On Oct. 15, a third earthquake hit western Afghanistan’s Herat province within the span of roughly one week, following two earlier ones in the same province, on Oct. 7 and 11. The first quake, which struck the rural district of Zindajan, some 40 kilometers from Herat, and surrounding areas, was the most devastating. More than 2,000 people were killed and an equal number injured as the traditional gombad structures (single-story mud-brick houses) collapsed on their occupants. Close to 500 people are still missing. Several villages were entirely flattened. Casualties in the second and third quakes were low — together estimated at 2 dead and about 200 injured — as people were already sleeping under the open sky and in tents. The casualty figures, however, are at best an estimate; official population records for such remote villages are nonexistent.
Desperate and terrified people used shovels and bare hands to search for the missing. Disaster relief from multiple international aid agencies as well as from Iran and the United Arab Emirates, delayed by blocked routes and communication lines being down, only started to trickle in 48 hours later. Ill-equipped local hospitals have struggled to provide treatment, and the only functional one, in Herat, has been deluged with scores of patients. Many of the non-emergency patients have refused to leave even after treatment, as they no longer have a home to return to.
In natural disaster-prone Afghanistan, official familiarity with such calamities and reliance on an established response protocol is the least citizens normally expect from their governments. However, under Taliban rule, even this bare minimum has been conspicuously missing.
A day after the quake in Zindajan, Taliban Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Baradar, along with officials from the Disasters Department, visited the affected area to reportedly provide “immediate relief assistance” and to ensure “equitable and accurate distribution of aid.” The Taliban’s only actual assistance so far has been to send a few vehicles to transfer the injured to hospitals; the rest has been pledges and promises to rebuild houses and to provide cash assistance. Little is expected to actually reach the people, however, as the government itself remains cash-starved, barely managing its oversized security architecture with an aggressive taxation policy.
Baradar’s urgent visit, therefore, reflected the Taliban’s desire to control and establish ownership over incoming aid streams from international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), as the latter have thus far avoided channeling their assistance resources through the Taliban government. Unnamed Taliban officials have appealed for international help, although at the same time, the government has refused aid from Pakistan, mostly due to concurrent worsening bilateral relations.
The survivors of the recent earthquakes join the much larger numbers of Afghans already struggling amid a broader humanitarian crisis, marked by widespread poverty and hunger. In the rural hamlets of Herat, a long, windy winter, when temperatures regularly dip below zero, is only a month away. With houses flattened, tents hardly suffice. Worse still, many people do not even have access to such temporary emergency shelters. While some have been provided by Afghan aid agencies, the Taliban will not be able to provide tents for more than a month.
The United Nations has launched the Afghanistan Humanitarian Fund emergency reserve allocation of $5 million to support immediate relief efforts. However, the current Afghanistan Humanitarian Response Plan itself is only 34% funded, which means that such relief work eats into the already depleting regular U.N. fund for humanitarian assistance in the country.
The Taliban’s international isolation, in view of its regressive policies on women and human rights along with reneging on its promises to establish an inclusive government, has neither compelled the Taliban to change its behavior nor improved its capacity to respond to such disasters. This same incapacity was earlier exposed in a similar earthquake, which rocked the Paktika and Khost provinces in 2022. However, it is unlikely that human suffering alone will force the Taliban to reconsider its adamant ideological position, particularly when the international community has turned a blind eye to the disaster- and hunger-stricken country.
It’s time for the international community to wake up to that stark reality and respond to the spiraling, multifaceted humanitarian crises turning Afghanistan into a black hole. Since August 2021, the international community has sought to use the non-recognition of the Islamic Emirate as a tool to pressure the Taliban to mend its ways. That tactic hasn’t delivered any tangible results so far, and the Taliban has been allowed to try to use its regressive policies on women and girls as a bargaining chip. Moreover, with countries like China and Russia stepping in to fill the vacuum created by the withdrawal of the international community and providing significant legitimacy to the regime, the Taliban appears to have hardened its position. This further heralds the precarious scenario of Afghanistan turning into a haven of anti-Americanism and anti-Western ideology, under the patronage of Beijing and Moscow.
A new policy for Afghanistan is long overdue and must place Afghans at the center of the debate. The Taliban regime can be engaged, without being recognized, by employing a well thought out policy of carrots and sticks that are issue based and incremental in approach. International isolation may have repeatedly exposed the Taliban’s incapacity to govern the country, but at the same time it has placed millions of Afghans at the mercy of persistent governance failures and brutality. Only through constant engagement and the conditional provision of aid and assistance can the international community hope to gain some degree of leverage over the Taliban regime. That leverage could potentially translate into reformed policies and gradual moderation of the regime’s worldviews in the medium to long term. For this, the international community needs to devise a road map for coordinated action on humanitarian grounds and a unified long-term vision for stabilizing the country that includes elements of inclusion, accountability, and transparency. The longer international actors dither on this, the more regular Afghans will suffer for it.
Dr. Shanthie Mariet D’Souza is the Founder and President of Mantraya, Visiting Faculty at the Naval war College in Goa, and a Non-Resident Scholar at MEI. She has worked in the governmental and non-governmental sector in various provinces of Afghanistan for more than a decade.
Photo by ESMATULLAH HABIBIAN/Middle East Images/AFP via Getty Images
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