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Afghanistan earthquake exacerbates 'crisis condition' throughout country, expert says

ASU Professor Daniel Rothenberg says the suffering of Afghans transcends natural disaster

Four Afghanistan girls walking in the mountains, facing away from the camera.
June 24, 2022

Daniel Rothenberg loves the country of Afghanistan. But he hates what has happened there.

The magnitude 5.9 earthquake that struck Wednesday in an impoverished region of southeastern Afghanistan, killing more than 1,000 people, is the latest disaster to strike a country that is nearing economic collapse.

Rothenberg, a professor of practice in Arizona State University’s School of Politics and Global Studies and co-director of the Center on the Future of War, said some estimates have 97% of the country falling into poverty over the next few years.

ASU News talked to Rothenberg, a former assistant to the United Nations independent expert for human rights in Afghanistan, about the earthquake, the hope for humanitarian aid to arrive, and conditions — both economic and societal — throughout the country.

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Question: Have you had a chance to talk to anyone in Afghanistan the last few days?

Answer: I haven’t. The earthquake is not something that’s affected most of the country. It’s very, very remote. It’s very hard to get to there (the earthquake hit near the city of Khost, close to the Pakistan border). The roads are so bad. … It’s just a very, very poor underdeveloped (part of the) country. People in Kabul are not being affected by the earthquake. I don’t mean to minimize it, but you have a massive humanitarian crisis in the country that’s affecting virtually everybody. And yet the news is focusing on the obvious tragedy of the earthquake.

It’s horrible, but millions of people in the country are in dire straits. The real crisis is a shortage of food, what’s happening to women, the daily devastation of the economy. … The regular economy was being driven by foreign aid, and the foreign aid has stopped (since the U.S. pullout and the Taliban taking over the government).

Q: How does a country without much infrastructure, a collapsing economy and little in the way of foreign aid recover from a catastrophe like this?

A: Afghans have suffered so terribly over many, many decades of war. When the U.S. invaded in 2001, Afghanistan was ranked at the very bottom of the world in what’s called the human development index. It’s about the poorest country in the world by global standards. Through the United Nations and the U.S., unbelievable improvements were achieved in some areas, like educational attainment of children, literacy rates and basic health care; maternal and childhood mortality rates went down significantly. But within this context, you also had a war that got kind of progressively worse and worse for civilians, and more and more deadly. And all of this foreign assistance never really built the foundations of a sustainable form of development that could achieve and enable these kinds of transformative changes.

So the collapse of the Afghan economy and the collapse of these core institutions and of the central government, all of it was forseen with the pullout of U.S. forces. The Afghan people have suffered so terribly for so long. The country is now in one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. There’s little likelihood that any collection of donor countries will be able to fully offset or even substantively offset what is happening, and estimates have 97 or 98% of the country falling into poverty. The numbers are beyond belief. The particular nature of this crisis will lead to a certain release of monies and certain services going to particular places, but that pales in comparison to the millions and millions of Afghans who just absolutely face a crisis.

Q: Few countries recognize the Taliban as a legitimate government. How does that impact the flow of humanitarian aid?

A: It’s a great question. A lot of organizations are still operating in the country. Many of those entities have worked there for decades. And the humanitarian professionals are pretty good at dealing with crisis situations. There are ways to get money to these entities. There are ways, certainly, to get direct assistance. The Taliban government is clamoring. … There’s like $8 billion in aid that’s been frozen for a variety of reasons. There’s an obvious concern on the part of the U.S. government and other governments to allow money to flow into the coffers of the Taliban government. There’s just a lot of complexity to the political situation. But there’s a recognized understanding that the Afghan people deserve assistance and should get assistance, and there will probably be increased relaxations of the mechanisms to get that money.

Q: It seems like this earthquake has just exacerbated an already hopeless situation.

A: Yes. There’s not an Afghan family that can’t tell a story of just incredible tragedy. And, of course, in rural Afghanistan, the poverty levels have always been enormously high. The one thing I can say, though, is that I used to love going to Afghanistan. To put a different shine on it, it’s an extraordinary country. It’s wonderful to spend time with Afghan people. There’s a particular beauty to the country and an incredible hospitality among the people. And, spiritually, there’s something about Afghanistan that is really infused with a kind of beauty.

But that’s in the middle of all this really devastating poverty. Maybe this is positive spin, but hopefully some reflection on this tragedy and a bit of time to reflect on the failures of U.S. policy in the country will stimulate some more broad-minded humanitarian engagement with the Afghan people.

Top photo courtesy iStock

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