Afghanistan Can't Catch a Break | Opinion

Afghanistan is a land of beautiful mountains and ravines, humble people, and rich history. But it's also a land of hunger, war, and misery. The Afghan population, already suffering immensely from a hunger crisis, ineffectual Taliban governance and a lack of monetary resources after Western donors cut the country off after the U.S. troop withdrawal 10 months earlier, is now forced to contend with a freakish act of nature.

This week, a magnitude 5.9 earthquake struck the eastern Afghan provinces of Khost and Paktika, destroying entire villages and killing entire families. The tremors could be felt as far away as India. At least 1,000 Afghans have died and tens of thousands will be rendered homeless in what has been described as the country's most powerful earthquake in 20 years. The Taliban government, more concerned with restricting the rights of women and stamping out dissent than providing services, is now confronting the biggest crisis since it swept back into power in August 2021 after a two-decade insurgency. Taliban officials recognize they don't have the resources to cope with this natural disaster and are appealing for international aid to help address the shortfall.

The earthquake couldn't have come at a worse time for Afghanistan and its people. The country is thoroughly gutted after four consecutive decades of war and occupation, systemic corruption by Afghan elites and a series of governments that were either dependent on foreign assistance, or in the case of the Taliban's first stint in power during the late 1990s, more gifted at repression than public administration. U.S.-supported Afghan administrations, led by Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, were all but detached from ordinary Afghans in the provinces, many of whom had just as much hatred for the politicians in Kabul as they did for the Taliban. Ghani's harried escape from the presidential palace last summer, carrying as much as $1 million in cash with him, was a fitting end to an era of mediocrity.

The Afghan public, however, was left holding the bag. The moment the Taliban set up their own administration was the moment all international assistance came to a stop. Whatever administrative state that was left in Afghanistan is now a shell of a shell, with its biggest funder, foreign donors, no longer willing to fit the bill (frankly, who can blame them?). Washington's decision to freeze Afghanistan's foreign exchange reserves, which amounted to $7 billion (the White House later walled off half of that sum to the Afghan people, pending a court order), didn't help matters.

Afghanistan has been living on isolated packages of foreign aid ever since (the U.S. remains the biggest foreign donor, contributing over $700 million in assistance since August 2021). Yet no amount of generosity in the world can sweep a state's systemic deficiencies under the rug. The U.S. learned this the hard way during its two-decade occupation, which at a cost of over $2 trillion made the post-World War II Marshall Plan in Europe look like chump change in comparison.

For the average Afghan on the street trying to find a way to scrounge enough money to put food on the table, none of this matters very much. Overcoming the challenges of day-to-day life in a country where unemployment is surging, the poverty level could soon reach near-universal levels and where nearly half the population is food insecure is the first, second and third priority. The recent earthquake will only make the basics of life even harder.

Afghanistan has been on the back pages for close to a year, if it makes the pages at all. The earthquake, however, will catapult the nation back into the international spotlight, at least for a time. The United Nations and its associated agencies, which remained on the ground even after the Taliban captured Kabul, is rushing humanitarian, medical and disaster relief support to Khost and Paktika to help with rescue and recovery efforts. The European Union has sent over €1 million in immediate humanitarian assistance to organizations currently operating inside the country. The White House has "directed" U.S. agencies to assess what Washington can do to help, while the U.S. Embassy in Kabul has stated that its teams are "already responding" by working to deploy medical aid to the immediate area.

There is no love lost for the Taliban in Washington. Some may question why the U.S. should do anything to make it easier on the Taliban, a loathsome group, to manage this catastrophe.

A child carrying utensils on her heads
A child carrying utensils on her heads walks past damaged houses following an earthquake in Gayan district, Paktika province on June 22, 2022. AFP via Getty Images

The answer, though, is self-evident. This isn't about helping the Taliban, but rather about helping the Afghan people. There are circumstances when great power politics take a backseat to the emergencies of the moment. Nineteen years ago, during another devastating earthquake that killed thousands of people, the U.S. sent two military cargo planes stocked with 150,000 pounds of medical supplies. The country in receipt of this assistance was none other than Iran, which former President George W. Bush declared a member of the so-called "axis of evil" during his State of the Union address almost two years earlier.

Could U.S. aid indirectly lessen the burden on Taliban officials? Most likely. But punishing the Afghan people for the sins of their rulers was never going to be a better alternative.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.