As hope of finding quake survivors dims, focus shifts to relief
By Christina Goldbaum, Najim Rahim and Victoria Kim
For much of the past two decades, the southeastern part of Afghanistan near the Pakistani border was plagued by insurgent activity, as police and military posts were frequently overwhelmed by Taliban fighters, and received few benefits from the U.S. military presence.
The Taliban takeover in August finally brought relative peace to the far-flung population, despite the hardships they continued to face as the country suffered a drought and economic collapse.
Then early Wednesday, a 5.9 magnitude earthquake hit the region, shattering what little peace and stability the people there had been able to hold on to after so many years of hardship and violence.
More than 1,000 people were killed and 1,600 others injured in the quake, officials said, striking another blow to a country that has grappled with a dire humanitarian and economic crisis since the Taliban takeover in August.
The quake — the deadliest in the country in two decades — hit about 28 miles southwest of the city of Khost, a provincial capital in the country’s southeast, the U.S. Geological Survey said, and had a depth of about 6 miles. But the worst damage was in the neighboring Paktika province, which lies along the border with Pakistan.
“Nearly all government and private hospitals are full of victims,” said Awal Khan Zadran, a doctor in the Urgun district of Paktika. Some of the injured were taken to Kabul, the Afghan capital, by helicopters and others were transported to nearby provinces, he said.
It was the latest in a series of tragedies to strike the country since the Taliban seized power from the Western-backed government last summer. In the months since, Afghanistan has struggled with widespread hunger, a severe drought, terrorist attacks by the Islamic State group and an economic crisis that has devastated every facet of Afghan society.
At the same time, the Taliban have struggled to attract foreign aid from Western donors since announcing edicts barring girls from attending secondary schools and restricting women’s rights. Under the previous Western-backed government, foreign aid funded 75% of the government’s budget, including health and education services — aid that was abruptly cut off after the Taliban seized power.
Those challenges have only added to Afghanistan’s struggle to emerge from decades of war. The cumulative toll of a series of conflicts stretching back to the 1970s has left more than half the country’s roughly 40 million people needing humanitarian aid, according to the United Nations. Three-quarters of the population live in acute poverty.
Wednesday’s earthquake only added to that misery.
Sarhadi Khosti, 26, who lives in the Sperah district of Khost province, said he had been woken up by the shaking after 1 a.m., and that a number of houses — especially those made of clay or wood — had been destroyed.
“For now, we still are busy pulling the dead or injured from under the rubble,” he said.
Search-and-rescue efforts were continuing, led by the country’s Ministry of Defense, but wind and heavy rain were preventing helicopters from landing and casualties were likely to rise, the United Nations’ emergency response agency said.
Mohammad Almas, head of aid and appeals at Qamar, a charity in Afghanistan active in the area, said he expected the final death toll to be high, because the affected areas are far from hospitals and because the earthquake happened at night, when most people were indoors sleeping.
As many as 17 members of the same family were killed in one village when their home collapsed, he said; only one child survived. Almas, reached by phone from Pakistan, said that more than 25 villages were almost completely destroyed, including schools, mosques and homes.
Rugged, mountainous and in many areas inaccessible except by dirt roads, Paktika province is one of Afghanistan’s most rural, where some eke out a living by illegally cutting trees to sell for firewood.
It is also one of the poorest, with residents in some areas living in homes of earth and clay. The area is overwhelmingly Pashtun, the same ethnic group to which most of the Taliban belong.
The Taliban government Wednesday called on aid organizations to provide humanitarian support, even as the militant rulers have increasingly distanced themselves from the West after their refusal to loosen restrictions on women’s education while imposing other draconian rules.
President Joe Biden directed the U.S. Agency for International Development and other parts of the administration to assess how it can best help Afghanistan after the earthquake, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Wednesday in a statement.
Sullivan said humanitarian partners of the administration were already in the process of delivering medical care and supplies to those on the ground.
“We are committed to continuing our support for the needs of the Afghan people as we stand with them during and in the aftermath of this terrible tragedy,” Sullivan said.
Even before the earthquake, the Biden administration faced increasing pressure to provide more humanitarian support to Afghans — an issue that became even more politically divisive after the Taliban assumed power.
The administration has taken some steps, including making exemptions to some sanctions and allowing money transfer companies to send money to the country as long as it did not benefit people on a terrorist list.
In January, the United Nations appealed for more than $5 billion in humanitarian relief for Afghanistan to avert what Martin Griffiths, the U.N.’s emergency aid coordinator, said could become a “full-blown humanitarian catastrophe.” Much of that appeal was for food after the economic collapse plunged half the population into potentially life-threatening food insecurity.
The earthquake was felt in several parts of Pakistan, especially in the northwest, but the country was spared the kind of damage seen in neighboring Afghanistan, officials said.
Some of the areas hit by the earthquake are in remote, rough country near the Pakistani border and were the scene of heavy fighting before and after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Telecommunications are poor or nonexistent, making it hard to get a full accounting of the casualties.
For civilians in Afghanistan, earthquakes are yet another risk in a country traumatized by decades of war. Many of the country’s densely populated towns and cities sit on or near several geological faults.
The earthquake was felt in Kabul, the Afghan capital, and across the northern part of Pakistan, according to a map that the European Mediterranean Seismological Center posted on its website.
The earthquake, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, appeared to originate from movement between the India and Eurasia tectonic plates.
The agency said in a report this year that more than 7,000 people had died in the past decade because of earthquakes, an average of 560 a year. In one area between Kabul and Jalalabad, Afghanistan, it estimated that an earthquake of magnitude 7.6 would affect 7 million people.
In January, two earthquakes struck a remote, mountainous area of western Afghanistan, killing at least 27 people and destroying hundreds of homes.
In March 2002, at least 1,500 people were killed when a series of earthquakes with a magnitude between 5 and 6 struck northern Afghanistan, destroying a district capital in the Hindu Kush. A 1998 quake measuring 6.9 killed up to 4,000 people in Afghanistan’s north.