been a mecca for the archeologist and for the tourist. Both are drawn largely by the presence of Buddhist artifacts, including great Buddhas carved into the mountainside, similar to those crafted 1500 years ago in Bamiyan, Afghanistan.

Conquered by Alexander the Greek and his Macedonians in the 320s BCE, this region became part of the Mauryan Empire. Emperor Ashoka in the mid-third century BCE promoted the spread of Buddhism here, and in the second century BCE the local Greek King Menander may have been a convert. (The Questions of Menander—supposedly a conversation between the king and a Buddhist monk—is unique among ancient Buddhist texts in its dialogue form, characteristic of Greek philosophical texts, and may have actually been composed originally in Greek.) Later the Kushan Empire centering on the Gandhara region encouraged the emergence of an Indo-Greek Buddhist style of sculpture. The Swat Valley was at the cutting edge of one of the most extraordinary syntheses in art history: Buddhist content and classical realistic western sculpture. The Buddha, earlier represented symbolically (as a footprint), came to be depicted as a Greek deity or king, standing or seated in meditation.

This, for example, is the 23-foot high Buddha of Jenanabad, one of the finest examples of Gandharan art, as it appeared until recently.


Here’s how it has looked since October 8.



Remember how the Taliban destroyed the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan, in Afghanistan, in March 2001? Well, this Buddha in Swat was attacked twice last September by forces led by a local cleric named Maulana Fazlullah, who heads the “Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law,” aligned with the Taliban. On October 8, the Pakistani Talibs succeeded in obliterating its face with dynamite. This was not widely reported in the U.S. press, perhaps because it would have so dramatically demonstrated how Taliban influence far from waning has spread outside Afghanistan, and is even leading some Pakistanis to attack their national treasures.

The Buddhist law of karma states that willed actions have inevitable consequences. Evil actions produce more evil. There is a strange karma at work nowadays, making everything worse everywhere in Southwest Asia. George Bush invaded Afghanistan in 2001, to capture Osama bin Laden “dead or alive,” crush al-Qaeda and topple the Taliban regime. He in fact failed to capture bin Laden, and U.S. intelligence reports conclude that al-Qaeda is stronger now than in 2001. Meanwhile the Taliban relying on new recruits controls large swathes of Afghanistan, kills “Coalition” soldiers in record numbers (218 so far this year, including 111 Americans, compared with 191 including 98 Americans in 2006), and expands operations in Pakistan. The Taliban is rooted in the Pashtun tribes who straddle Afghanistan and Pakistan and have little use for the border. They are linked by a common language (Pashto) and culture centering around the Pashtunwali or traditional code of conduct (preceding even the arrival of Islam, which is to say dating at least to the Buddhist period) which more than any other value emphasizes hospitality to visitors (melmastia).

Perhaps the Bush administration didn’t consider this when it drove al-Qaeda and the Taliban across the border during the Battle of Tora Bora in December 2001, or when in March 2002 Bush told a White House press conference in March 2002, “I truly am not that concerned about” bin Laden. Since March of this year administration officials have been voicing mounting alarm over Taliban and al-Qaeda gains in the border area, even speaking ominously about possible U.S. attacks on Pakistani soil. These statements have produced immediate denunciations from the Pakistani Foreign Ministry, partly no doubt to assure the public that the unpopular regime opposes an U.S. attack, and partly to dissuade Washington from attacks that would exacerbate the current anti-American sentiment in the country. This has risen precipitously in recent years.

The Pashtuns of the Northwestern Frontier provinces, including those of Swat, have plainly extended hospitality and provided sanctuary to many on the U.S. wanted list, probably including Mullah Mohammed Omar and Osama bin Laden. As the Taliban resurges in Afghanistan, it abets its progress, placing Pakistan’s dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf in a terrible bind. He has deployed troops unfamiliar with the region to attack local Taliban supporters, at Washington’s insistence, but they have fared poorly and his efforts have only produced more local support for the Islamists and more opposition to his government. According to the New York Times, the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Command plans to” train and equip the Pakistani Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force that has about 85,000 members coming mostly from border tribes” and to recruit Pakistani tribal leaders to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban. But how will they do this in a region where bin Laden is even more highly admired than in Pakistan as a whole, where his approval rating as of September was 46 percent, compared with 38 percent for Musharraf and 9 percent for Bush?

