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Afghan earthquake response exposes Taliban's inability

Masood Saifullah
October 20, 2023

Recent earthquakes have killed and displaced thousands in western Afghanistan. The UN says around $100 million is needed, but there are fears the funds could end up in the hands of the Taliban.

Afghan boys stand amid debris after a powerful earthquake in Herat province, western of Afghanistan
The earthquakes have compounded what is already a dire situation in AfghanistanImage: Save the Children/AP/picture alliance

A series of earthquakes have devastated western Herat province in Afghanistan, resulting in the reported death of approximately 2,400 people, according to figures provided by the country's Taliban government. However, the UN has estimated the death toll to be around 1,384.

In either case, the quakes have wiped out entire families and completely flattened most villages, inflicting further suffering on a population already enduring severe conditions due to extreme poverty.

"Nine members of my family have been killed," said Mahmud, who, like many Afghans, is known by his first name. "My father, two of my daughters, two of my sisters-in-law, and their children were all killed in the earthquake," he added, standing in front of his home, which the quake had turned to rubble.

This natural disaster struck the most impoverished districts of western Afghanistan that had already experienced a two-decade-long, bloody war until the Taliban took control of in August 2021.

While the Taliban's victory ended the war in most parts of Afghanistan, the country's economy suffered mostly due to international sanctions on the group, the withdrawal of most aid organizations, and the cessation of cash flow that came with the presence of international troops — not to mention the increased suppression of women, who are "largely confined to domestic roles" with "limited access to education and employment," according to Amnesty International.

The United Nations reports that more than 43,000 people have been directly affected by the 6.3-magnitude earthquakes on October 7 in the western province of Herat. It is appealing for $93.6 million (€88.4 million) to support earthquake response efforts.

Due to US-led sanctions on the Taliban, the funds must not fall into the hands of the Islamic fundamentalist rulers. What could further complicate the situation is the Taliban's emphasis on its role in coordinating aid to the affected people, for which they have set up a commission.

"This commission is responsible for ensuring that everyone gets the help it needs and that there is no corruption involved," Taliban spokesman and senior member Zabiullah Mujahid told DW.

Thousands of Afghans homeless after recent earthquakes

Taliban's inadequacy exposed

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed that the group's members had arrived in the affected areas just one hour after the earthquake. However, many activists and volunteers in the area have dismissed this claim, stating that there was no information about the extent of the destruction for hours after the earthquake. According to activists, those initial hours could have provided a chance to rescue those trapped under the rubble.

"For two to three hours after the earthquake, there was no information or accurate news," said Rashid Azimi, a local aid coordinator not connected to the Taliban government, adding that it was the local residents themselves who cried for help when no one else was available to support rescue efforts. He accused the Taliban of "very poor management of the disaster."

For most of their existence, the Taliban have functioned as an insurgent group that was not responsible for aiding Afghans. While the Taliban did establish a parallel government during NATO's presence in Afghanistan, it did not provide services to the people under their control. However, the hasty withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan and the collapse of the government it supported forced the Taliban to take responsibility for a country already scarred by decades of war and poverty. The Taliban admit that they cannot provide all the necessary help due to the poor state of the economy.

"Afghanistan is a poor country and cannot handle disasters on its own; therefore, we need the help and support of other countries," Mujahid said. While some countries have pledged aid, it remains to be seen how the Taliban will distribute it among those in dire need.

As the Taliban struggles to provide aid, Afghans both in and outside Afghanistan have taken action to offer help. Jawid Hazrati, a local activist, was part of a group that collected more than 3 million Afghanis (around €38,000 or $40,000) in eastern Nangarhar province.

"Some of the people who made donations did not have much themselves. It shows how people in Afghanistan feel for each other," he said.

Women and children hardest hit

According to the UN, more than 90% of those killed in the recent earthquakes are women and children. Women and girls have already suffered more than any other group in Afghanistan under the Taliban, as the group has banned them from working or attending school.

"The earthquake occurred when men typically go outside to tend to their farms or livestock, while women and children stay at home," said Lina Haidari, a Herat-based activist who is assisting affected women. She added that Taliban restrictions may not have played a significant role in the high number of casualties, as women in this part of Afghanistan have been living this way for decades.

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In a rare move, according to Lina Haidari, the Taliban even allowed women volunteers to travel to the districts affected by the earthquake without a male companion. It is crucial, she told DW, that they are not forgotten.

"These women have lost everything. Our priority is to provide hygiene products for these women. We are also focusing on pregnant women and those with newborn babies."

Afghanistan is prone to quakes, especially in the Hindu Kush Mountain range. More than 1,000 people were killed and tens of thousands left homeless in June last year after a 5.9-magnitude quake struck the impoverished province of Paktika.

Edited by: John Silk