Analysis | Afghanistan endures yet another deadly shock

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The earthquake that struck eastern Afghanistan late Wednesday was on its own terms a hideous disaster. At least 1,000 people were killed, included many children, and more than 1,600 people injured in a remote, rugged area of the country — making it one of the deadliest quakes in recent decades. Tremors wiped out whole villages and disintegrated mud-brick houses, which are ubiquitous in the region. Heavy rains and mudslides complicated rescue operations, dooming those survivors trapped in the rubble.

But the tragedy is compounded by Afghanistan’s political isolation and economic unraveling. The country has been subject to heavy sanctions ever since the fundamentalist Taliban seized power last year. The fire hose of foreign cash and international aid that propped up the U.S.-backed governments in Kabul for two decades was turned off overnight. Billions of dollars of Afghan foreign reserves were frozen by the U.S. Treasury.

The Taliban contravened earlier assurances over their rule and drastically curtailed women’s rights, barring access to education for schoolgirls beyond sixth grade and imposing other draconian Islamic controls. The international community treats the militia’s leadership as Afghanistan’s de facto authorities, but formal recognition by foreign governments is not likely as long as the Taliban pursue this hard-line agenda.

As a result, Afghanistan is in the grips of a staggering series of social and economic crises: According to the United Nations, 15 years of economic growth have been shaved off in 10 months, with the country’s economy contracting some 30 to 40 percent. The banking system effectively collapsed, vital remittances from Afghans living abroad dried up by half, myriad businesses shuttered and prices for basic goods spiked. Unemployment could hit 40 percent this year. Almost half the country’s population faces acute hunger, while close to 6 in 10 Afghans are in need of humanitarian assistance.

The West has a hand in Afghanistan’s bleak state

And then came the earthquake. Beyond the shocking death toll, countless residents in this impoverished part of the country are now homeless and left exposed to the elements, including significant recent rainfall. There are myriad harrowing accounts of survivors digging with their hands through the debris in search of loved ones.

Senior Taliban officials rushed to the affected districts in a show of empathy but demanded outside assistance. The Taliban’s supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhunzada, called upon “the international community, welfare and humanitarian organizations to come forward and provide assistance to the earthquake affected people of Afghanistan.”

A host of international aid organizations have rushed to help, but the prevailing sanctions complicated how cash flows enter the country and how swiftly outside actors can impact matters on the ground. “The government sadly is under sanctions so it is financially unable to assist the people to the extent that is needed,” Abdul Qahar Balkhi, a senior Taliban official, told the Guardian. “The assistance needs to be scaled up to a very large extent because this is a devastating earthquake which hasn’t been experienced in decades.”

“The Afghan people are already facing an unprecedented crisis following decades of conflict, severe drought and an economic downturn,” said Gordon Craig, deputy regional director for Afghanistan of the U.N.’s World Food Program. “The earthquake will only add to the already massive humanitarian needs they endure daily, including for the nearly 19 million people across the country who face acute hunger and require assistance.”

Afghans mourn the dead, search for shelter after devastating earthquake

After it froze Afghan reserves and imposed sanctions amid the Taliban takeover, the Biden administration got criticized for effectively pushing the Afghan economy off a cliff. Diplomats from neighboring countries, Afghans overseas and U.N. officials have all called on the United States to relax its tightfisted approach. That doesn’t seem imminent, though White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement this week that the United States was “the single largest donor of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, and our humanitarian partners are already delivering medical care and shelter supplies on the ground.”

At a U.N. Security Council session on Afghanistan on Thursday, Ramiz Alakbarov, the acting head of the U.N. mission in the country, warned of the bleaker big picture. “If the economy is not able to recover and grow meaningfully and sustainably, then the Afghan people will face repeated humanitarian crises, potentially spurring mass migration and making conditions ripe for radicalization and renewed armed conflict,” he said.

Alakbarov added that “we firmly continue to believe that a strategy of continued engagement and dialogue remains the only way forward for the sake of the Afghan people, as well as for regional and international security.”

But there is no meaningful track for dialogue and negotiations with the Taliban at present.

All the while, ordinary Afghans reckon with compounding calamities. In eastern Paktika province, where the earthquake hit, my colleagues reported on the meager relief operations underway. Taliban authorities were distributing food rations to a crowd of men and boys from a village where dozens had died.

“A piece of bread is just for one day, what should we do with that?” one local elder said. “We need tents and money to rebuild,” he said — echoing fears among the villagers that their quake-damaged homes could collapse completely, my colleagues noted.

Similar fears were on show in 1998, when two earthquakes hit the country in a few months, killing thousands. Then, too, the country’s tortured political and security predicament stymied relief efforts. The afflicted regions were held by an alliance of factions opposed to the Taliban, who controlled the bulk of the country.

“The natural disaster could test the ability of Afghanistan’s warring factions to suspend hostilities long enough for the aid to reach victims,” The Washington Post reported in February 1998.

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