Citing the growing security threat, Musharraf declared a state of emergency and suspended the Pakistani constitution November 3, prompting an all-around political crisis in a nuclear-armed close ally of the U.S. He had apparently planned to do this in August but was dissuaded by Washington. Now he is taking a big risk. He may fall, and the Islamist iconoclasts or their backers in the Pakistani military could move into a power vacuum, as Islamists gained control over Iran following the overthrow of the hated Shah. Or power might pass to Benazir Bhutto who would, like Musharraf, need to steer a careful course between cooperating with the U.S. in its “war on terror,” and posing as a nationalist and defender of moderate Islam. In the face of near-universal hatred for the Bush administration in Pakistan, and suspicions that its war is in fact against Islam in general, the prospect for a Taliban seizure of power in parts of Pakistan is very real. The Bush administration, unable to control the events it has triggered, is in a state of consternation.

How did this happen? What are the causes and effects behind the Talibanization of the frontier? One can either trace the bad karma forwards or backwards. If we do the former, we might start with the first big U.S. intervention into Southwest Asian history: the CIA-orchestrated overthrow of the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran in 1953. (Having nationalized the country’s oil industry, he was falsely declared a “Communist” by U.S. politicians and media.) But let’s proceed backwards towards that point.

The al-Qaeda and Taliban presence in Pakistan stem from the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan stemmed from the al-Qaeda 9-11 attacks on the U.S.

The al-Qaeda 9-11 attacks stemmed from the establishment of U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia (more than any other cause).

The establishment of U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia, which were never accepted by the Saudi people but seen as a travesty in the land of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, stemmed from the U.S. decision to go to war with Iraq in 1990.
The first President Bush’s decision to go to war with Iraq and destroy its military stemmed from Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

That invasion of Kuwait stemmed mainly from quarrels between Iraq and Kuwait concerning Iraq’s debt to the latter.

Iraq’s debt to Kuwait stemmed from its heavy borrowing from its neighbor during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and Kuwait’s refusal (backed by the U.S.) to forgive the debt after the war.

That war stemmed from Saddam’s supposition that Iran was weak, and that Iraq could adjust the border between the two countries by military force.

Saddam’s optimism stemmed in part from his two meetings during the war with Donald Rumsfeld, who offered and provided him with U.S. military assistance.
U.S. desire to assist Saddam stemmed from the policy objective of overthrowing the Iranian government.

This objective stemmed from the overthrow of the pro-U.S. Shah in 1979 and the emergence of an anti-U.S. Islamist regime.

The acquisition of power by the Islamist regime stemmed from the hatred of the Shah, who had been overthrown in 1979 in the most genuine, mass-based revolutionary upheaval in the history of the Muslim world.

The Shah’s return to the throne 26 years earlier stemmed from a U.S. imperialist calculus that he would be the best man to look after U.S. interests in the Gulf region.

This is of course a simplified backwards-looking chronology. It leaves out a lot, including the deep background fact that the whole map of the Middle East was drawn up by British and French colonialists after World War I. (This is why Kuwait is separate from Iraq, why Kurdistan never became a state, why Lebanon’s Christians wield disproportionate political power, etc.) Some might of course blame me for laying out a “blame America first” perspective covering the period from the CIA coup in Iran, but what government deserves more blame for the current crises from Lebanon to Pakistan? I might add that the very existence of al-Qaeda and the Taliban stem from the U.S. effort throughout the 1980s into the 90s to mobilize Islamists for a jihad against the Soviets and their allies in Afghanistan. The conscious deployment of jihadis versus secularist “communists” during the late Cold War era led directly to the emergence of such groups. The Afghan resistance lionized by Reagan was not by and large progressive in any sense; it opposed the education of girls, the establishment of clinics, land reform, curbs on clerics’ powers, lifting of Islamic dress regulations. It was filled with religious fanatics as opposed to American as Soviet meddling in their affairs. After the Soviets were driven from Afghanistan, many wound up attacking the U.S. This is what the CIA calls “blowback.” It’s the bad karma of imperialism.

