Taliban struggles to respond to earthquake amid international isolation

Mawlawi Sharafuddin Muslim, Afghanistan's deputy minister of disaster management, addresses a crowd in the area affected by the earthquake, in Paktika, Afghanistan, on June 23, 2022.
Mawlawi Sharafuddin Muslim, Afghanistan's deputy minister of disaster management, addresses a crowd in the area affected by the earthquake, in Paktika, Afghanistan, on June 23, 2022. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)
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GYAN, Afghanistan — As three helicopters touched down in this earthquake-ravaged district on Thursday, dozens began to gather, hoping they would receive desperately needed aid. Instead, a group of ministers from Kabul emerged from the aircraft.

“I pray to God to help injured people recover soon,” Mawlawi Sharafuddin Muslim, acting deputy minister for the disaster management, told the crowd. “The Islamic Emirate is committed to provide all-out support to you at this difficult time.”

A few hundred yards away, families were burying loved ones and digging out belongings from their destroyed homes by hand. Of the more than two dozen civilians interviewed by The Washington Post in the area where the officials touched down, no one reported receiving any aid beyond sweets and juice handed out by wealthy business executives.

The devastating quake that struck this remote region of eastern Afghanistan early Wednesday, killing more than 1,000 people, will be a major test of the Taliban’s ability to respond to a large-scale, logistically challenging disaster. This country is already in the midst of a grinding humanitarian crisis, which was compounded by the group’s rise to power last summer. The majority of the world cut formal diplomatic ties and slashed international aid, plunging millions of Afghans deeper into poverty and hunger.

“I heard the helicopters and I came here thinking they were bringing aid,” said a young man sitting on the side of a hill across from the steadily growing crowd. “Instead I think there were people making speeches.”

Sherali Giankher, 20, was still covered in dust from digging his family members out of the rubble that used to be his home. All 13 of his relatives survived, but their house was completely destroyed, forcing everyone to sleep out in the open.

“We tried to cover ourselves from the rain with some plastic, but my younger brothers cried all night that they were cold,” he said. “I’m hoping the government is here to give us tents, something to keep us warm, or even just flour.”

Every home in Giankher’s village, like so many other villages in this district, was damaged or destroyed. Hundreds are homeless, with no tents to sleep in and no money to rebuild.

When a second fleet of helicopters approached, the crowd swelled as word spread that acting interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani had arrived. Paktika and Khost, the hardest-hit provinces, have long been a stronghold of the powerful Haqqani clan.

Taliban fighters roped off the field and pushed back onlookers, but a group of young men made it through the perimeter and welcomed the minister by smiling for selfies.

“God bless you and may God have mercy on all the injured and killed,” Haqqani said to the crowd, stopping for photos and respectfully greeting the older men gathered around him.

Haqqani’s helicopter also delivered a handful of boxes marked with UNICEF logos, which were unloaded on the side of the open field but left unopened. A group of men in blue hospital gowns stood nearby, watching the scene.

Aid distribution is “a difficult issue,” for Taliban leadership, said Maqbool Lukmanzai, a top local health official in Paktika, when asked how the group is responding to the crisis. He estimated that Kabul is providing about 10 percent of the relief and the rest is being handled by international organizations.

“Because of the economic situation the government can’t help the people any more than this,” he said.

A Taliban fighter, who had been watching from a few steps away, pulled Lukmanzai aside and told him to stop talking to journalists. The doctor politely ended the interview.

“We have the equipment, whether it’s transport, whether it’s medical staff or other human resources,” Abdul Qahar Balkhi, spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Ministry, said in an interview with The Post. “What we lack are the material resources, which is the tents, food, water and medicine. And that stems from our assets being frozen and our central banking being sanctioned.”

At a White House briefing on Thursday, U.S. national security spokesman John Kirby said the country is working to free up frozen funds to help quake victims while bypassing the Taliban, but “because we’re still working through a legal process here it wouldn’t be wise for me to talk in too much detail about that.”

Inside the Afghan villages where nearly every house was leveled or partially collapsed, families pointed to where their loved ones were crushed to death: five beneath this roof, 13 in the house next door, another six in that room off the courtyard.

Those who survived said they escaped by chance. They were out of town, or were sleeping apart from the rest of their family. Abdulrahman, in his 50s, lost his two wives and eight of his children. His newborn — sleeping in a crib covered with a metal frame — was one of only four survivors in his household.

“I dug where I heard the sounds of the trapped calling my name,” said Abdullah Abid, Abdulrahman’s brother. “The people who died were too deep under the rubble. We dug for four hours, but it was too late.”

As the frustrated crowd grew in Gyan on Thursday, another Taliban fighter defended the group’s recovery effort.

“This government will be even better responding to this disaster because we don’t have any corruption,” said Ezzatullah, standing beside a green pickup truck topped with Taliban flags. Spray paint covered logos that associated the vehicle with its previous owners: the Afghan police.

“This was an act of God and they need to accept it,” he continued, explaining that people in the villages around him should pray for help. “When God is angry with people he sends events like this. It’s a test.”

Paktika has been one of the country’s most neglected provinces for decades. It is among the poorest in Afghanistan and has some of the lowest rates of access to education and health care, according to humanitarian groups and local officials.

The situation has only gotten worse after billions of dollars in aid were cut last year.

“The curtailment of foreign aid since August has had devastating impacts on an already struggling health sector,” said Samira Sayed Rahman, a spokesperson for International Rescue Committee, one of the nongovernmental organizations involved in relief efforts. “The aid cuts weakened vital health services nationwide, fallout that is now “all the more obvious when [Afghanistan is] stricken by a disaster like this.”

Taliban leadership has pledged it will soon begin compensating families of those killed or injured in the earthquake, but few civilians interviewed by The Post believed they will ever see any money.

“All the money will just go to people who have a relationship with them,” said one man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

An older man interrupted, yelling that “they only give money to the rich, just like the previous government!” He also asked that his name not be published.

“We just want simple aid,” said Giankher, the young man waiting on the edge of the crowd. “If I return to my home today without anything of course I’ll be angry.” He was still waiting as Haqqani’s helicopter took off. A group of local Taliban members assembled at the edge of the field and addressed the crowd.

“Please go home,” they told the crowd of more than a hundred men gathered on the field’s edge. “The aid will be delivered to you. Do not form a crowd here, just go back to your homes and wait.”

Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.