Disaster Policy:

The earthquake that struck Afghanistan in the early morning hours of June 22 highlighted the limited capabilities of the ruling Taliban. During the months since the Taliban took power in August of 2021, the movement has shown its inability to deal with several key issues, perhaps most importantly the economy. Afghanistan is facing numerous problems that have left a profound impact on Afghan citizens, amid discussion of rising levels of malnutrition. These complexities have also been exacerbated by the continuing repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic. In such a context, the recent earthquake raises two key questions, the first one related to the limited capability of the Taliban to effectively manage crises and disasters, and the second one regarding the issue of international recognition of the Taliban and the extent to which the movement can use the crisis to promote its demand for international recognition.

Underlying Vulnerabilities

The June 2022 earthquake, located in eastern Afghanistan, 46 kilometers from Khost province, represented a major test for the Taliban. Preliminary data from the UN indicated that at least 2,000 homes, each of which housed seven or eight people, had been destroyed. According to data issued by the Taliban spokesman, the death toll from the earthquake had risen to more than 1,500, with more than 2,000 injured, on top of the partial or total destruction of 10,000 homes. The declared number of deaths and injuries from this earthquake makes it the deadliest earthquake in Afghanistan in two decades, as described by the Taliban government’s Deputy Minister for Disaster Management, Sharafuddin Muslim. The Taliban’s management of the earthquake and its rescue efforts highlight its limited response mechanisms to such disasters, which can be seen in the following:

1. Poor infrastructure in earthquake zones: Geography poses an ongoing challenge for Afghanistan in terms of its potential vulnerability to natural disasters like earthquakes. Several parts of Afghanistan are located in active seismic zones, particularly the eastern Hindu Kush mountain region on the Pakistani border, which has seen several earthquakes over the past decades. This magnifies the importance of providing the necessary preparations and capabilities for dealing with that ongoing challenge and the potential for such disasters and crises to recur. However, reality indicates poor infrastructure in that area and unsafe mud houses that are prone to collapse. In addition, heavy rains caused landslides that slowed relief efforts and damaged telephone and electricity lines.

2. Difficulty reaching mountainous regions: Geography played an important role in worsening the Afghan earthquake crisis and the failure of the Taliban government to manage rescue operations. The earthquake’s occurrence in a mountainous region deepened the difficulties of accessing the region and rescuing victims, as confirmed by the statements of Afghan authorities. Despite the Taliban government’s attempt to use helicopters to rescue those affected and transport the wounded, those efforts have remained limited because Afghanistan owns very small numbers of these aircraft.

3. Lack of medical capabilities in the country: The medical sector is crucial for relief operations and disaster and crisis response, and it must have a high degree of access, flexibility, efficiency, and provision of resources. The capabilities of the medical sector in Afghanistan, like other strategic sectors, are weak and lack resources. The Afghan health system, which suffers from a dangerous shortage of equipment, is under major pressure, as confirmed by statements from the spokesman for the Ministry for Disasters, Mohammad Naseem Haqqani, who indicated that the Afghan Ministry of Health does not have enough medicine to deal with the disaster. Haqqani also stressed that the country does not have enough necessary supplies to treat the wounded and needs medical aid and other necessities for treatment and rescue.

4. Poor communication network in some areas: Some parts of Afghanistan have poor communication networks, including the mountainous regions that experience earthquakes and natural disasters. In this framework, Mohammad Amin Hudhaifa, head of information and culture in Paktika province, declared that it was very difficult to obtain information on the ground because of the bad network. Likewise, news reports revealed the difficulty of communicating with the province because of the damage to cell phone towers, especially with the effects of the earthquake and heavy rains.

5. Lack of financial resources to handle the crisis: With Afghanistan suffering mainly from economic and humanitarian hardships, these natural and environmental crises and disasters have added to Afghanistan’s difficulties. Of course, the crises are deepened by the lack of resources and funding and the weak economy, which limits the government’s ability to manage those disasters, along with its dire need for funding and resources to deal with such situations.

Kabul is suffering from a lack of resources and funds after billions of dollars of assets held abroad were frozen and the Western international aid upon which the country has depended for two decades was suspended. The US also froze about USD 9.5 billion of Afghan central bank funds in American banks to pressure the Taliban on human rights reforms.

6. International sanctions on the Taliban government: On one hand, international sanctions play a role in eroding government capabilities, while, on the other hand, the international isolation imposed on the Taliban may limit the international response to crises. In this context, Abdul Qahar Balkhi, spokesman for the Taliban government’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said, "Sadly, the government is under sanctions, so it is financially unable to assist people to the extent needed."

7. Withdrawal of international organizations and lack of funding: After the Taliban took control, many international relief and humanitarian organizations withdrew from the country, leaving a significant shortage of relief funds and increased restrictions on the use of such funds. This prompted the Afghan media to say that "in the Taliban era, there are no humanitarian organizations on hand to address the aftereffects of the earthquake." The presence of non-governmental organizations and UN agencies has also declined. By contrast, Martin Griffiths, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, notes that humanitarian organizations are reaching a record number of people throughout the country, but he also emphasizes that this response is complicated and difficult.

