MORE than 1,500 people are already known to have died in the earthquake that struck Afghanistan near its border with Pakistan in the early hours of June 22 and over 3,000 are injured, with at least 10,000 homes wrecked.
Dozens of casualties are reported in Pakistan’s remote tribal belt as well.
Despite being only a magnitude 6.2, the earthquake became a huge disaster because it had a shallow focus located right under a landslide-prone, densely-populated area filled with weak buildings made of wood and mud.
Heavy rainfall in Afghanistan and Pakistan also plays into the severity of the damage. Rescue efforts are going on as of this writing and it is a race against time before rescue turns into retrieval of dead bodies.
This is the most devastating catastrophe yet in a series of excruciating crises presently engulfing Afghanistan, a country that has constantly suffered immense hardship for the last forty years.
It seems just about everything that can go wrong for Afghanistan is going wrong.
When the Taliban took over in August last year, governance of the country was plunged into disarray and has remained dysfunctional ever since while the world started sanctioning Afghanistan, bringing an end to the foreign aid that the country was heavily supported by.
A brutal winter forced people to burn plastic to stay warm and breathe in the acrid smoke. There’s been a surge of diseases like measles and disasters like drought and flooding.
The global food crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will exacerbate hunger in Afghanistan.
And now, the region’s geological fault-lines have struck a blow of their own. The only mercy is that this earthquake came in the middle of summer, and not cruel winter conditions.
This latest calamity is history repeating itself. Shortly after the first Taliban regime took over Afghanistan in 1996, an earthquake in February 1998 killed reportedly around 2,000 people, followed by an earthquake in May that year that is thought to have killed 4,000.
In 2021, the Taliban took over the country again and Afghanistan’s worst earthquake since 1998 (which is also Pakistan’s worst earthquake since 2015) struck nearly a year later.
This means that the situation is the same, Afghans suffering an acute humanitarian emergency while their country is dysfunctional and isolated from the rest of the world because of who is in control of it.
There is just one difference. Today’s Taliban is far more mild-mannered than the ones that ruled from 1996 to 2001 (likely influenced by Afghanistan’s modest social, political and economic progress since 2001), but it is being treated as much more of a pariah by the international community than it was back then, because this is the post-September 11 era and the West just lost a war they fought against the Taliban for 20 years.
It seems the international community is acting as far more of the villain than the Taliban when it comes to Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis.
They have not lifted most of their sanctions, including on the banking sector which can wire aid money into Afghanistan.
News reports about Wednesday’s terrible earthquake have nothing about the Taliban obstructing aid.
The Taliban have instead been pleading for international community to help. Yet, countries and aid organizations are seen pondering over how they can help the Afghan people without abetting the Taliban – contemplating even whether they should be helping at all.
Compare this to the 1998 earthquakes (different in that both affected an area controlled by the Northern Alliance, not the Taliban, and Tajikistan was a significant conduit of aid delivery for the areas affected).
International aid agencies responding to the earthquakes mainly based themselves in Pakistan.
There was little indication of direct animosity with the Taliban. The United Nation-led earthquake response was swift and extensive.
What makes today’s situation so much worse for the people of Afghanistan is the fact that world has gone through two years of the coronavirus pandemic (worst global crisis since World War 2) and, upon coming out of it, is now faced with the biggest war in Europe since World War 2.
The crisis in Ukraine has captured the attention of the West and their aid giving mechanism, while Western European countries that are usually the most generous givers of foreign aid are dealing with shortage of Russian gas.
Afghans can only rely on outside help, because there is nothing left in their own country that they can go by, but the world is now less capable of giving help and less inclined to heeding Afghan pleas for help.
The weary international community may even be using the Taliban as an excuse to not give help.
Afghanistan is such a poor country that it would not require much to give the Afghans the barest minimum they need in order to survive.
And there are worse things happening in Afghanistan than the Taliban’s policies/vision. In a situation as dire as this, humanitarian priorities overrule political ones.
China and Russia are major powers in Afghanistan’s proximity, so they too should open up their coffers and commit expertise on ground in Afghanistan.
In the age of climate change and frequent natural disasters, the West should help innocent people survive a huge calamity that is not human-made but nature’s making.
Continuing to sanction innocent populations could accelerate the development of an international financial order that is alternative to the West’s, a process currently being driven by West’s sanctions against Russia.
Putin is trying to de-Dollarise the world and has many allies in Asia, a continent rich in population, capital and resources.
Natural disasters are an opportunity to project soft power, a vital ingredient of overall power projection in the world.
This strategic calculation should drive west’s decision making in easing sanctions against Afghanistan, a country rich in critical resources. Afghanistan may be appallingly poor now but has a rich future.
—The writer is Director at Pakistan’s People-Led Disaster Management.