Dispatch

Afghans Battle Another Blow After Big Earthquake

The Taliban can’t govern in normal times, let alone disaster response.

Members of the Taliban stand in front of a Blackhawk helicopter.
Members of the Taliban stand in front of a Blackhawk helicopter.
Members of the Taliban stand in front of a Blackhawk helicopter that landed in Gayan, Afghanistan, on June 24. Stefanie Glinski Photos for Foreign Policy
By , a journalist covering conflicts and crises with a focus on Afghanistan and the wider Middle East.

GAYAN, Afghanistan—Since a 5.9 magnitude earthquake struck southeastern Afghanistan early Wednesday, killing at least 1,000 people and injuring a further 1,500 others, eager aid agencies have flooded in to help the victims—and so have the Taliban.

In the remote Gayan district of Paktika province—one of the quake’s worst-hit areas—helicopters have been evacuating the severely injured while shipping in food, blankets, and Taliban officials. Deputy Army Chief Haji Maleh Khan Seddiq is one of them. On a short visit to Gayan, which included a stop at the local mosque to pray for the victims, he explained that helping people in need was the “Islamic Emirate’s” duty. The earthquake is also a chance for the Taliban to start redeeming a reputation that has long been tainted.

“Our leaders have given our army instructions to help these people, and our response was quick. In the past two days, we operated 56 flights from Kabul,” Seddiq said.

Members of the Taliban stand in front of a Blackhawk helicopter.
Members of the Taliban stand in front of a Blackhawk helicopter.

Members of the Taliban stand in front of a Blackhawk helicopter that landed in Gayan, Afghanistan, on June 24.Stefanie Glinski Photos for Foreign Policy

GAYAN, Afghanistan—Since a 5.9 magnitude earthquake struck southeastern Afghanistan early Wednesday, killing at least 1,000 people and injuring a further 1,500 others, eager aid agencies have flooded in to help the victims—and so have the Taliban.

In the remote Gayan district of Paktika province—one of the quake’s worst-hit areas—helicopters have been evacuating the severely injured while shipping in food, blankets, and Taliban officials. Deputy Army Chief Haji Maleh Khan Seddiq is one of them. On a short visit to Gayan, which included a stop at the local mosque to pray for the victims, he explained that helping people in need was the “Islamic Emirate’s” duty. The earthquake is also a chance for the Taliban to start redeeming a reputation that has long been tainted.

“Our leaders have given our army instructions to help these people, and our response was quick. In the past two days, we operated 56 flights from Kabul,” Seddiq said.

One of the people making that response possible is Blackhawk helicopter pilot Maj. Abdul Reshad. He studied in Alabama and speaks English with a Red Tide twang. He doesn’t mind his new bosses too much, he said, and he knows they need him too. Reshad, like many others, was trained by Americans. But he’s kept his job under new management. He declined to answer whether he chose to stay in Afghanistan or didn’t have a choice. He said he was glad to work. 

“This mission is similar to a response I was working on helping victims of flooding in Kandahar a few years ago,” he said of the earthquake relief efforts. “The only difference is that I now don’t worry about getting shot.”

Workers with the Afghan Red Crescent Society distribute food.
Workers with the Afghan Red Crescent Society distribute food.

Workers with the Afghan Red Crescent Society distribute food in Gayan, Afghanistan, on June 24.

Although the Taliban have been eager to coordinate earthquake relief efforts, the group’s reach is limited. Cash-strapped Afghanistan has been thrown into a severe economic crisis, due in part to Western sanctions. Billions of dollars in Afghan funds remain frozen, paralyzing the banking system. The United Nations estimates that almost all Afghans—97 percent—will be living below the poverty line this year. 

That’s a problem for disaster response. The U.N. figures at least $15 million will be needed for the eastern provinces of Paktika and Khost. Funds, like tents, are being hurriedly raised. But aftershocks are ongoing, and fear is widespread.

“The public sector in Afghanistan is nearly entirely reliant on foreign aid, but since August, this money has dried up,” said Samira Sayed-Rahman of the International Rescue Committee. “The biggest impact is on government hospitals and clinics. They don’t have funds to pay staff, lack equipment and medicine, and have faced a massive brain drain. The health sector is collapsing and can’t handle a disaster of this scale.”

Children survey the relief efforts in Afghanistan.
Children survey the relief efforts in Afghanistan.

Children survey the relief efforts underway in Gayan, Afghanistan, on June 24.

More than 1,000 people have been taken to hospitals in Afghan cities like Kabul or Gardez, a provincial hub. Although these clinics remain the best option for injured, quake-struck Afghans, they can quickly become a death sentence if medical supplies and doctors aren’t available. 

Dawood Zakhmi, a 35-year-old man from Gayan, said several members of his extended family had been taken to the hospital. He sat in front of his house, a pile of rubble, his face stern, motionless. He was a husband and a father to an 8-year-old boy, Nasib Rahman; now, he is neither.

“I wasn’t home when the earthquake struck but got a call from a neighbor shortly after,” he said. Having felt only light tremors in neighboring Urgun district, where he had been working, he couldn’t imagine the extent of the devastation back home, a two-hour drive over a rocky mountain road. 

Dawood Zakhmi
Dawood Zakhmi

Dawood Zakhmi, 35, who lost his wife and son to the earthquake, is seen in Gayan, Afghanistan, on June 24.

“I arrived in the early morning hours and saw my house destroyed,” he remembered. “My neighbors told me to sit down, then told me that my wife and son had died.” He got up and wiped his face with a thin shawl thrown around his shoulders. It’s tough to find words. “I don’t know what to do. He was my only child; the two were my family,” he added.

The Taliban have promised him, and every other earthquake victim, around $1,000 for each death in the family. It will help financially, he said, and he’s thankful. He’ll need to build a new house eventually. 

Zakhmi, still sitting near his house, said Afghanistan has suffered enough. He’s not complaining; it’s the simple truth. His wife and son have since been buried, but moving on will be tough. “I have no more hope for the future,” he said.

Stefanie Glinski is a journalist covering conflicts and crises with a focus on Afghanistan and the wider Middle East. Twitter: @stephglinski

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