But back to the Swat Valley and its Buddhist heritage. Mullah Fazlulah, whose “Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law” dates back to the early 1990s, reportedly now has some 4,500 militants under his influence. He inveighs against UNESCO-administered polio inoculations, CD shops, and girls’ schools, and apparently spearheads the effort to erase Swat’s non-Muslim past. Anyone advocating U.S. strikes against Pakistan (a number of neocons have done so over the last nine months) will mention all these things in order to emphasize the enemy’s caveman otherness. But we should ask such people: Why are the Mullah Fazlulahs on a roll right now? What is the cause, what is the effect?

Why do these religious fanatics want to target priceless, irreplaceable Buddhist art? Why have some Muslims in this region, who have lived contentedly in the shadow of these images for many centuries, only within recent years started blowing them up? (The last effort to destroy them was in the seventeenth century, during the reign of the uncommonly intolerant Moghul Emperor Aurangzeb.) According to Peshawar Museum archeologist Zainul Wahab, “the militants say [the statues] are ‘symbols of evil.'” The Swat Islamists are aware that the Qur’an forbids the depiction of the human or animal forms in religious art (although some “miniature paintings” showing these in books has been allowed, notably in Shiite Persia) as a safeguard against idolatry. (See Qur’an 6:74, 14:35, 22:30, etc.) But why these actions, now?

The Bamiyan episode may hold some clues. In July 1999, Mullah Omar actually ordered that the Buddhas be preserved. They were not being used as objects of worship (there being no Buddhists in Afghanistan in centuries). Moreoever, “The government considers the Bamyan statues as an example of a potential major source of income for Afghanistan from international visitors. The Taliban states that Bamyan shall not be destroyed but protected.” But in March 2001 a new decree called for the destruction of all such images. Mullah Omar explained to a Pakistani journalist in April 2004, “I did not want to destroy the Bamiyan Buddha. In fact, some foreigners came to me and said they would like to conduct the repair work of the Bamiyan Buddha that had been slightly damaged due to rains. This shocked me. I thought, these callous people have no regard for thousands of living human beings – the Afghans who are dying of hunger, but they are so concerned about non-living objects like the Buddha. This was extremely deplorable. That is why I ordered its destruction. Had they come for humanitarian work, I would have never ordered the Buddhas’ destruction.”

It sounds entirely illogical. The westerners, Omar reasons, were more concerned with saving a statue than with saving people in a country at war for sixteen years, vying with Ethiopia as the world’s most impoverished state—and so the Bamiyan Buddhas must be destroyed. Totally irrational. But it indicates a connection between extreme Islamist actions and global power structures. Omar would not agree with this interpretation of recent history, but the fact is the Soviet Union, taken by surprise by the leftist coup in 1978 in Afghanistan but determined thereafter to support a secular, progressive modern regime, sent in troops in 1979 to protect that regime from backward Islamists like Omar. And the U.S. threw its weight enthusiastically behind the jihadis, half the CIA money flowing to the notorious warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar now targeted for assassination. In 1993 the Northern Alliance warlords (principally Tajiks and Uzbeks) captured the capital, castrated and hung the last secular ruler who had taken refuge at the UN compound, proclaimed victory over anti-Islamic forces and set about constructing their new order. They fell into infighting among themselves and Hekmatyar, a Pashtun at one point named Prime Minister, laid siege to Kabul. The chaos ended in 1996 when the Taliban, supported by Pakistani military intelligence, took the capital and imposed the draconian regime deposed in the U.S. attack five years later.

