More than a thousand civilians were killed across Afghanistan by a surge in fighting in the month leading up to the Taliban's takeover of the country last August. In the early hours of Wednesday morning, as many lives were taken in a single province, in just minutes – not by war, but by natural disaster. A 6.1-magnitude earthquake near the city of Khost, in eastern Afghanistan, killed more than 1,000 people in villages in nearby Paktika province and injured more than 1,500 others. Casualties were also reported in districts around Khost.
Rescue teams sifting through the rubble to recover the injured had few options for where to take them. Paktika, home to nearly half a million people, has just three hospitals, with fewer than 250 beds between them. One of them has only one surgeon on staff, and another has none. Efforts to speed up rescues and airlift survivors have been stymied by heavy rain and hail storms in Kabul, the Afghan capital, where most of the Taliban government's helicopter fleet is stationed.
Large earthquakes are impossible to predict, even in wealthy countries with more scientific resources. But residents of Paktika have predicted disaster for a long time, their fears stoked by decades of underdevelopment, false promises and mismanagement, particularly when it comes to health care and civil infrastructure.
Officials in Paktika complained repeatedly over the years that the province's healthcare facilities were at a breaking point. In 2009, the US government began work on a modern hospital, but five years later the project was deemed cost-inefficient and it was never built. In 2017, building works began on two new clinics, with all of the funding required to complete them made available, but by the time the Taliban took control of Afghanistan they remained construction sites. The first time the province had a healthcare facility with more than 100 beds was earlier this month, when the Taliban government doubled the capacity of the provincial hospital.
A lack of earthquake-resistant design and retrofitting is another symbol of the failures of the past two decades. Earthquakes have killed nearly 3,000 Afghans in that time. Reducing their toll – both financial and human – is a subject on which many reports have been written, and almost no projects have been carried out. In 2003, the UN Centre for Regional Development published joint guidelines on earthquake-proofing with the Afghan Ministry of Housing and Urban Development. In 2011, the government's "Strategic National Action Plan for Disaster Risk Reduction" acknowledged that they had been difficult to implement. A report published in 2020 by the city of Khost stated that up to 80 per cent of critical infrastructure in the area remained vulnerable to destruction in the event of an earthquake.
Of course, Paktika and its environs are not the only part of Afghanistan that have seen few fruits from the billions of dollars spent on reconstruction over the past 20 years. The international community and successive Afghan governments repeated the mistakes seen there throughout the country. Wednesday's earthquake, however, has, in a single catastrophe, laid bare the cost of the world's failures in Afghanistan.
While a rush of humanitarian aid to Paktika and Khost now will not be enough to make up for all of that, it is still the right thing to do. With the current government lacking the experience, competence and resources required to deal with such a crisis, it will need the world to step in urgently once again. The international community must cast aside, even if only momentarily, its qualms with the Taliban and offer Afghans all the help they need and deserve. They have been abandoned too many times, and in this hour of need they should have the world standing by them.