KABUL, Afghanistan – For much of the past two decades, the southeastern part of Afghanistan near the Pakistani border has been plagued by insurgent activity, as police and military posts were frequently overwhelmed by Taliban fighters and received few benefits from the US military presence.
The Taliban takeover in August finally brought relative peace to the remote population, despite the hardships they continued to face as the country suffered from drought and economic collapse.
Then early Wednesday, a 5.9 magnitude earthquake struck the region, shattering what little peace and stability people had been able to retain 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, dealing another blow to a country grappling with a severe humanitarian and economic crisis since the Taliban seized power in August.
The earthquake – the country’s deadliest in two decades – struck about 28 miles southwest of the city of Khost, a provincial capital in the country’s southeast, the United States Geological Survey said, and was about six miles deep. But the worst damage occurred in the neighboring province of Paktika, located along the border with Pakistan.
“Almost all public and private hospitals are full of victims,” said Awal Khan Zadran, a doctor in Urgun district in Paktika. Some of the wounded were taken to Kabul, the Afghan capital, by helicopters and others were transported to neighboring provinces, he said.
Meanwhile, the Taliban has struggled to attract foreign aid from Western donors since announcing decrees banning 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 cut short after the Taliban seized power.
These challenges have only added to Afghanistan’s struggle to emerge from decades of war. The cumulative toll of a series of conflicts dating back to the 1970s has left more than half of the country’s estimated 40 million people in need of humanitarian aid, according to the United Nations. Three quarters of the population live in extreme poverty.
Wednesday’s earthquake only added to this misery.
Sarhadi Khosti, 26, who lives in Sperah district of Khost province, said he was woken up by the tremor after 1 a.m. and a number of houses – especially those made of clay or wooden – had been completely destroyed.
“At the moment we are still busy removing the dead or injured from under the rubble,” he said.
Raees Hozaifa, director of information and culture in the eastern province of Paktika, said 1,000 people in the province had been killed and 1,500 others injured. Local residents said a landslide that followed the quake completely wiped out at least one village, and others said hundreds of people were trapped under demolished houses.
In Khost province, Shabir Ahmad Osmani, the director of information and culture, said 40 people died there and more than 100 injured.
Search and rescue efforts are continuing, led by the country’s Defense Ministry, but wind and heavy rain are preventing helicopters from landing and casualties are likely to increase, the response agency said. United Nations emergency.
Mohammad Almas, aid and appeals manager at Qamar, an Afghan charity active in the region, said he expected the final death toll to be high as affected areas are far from hospitals. and because the earthquake happened at night, when most people were sleeping inside.
As many as 17 members of one family were killed in one village when their house collapsed, he said; only one child survived. Almas, reached by phone from Pakistan, said more than 25 villages were almost completely destroyed, including schools, mosques and homes.
Rugged, mountainous and in many parts inaccessible except by dirt roads, Paktika province is one of the most rural in Afghanistan, where some make a living by illegally cutting down trees to sell as firewood.
It is also one of the poorest, with people in some areas living in mud and clay houses. The region is predominantly Pashtun, the same ethnic group to which most Taliban belong.
The Taliban government on Wednesday called on aid organizations to provide humanitarian support, even as militant leaders have increasingly distanced themselves from the West over their refusal to ease restrictions on women’s education while imposing other draconian rules.
President Biden has asked the U.S. Agency for International Development and other parts of the administration to assess how best to help post-earthquake Afghanistan, adviser Jake Sullivan said Wednesday. national security, in a statement.
Sullivan said the administration’s humanitarian partners were already delivering medical care and supplies to people on the ground.
“We are committed to continuing our support for the needs of the Afghan people as we stand with them during and after this terrible tragedy,” Sullivan said.
Even before the earthquake, the Biden administration was facing growing pressure to provide more humanitarian support to Afghans — an issue that became even more politically contentious after the Taliban came to power.
The administration has taken some measures, including granting exemptions from certain penalties and allowing money transfer companies to send money into the country as long as it does not benefit people on a terrorist list.
In January, the United Nations appealed for more than $5 billion for humanitarian aid to Afghanistan to avert what Martin Griffiths, the UN’s emergency aid coordinator, could become a “full-fledged humanitarian disaster”. Much of that appeal was for food after the economic collapse plunged half the population into life-threatening food insecurity.
The quake was felt in several parts of Pakistan, particularly in the northwest, but the country was spared the kind of damage seen in neighboring Afghanistan, officials said.
Some of the quake-affected areas are in remote, rugged country near the Pakistani border and were the scene of heavy fighting before and after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. Telecommunications are poor or non-existent, making it difficult to obtain a full toll on casualties.
For civilians in Afghanistan, earthquakes represent an additional risk in a country traumatized by decades of war. Many densely populated towns and cities in the country are located on or near several geological fault lines.
The quake was felt in Kabul, the Afghan capital, and throughout northern Pakistan, according to a map the European Mediterranean Seismological Center posted on its website.
The quake, according to the US Geological Survey, appears to be caused by movement between the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates.
The agency said in a report this year that more than 7,000 people had died in the past decade from earthquakes, an average of 560 per year. In an area between Kabul and Jalalabad, she estimated that a magnitude 7.6 earthquake would affect seven million people.
In January, two earthquakes struck a remote mountainous region in 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 magnitude 5-6 earthquakes struck northern Afghanistan, destroying a district capital in the Hindu Kush. A 1998 earthquake measuring 6.9 killed up to 4,000 people in northern Afghanistan.
Safiullah Padshah reported from Kabul, Afghanistan, Alissa J. Rubin from Baghdad, Iraq, and Mike Ives from Seoul. Christina Goldbaum contributed reporting from Bamiyan, Afghanistan, and Najim Rahim from Houston, Texas. Isabella Kwai, Emma Bubola and Matthew Mpoke Bigg contributed reporting from London, and Salman Masood from Islamabad, Pakistan.