The United Nations is mobilising to assist Afghanistan, but the country’s Taliban government remains unpalatable to the international community.
The death toll continues to rise in Afghanistan after an earthquake struck in the southeast. The epicentre of the earthquake (5.9 on the Richter scale) is in the remote and mountainous province of Paktika, bordering Pakistan. According to authorities, at least 1,000 people were killed and more were injured when residents were startled from their sleep by the devastating earthquake. The Taliban, which has held power since last August, has been ostracised by the international community. They immediately called for help, but their call risks not being fully heard.
“The government is doing the best it can,” tweeted Anas Haqqani, a senior Taliban official. “We hope the international community and humanitarian organisations will also help people in this terrible situation.”
Authorities are currently responding to the most urgent cases, but have insufficient resources. According to the UN, five army helicopters and ambulances have been sent to evacuate the injured. But bad weather is complicating the rescue operations, and many inhabitants are still buried under the rubble. According to the first estimates, 1,800 houses have been destroyed.
‘The time for solidarity’
The extent of the damage is just emerging. The earthquake also affected the neighbouring province of Khost and was felt as far away as Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, but also in Pakistan and as far away as India. The UN has sent teams to the area.
“We have never abandoned Afghanistan,” said Jens Laerke, a spokesperson for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), recalling that the UN has a budget of $4bn for humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. On Wednesday, UN secretary general Antonio Guterres appealed to the international community: “Now is the time for solidarity.”
Even before the earthquake, Afghanistan’s needs were enormous.
“Fifty-five per cent of the Afghan population depends on humanitarian aid,” said Lucien Christen, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Afghanistan. “Since the Taliban took power last August, armed clashes have certainly decreased, but it is very difficult to receive or send funds from Afghanistan. With the war in Ukraine, the prices of flour or gasoline have exploded.”
The ICRC is calling on the international community to return to the country, despite the regime's increasingly stringent attitudes towards civil society and women. Afghanistan is the country with the second largest budget for the ICRC, at $200m. The Geneva-based humanitarian organisation supports the Afghan health system at arm's length.
“We provide supplies and pay salaries in 33 hospitals across the country,” said Christen. Five of these hospitals are in the earthquake zone. “They did not suffer from the earthquake and have not yet seen any influx of injured people, but it can take hours or even days to get them there,” he continued.
The ICRC maintains that it does not aim to replace the Afghan state, but after the Taliban took power, civil servants were no longer paid and doctors left their posts. Of the 10,000 or so hospital workers paid by the ICRC, a third are women, the organisation says.
“The authorities understand perfectly well that the system cannot function without them,” said Christen. The UN also says it employs Afghan women in its programs, especially those benefiting women.
“Dialogue with the Taliban is difficult,” said Laerke, “and varies from region to region.”
Last February, a high-ranking Taliban delegation came to Geneva to ensure continued support for humanitarian agencies in Afghanistan.
Discrimination against women
After reducing its presence and evacuating Afghan employees threatened by the Taliban, the UN now has as many staff as before the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul. But the same can’t be said about other foreign development and cooperation agencies. Projects have come to a halt and the jobs in this sector, which supported a middle class in Kabul while the West was stationed in Afghanistan, have disappeared. The country is destitute, and its isolation from the world — which has only strengthened the Taliban — is affecting its population.
Since taking power, the Taliban have restricted women's access to government jobs. Girls are no longer allowed to attend school from secondary school onwards. Women must cover themselves completely in public spaces. The Taliban government is such a pariah that to this day no country in the world has officially recognised it. Will Wednesday's earthquake, the worst for Afghanistan in decades, soften the international community’s relationship with the country?