Griffiths identified three obstacles that make the humanitarian response difficult. The first is the formal banking system, which continues to block transfers due to an exaggerated risk-averse process, which affects payment channels and causes disruptions in supply chains. Half of the organizations that responded to the latest survey by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported difficulties transferring funds to Afghanistan. Moreover, 80% of organizations experience delays in transferring funds, two-thirds report that their international banks continue to reject transfers, and more than 60% indicate a lack of available liquid cash in the country.

The second obstacle involves the engagement between humanitarian organizations and the de facto authorities. The UN emergency relief coordinator has explained that national and local authorities are increasingly seeking a role in the selection of beneficiaries and the direction of aid to people on their priority lists, as well as the issue of lack of funding. OCHA data indicate that only a third of the resources needed for the humanitarian response have been received for this year, and UN agencies are facing a USD 3 billion funding shortfall in Afghanistan this year. Furthermore, restrictions and measures adopted to avoid Taliban appropriation of international funding and aid have, reportedly, created a slow system in terms of emergency responses. The UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Afghanistan, Ramiz Alakbarov, has stated that "the UN does not have search and rescue capabilities in Afghanistan."

Window of Opportunity

The Taliban is trying to use the recent earthquake, and the weak governmental and international response to it, as an indicator of the danger of Afghanistan’s continuing limited capabilities to deal with potential future crises and disasters, in parallel with local and international demands for intervention to support Kabul’s ability to handle crises and disasters. Accordingly, the crisis seemed a favorable opportunity for the Taliban movement to resolve the issue of its international recognition, as follows:

1. Calling on international organizations to support search efforts: Recognizing its inability to handle the recent earthquake on its own, the Taliban has called on international organizations to support rapid search efforts. Haibatullah Akhunzada, the supreme leader of the Taliban, called on the international community and all humanitarian organizations to support the Afghan people affected by this great tragedy and to spare no effort to help those affected.

In an attempt to reassure relief organizations that had previously complained about the Taliban transferring aid to the regions that support them—or even confiscating and distributing goods themselves—the Taliban pledged, on June 25, not to interfere in international efforts to distribute aid to tens of thousands of Afghans affected by the violent earthquake that hit the country, confirming that it would let members of the international organizations distribute the aid themselves.  

2. Calling on world governments to lift sanctions: Because international sanctions play a negative role, both by limiting the ability of local governments to address emergency crises and disasters, and by stunting their economic potential, the Taliban has used the recent earthquake to pressure other countries to end the sanctions imposed on the organization and its government. On June 25, the Taliban called on other countries to rescind the sanctions imposed on them and to unfreeze Afghan central bank funds.

3. Dialogue with the Taliban necessary for handling disasters: The devastating earthquake has brought attention to the humanitarian dangers of Afghan isolation, especially with the potential for repeated occurrences of future humanitarian disasters in the country. Thus, the Security Council session, held the day after the earthquake, touched on a number of matters, including the importance of continuing dialogue with the de facto authorities in Afghanistan, represented by the Taliban government, as "the only way to address the ongoing challenges in the country," according to some speakers.

On June 23, while briefing the Security Council on other emergencies facing the Afghan population, and confirming the persistence of human rights issues in Afghanistan, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Afghanistan, Ramiz Alakbarov, highlighted the importance of dialogue with the de facto administration and the Taliban government in Afghanistan as a necessary means for addressing current and potential humanitarian disasters: "Although the international community and the Taliban remain far apart on the issue of human rights, there are areas where we can better work to improve the lives of Afghans, as well as to advance issues of joint concern."

4. UN recommendations on the need to support the Afghan economy: There is a connection between the strength of national economies and a country’s ability to address humanitarian disasters and crises. This may have prompted the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Afghanistan, Ramiz Alakbarov, to warn that, if the Afghan economy is not able to recover and grow purposefully and sustainably, the Afghan people will face repeated humanitarian crises that may spark mass emigration, extremism, and armed conflict. Thus, Alakbarov called for more aid to advance the pace of economic recovery at the grassroots level.

5. International aid packages for Afghanistan: On June 22, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called on the international community to help support hundreds of families affected by this disaster. On the same day, the US announced that it was studying its options for a humanitarian response to the earthquake that hit Afghanistan, without ruling out direct talks with the Taliban. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed that "US humanitarian partners are already engaged in the response, including sending medical teams to help those affected." Blinken further promised that Washington would continue to "lead the international community" in its response to the humanitarian needs of Afghans.

Moreover, several countries disclosed urgent aid packages to Afghanistan. For example, on June 23, South Korea announced the allocation of USD one million in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan following the devastating earthquake, while the UK announced it would offer GBP 2.5 million of immediate support to help the Afghan people, and China pledged USD 7.5 million of aid.

In conclusion, over the past decade, 7,000 people have been killed by earthquakes in Afghanistan, according to OCHA, which means that about 560 people die every year in Afghanistan as a result of earthquakes. The latest earthquake has deepened fears of the effects of natural disasters on the country, as it hit Afghanistan at a critical moment when the country was suffering humanitarian disasters, displacement, and severe poverty and famine, as well as the limited capability of the Taliban to effectively manage crises on its own, which leads to rising death tolls.