At Least 1,000 Killed in Afghanistan Earthquake, Officials Say

Credit…Bryan Denton for The New York Times

Road blocks, roadside bombs, ambushes and kidnapping were the kinds of threats aid workers operating in Afghanistan faced for two decades during the Taliban’s insurgency. Parts of the country were off limits entirely as the conflict ebbed and flowed, and even on open roads the risk of gun battles remained real.

Last August, however, the Taliban stormed to power, effectively ending the war and easing security for millions of residents as well as for humanitarian workers.

“There is no active conflict going on now,” said Babar Baloch, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency who started working in the country more than two decades ago. “We do have more access.”

That access should make it easier to bring relief after the deadliest earthquake in two decades killed at least 1,000 people and injured more than 1,600 others.

“We are rushing in supplies for the earthquake and for other humanitarian emergencies,” Mr. Baloch said.

But even as access has improved, other developments since last August have sent humanitarian needs soaring and brought unforeseen problems, aid workers say.

Most notable is the loss of financial, technical and security assistance from Western governments that were desperate to see the country emerge as a democracy after the Taliban was toppled in 2001.

That flood of aid more than doubled the nation’s annual per capita gross domestic product, from around $200 in 2001 to around $500 last year, according to World Bank figures. But those gains were not spread evenly — rural areas saw less change than cities such as the capital, Kabul, and the southern city of Kandahar.

The economy has contracted sharply since the Taliban took power. Investors and foreign governments pulled back and many skilled workers fled, while the United States and other Western countries froze government bank accounts now controlled by the Taliban.

As the country struggles with drought and hunger, half of Afghanistan’s roughly 40 million people need humanitarian aid, the United Nations said in January as it asked member nations for more than $5 billion for the people of Afghanistan, as governments struggle with how to support a population in need while avoiding helping the Taliban itself.

“Part of the Afghanistan population is already in a humanitarian crisis, with people buying expired bread that is normally fed to animals,” the U.N. Resident Coordinator in Afghanistan, Ramiz Alakbarov, said on Wednesday, referring to trends in the country over the past year. “This does add to the burden” of dealing with the earthquake.

In addition, aid workers face an institutional challenge rarely seen in other countries: Coordinating operations with officials who were long part of an insurgent force, but are now attempting to transition into a full-fledged government.

In one measure of the dynamic, Abdul Qahar Balkhi, the spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, asked those wishing to help “from any part of the world” to donate to the country’s arm of the Red Crescent, which would deliver aid to victims in “full transparency.”

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