But the tragedy is compounded by Afghanistan’s political isolation and economic meltdown. The country has been subject to heavy sanctions since the fundamentalist Taliban seized power last year. The fire hose of foreign money and international aid that sustained US-backed governments in Kabul for two decades was shut down overnight. Billions of dollars of Afghan foreign reserves have been frozen by the US Treasury.
The Taliban went against previous assurances about their government and drastically restricted women’s rights, preventing access to education for students beyond the sixth grade and imposing other draconian Islamic controls. The international community treats the militia leadership as the de facto authorities of Afghanistan, but formal recognition by foreign governments is unlikely as long as the Taliban pursues this hardline agenda.
As a result, Afghanistan is in the grip of a staggering series of social and economic crises: according to the United Nations, 15 years of economic growth have been cut into 10 months, with the country’s economy contracting by around 30 to 40 percent. The banking system collapsed, vital remittances from Afghans living abroad dried up by half, countless businesses closed and prices for basic goods soared. Unemployment could reach 40% this year. Nearly half of the country’s population faces acute hunger, while around 6 in 10 Afghans are in need of humanitarian assistance.
The West has a hand in Afghanistan’s bleak state
🗺️SHAKE MAP: Seismic Intensity Scale (Mercalli) of today’s 5.9 magnitude #earthquake.
🔴At just 10 km depth, it was felt strongly in the areas in red below, where damage and casualties are likely concentrated.
— OCHA Afghanistan (@OCHAAfg) June 22, 2022
And then came the earthquake. In addition to the shocking death toll, countless residents in this impoverished part of the country are now homeless and exposed to the elements, including recent significant rains. There are countless harrowing accounts of survivors digging through the rubble by hand in search of loved ones.
Senior Taliban officials rushed to affected districts in a show of empathy, but demanded outside assistance. Taliban Supreme Leader Haibatullah Akhunzada called on “the international community, welfare and humanitarian organizations to come forward and provide assistance to people affected by the earthquake in Afghanistan.”
A number of international aid organizations swooped in to help, but prevailing sanctions have complicated how cash flows enter the country and how quickly external actors can affect matters on the ground. “Unfortunately, the government is under sanctions, so it is financially unable to help people as needed,” Abdul Qahar Balkhi, a senior Taliban official, told the Guardian. “Aid needs to be scaled up to a great extent because this is a devastating earthquake that has not been experienced in decades.”
“The Afghan people are already facing an unprecedented crisis after decades of conflict, severe drought and economic recession,” said Gordon Craig, deputy regional director for Afghanistan at the UN World Food Program. “The earthquake will only add to the already massive humanitarian needs they face on a daily basis, including for nearly 19 million people across the country who face acute hunger and need assistance.”
Afghans mourn the dead and seek shelter after devastating earthquake
After it froze Afghan reserves and imposed sanctions amid the Taliban takeover, the Biden administration was criticized for effectively pushing the Afghan economy off a cliff. Diplomats from neighboring countries, Afghans abroad and UN officials urged the United States to relax its narrow 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 largest donor of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, and our humanitarian partners are already providing medical assistance and supplies.” of shelter on the ground.”
At a UN Security Council session on Afghanistan on Thursday, Ramiz Alakbarov, acting head of the UN mission in the country, warned of the grimmer scenario. “If the economy is not able to recover and grow significantly and sustainably, 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 continue to firmly believe that a strategy of continued engagement and dialogue remains the only way forward for the good of the Afghan people as well as regional and international security.”
But there is no meaningful avenue for dialogue and negotiations with the Taliban at the moment.
All the while, ordinary Afghans rely on compound calamities. In the eastern province of Paktika, where the earthquake struck, my colleagues reported on the scant relief operations underway. Taliban authorities were handing out food rations to a crowd of men and boys in a village where dozens died.
“A loaf of bread is only for one day, what should we do with it?” said a local elder. “We need tents and money to rebuild,” he said — echoing fears among residents that their earthquake-damaged homes could completely collapse, my colleagues noted.
Similar fears were in evidence in 1998, when two earthquakes hit the country within months, killing thousands. In addition, the country’s torturous political and security situation has stymied relief efforts. The affected regions were controlled by an alliance of factions opposed to the Taliban, which controlled most of the country.
“The natural disaster could test the ability of Afghanistan’s warring factions to suspend hostilities long enough for aid to reach victims,” the Washington Post reported in February 1998.