In the interim—between 1993 and 2001—the U.S. basically ignored Afghanistan. Washington had relished the opportunity to (as President Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinsky put it) “bleed the Soviets, the way they bled us in Vietnam.” But once the Soviets were gone, the U.S. lost interest. It recognized the new Northern Alliance-dominated government, but provided little aid. Its principal interests in Afghanistan were “drugs and thugs” — discouragement of opium production, and containment of mujahadeen who having ousted the Soviets were now venting hostility towards their former infidel allies. After the Taliban took power in 1996, the oil firm UNOCAL through its representative Zalmay Khalilzad hosted Taliban officials in the U.S. to discuss pipeline construction. Colin Powell negotiated an aid package specifically for opium eradication. But while U.S. allies Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Oman recognized the Taliban and sent some aid, the U.S. and the west in general did little to alleviate hunger in Afghanistan. Hence, perhaps, the mullah’s indignation.

He no doubt thinks the west doesn’t have its priorities right. But is his thinking about art so distant from that of the architects of the Iraq War, who failed to protect the Baghdad Museum from looters, calling the looting “creative chaos”? Or the U.S. military whose vehicles have crushed artifacts in Babylon dating back to the time of King Nebuchadnezzar II? Or the U.S. troops who used the ninth-century Malwiya Minaret in Samarra as a lookout and sniper post, drawing a bomb attack that damaged its top tier? I don’t sense that preservation of culture looms large among the priorities of the Bush administration; it’s concerned with conquest, not art and religion. The Pakistani state meanwhile ostensibly seeks to preserve the Buddhist images of Swat. But as a police official at the police station closest to the Buddha of Jenanabad put it, “Due to the precarious law and order situation in the area we are confined to the police station and could not go to the place.” The state is spread thin and its top priority is to protect itself.

So other Buddhist sites in Swat, including the Butkara stupa and Takht-i-Bahi Buddhist monastery ruins, remain under threat, at the mercy not only of religious fanaticism but the absence of a state apparatus preoccupied elsewhere. Both of these problems are aggravated by the U.S. invasion of the region. The current wave of Islamist violence was unleashed by U.S. imperialism, itself born out of capitalist competition between states dating way back to the nineteenth century. That’s when the major western powers, having carved up China into concessions and colonized the Pacific, divided Africa and Southeast Asia. Russia and Britain vied for control of Afghanistan, with Britain ultimately winning control over its foreign affairs. But the British imperialists were unable to obtain colonial control of Afghanistan despite two bloody wars for that purpose (1839-42 and 1878-80). In May 1919 the Afghan khan Amanullah attacked British forces, who responded with the first aerial bombardment (on Kabul) in Afghanistan’s history. Fighting ended inconclusively with an agreement in which Britain acknowledged Afghanistan’s self-determination in its foreign relations. (That was just after revolutionary Russia had established relations with the country.)

In 1857, Friedrich Engels described the First Anglo-Afghan War as an “attempt of the British to set up a prince of their own making in Afghanistan” that was doomed due to the Afghans’ “indomitable hatred of rule, and their love of independence.” This I submit is an issue larger than any kind of religiosity. People don’t like being invaded. They don’t like it when their close kin across an artificial border created by imperialist mapmakers are invaded. The Pashtuns of the Swat Valley are angered by the toppling of the Taliban, and no doubt by U.S. support for Musharraf and by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. And if they are like Muslims throughout the Middle East, they turn to Islamic extremism in part due to frustration with poverty and lack of economic opportunity. These are the results of imperialist globalization; the Swat Valley is rich in minerals and has significant agricultural potential but the state has not promoted all-round development, relying instead on tourism. Outrage at military strikes, the growing civilian death toll in Afghanistan, and the lack of jobs and income in Swat combines with religious passion to attract young men into pro-Taliban groups. Now these groups are defying neocon plans for the region, rebelling against the Pakistani state, and attacking Buddhist images. But these Pashtun assaults are only the proximate cause of the Jenanabad Buddha’s defacement. The deeper karmic causes lie, in time and space, far outside the beautiful Swat Valley.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

He can be reached at:



Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: