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In the hours before an earthquake struck eastern Afghanistan last week, a light rain fell over Kabul and there was thunder in the air. My 4-year-old daughter had just drifted off to sleep after I managed to convince her that the storm was nothing to be scared of when my phone rang. It was 1:46 a.m. On the other end of the line I could hear panic in my sister’s voice. She lived nearby and told me that a few minutes earlier she had felt the earth violently shake. While I had been too exhausted to notice, she was clearly upset. She told me the tremors had been far worse than the ones that often hit Kabul and thanked God that we were all OK. I thought nothing more of it until I woke again later that morning and checked my phone.
I first heard about the scale of the devastation via WhatsApp, a mode of communication as popular with Afghans as it seems to be with just about everyone else in the world. As the morning unfolded, I had messages and calls from inside and outside the country, speculating on the death toll and bemoaning the tragic fate of our nation. War, pestilence, drought and starvation have hit all of us hard in recent years; now people in one of the poorest corners of the country had suffered our worst earthquake in decades. Inevitably, a vocal minority of Afghans on social media were soon using the tragedy to make ill-judged and insensitive political points.
The epicenter of the 5.9-magnitude earthquake was in southeast Afghanistan, about 25 miles from the city of Khost. At least 1,000 people were killed in the surrounding region and some 2,000 injured, though we are unlikely ever to know the true numbers. While the international community struggled to organize a coordinated relief effort thanks to the sanctions regime imposed upon the Taliban government, many ordinary Afghans were quick to try to help with donations of food, clothing, money and blood.
As a journalist, my work often feels like an inadequate answer to acts of both human cruelty and human kindness. But last Friday I decided I could stay in Kabul no longer and began the journey toward the most-affected areas. As well as interviewing survivors so I could share their plight with the world, I wanted to get a closer look at the Taliban’s reaction to the earthquake — one of the first major crises they had faced since retaking power.
In years gone by the road southeast from Kabul passed through insurgent territory, into the provinces of Logar and Paktia, and eventually Khost and Paktika. The Afghan police and army were regularly ambushed along the route, which was in an area of the country dominated by what the U.S. likes to call the Haqqani Network — a particularly formidable wing of the Taliban. The road is safe these days and I felt a flicker of optimism as I drove, despite the terrible news I was going to report on. That optimism was due to the resilience and compassion of the people I saw along the way. Trucks and trailers loaded down with aid supplies were heading in the same direction as I was. At regular intervals on the side of the road, youths were waving banners in support of the quake victims and using megaphones to appeal for donations.
Driving through the Tera Pass, surrounded by mountains and hills, I was reminded of the natural beauty of Landi-Kotal in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, on the Pakistan side of the border. After three hours, I reached Gardez, the capital of Paktia, and drove through the local bazaar before heading onto another main road toward Khost. A few minutes later I pulled up to my destination: a military base that was formerly home to the U.S.-backed Afghan Army’s 203 Thunder Corps and is now home to the Taliban’s 203 Mansouri Corps, named in honor of the former Taliban leader Mullah Akthar Mohammad Mansour, who was killed by a drone strike in May 2016.
As one who spent years writing about the Taliban’s insurgency and who has co-authored a book that delves into the history of modern Islamic militancy in Afghanistan, it seems to me that the transition from war to peace is fraught with unexpected challenges for men who have devoted their lives to waging armed jihad. We have already seen the consequences of that in Kabul, where Taliban officials have struggled to kick-start the economy and keep the civil service running smoothly while still finding the time to clamp down on basic women’s rights. The death and destruction caused by the earthquake has presented them with another kind of test. Even the most powerful governments can fail their citizens in the aftermath of natural disasters, as the U.S. showed in 2005 in response to Hurricane Katrina. The Taliban, however, have little room for error. Already treated as pariahs by the west and mistrusted by many Afghans, they must prove they can build the country as effectively as they waged war. The earthquake has underlined just how difficult that will be.
Inside the Mansouri Corps, I met Haji Mohammed Ayob Khalid to talk about some of these issues. An old friend of both Mullah Mansour and the Taliban’s founding leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar Mujahid, he greeted me warmly and showed me around. Khalid was born in the mid-1960s in the Maiwand district of Kandahar, which means that most of his adult life has been spent in war. He talked me through the physical effect this has had on him. His left hand was wounded by a Russian mortar during the Soviet occupation and his right hand was badly injured fighting the Afghan mujahedeen faction Jamiat-e-Islami in Herat in the 1990s. He also has a scar near his right eye, where bullet shot by a Canadian gunner in Panjwayi, Kandahar, badly grazed him in 2006. A tall, thin man who wore a white turban and carried a Glock 17 pistol as we talked, Khalid described his injuries matter-of-factly, not with self-pity or arrogance.
Khalid has established a madrassa at the corps and teaches three subjects in the school himself. He was there on the night of the earthquake, jolted to his feet by the force of the first tremors. After checking over his radio that there was no serious damage on the base, he began to try to mobilize some sort of relief effort. His deputy flew out to one of the worst-hit areas in a helicopter and returned with 15 seriously injured people. Then Khalid flew out to take a look himself. By around 8:30 a.m. he knew he simply didn’t have the resources on the base to cope with the enormity of the tragedy. He put in a request for more helicopters from other corps and ordered the regional division to begin transferring the less-serious casualties to local hospitals. That first day, Khalid said there were 26 flights to and from the worst-hit areas. He acknowledged the scale of the disaster but told me the Taliban knew how to cope because they had tried to help people during the insurgency, “when they were bombed or attacked with heavy weapons” by US and Afghan government forces. As a result, he said, there was no need for the international community to help with disaster relief. He also said the West should not try to use any offer of aid as a way to pressure the Taliban on human rights. I believe many senior Talibs feel the same way.
I have chosen to focus on Khalid in this letter not because I think his reaction to the earthquake is more important than the suffering of the victims. Clearly, it is not. But I do think it illustrates an important point about the Taliban government and the problems now facing Afghanistan. After 20 years of war between the Taliban and the U.S. and more than two decades of conflict and political unrest before that, there is an understandable lack of trust on all sides. It is too soon to expect anything less. At some stage, however, we must surely try to reconcile our differences.
Khalid told me that the Taliban responded quickly and effectively to the earthquake but said no one outside Afghanistan would recognize those efforts. He insisted he wasn’t bothered by this indifference. Making a Pashto joke to illustrate his point, he likened the Taliban’s relationship with America to an unhappy marriage. Even when the Taliban were trying to help people, the U.S. would not recognize those efforts because opinions were too deeply entrenched to change, he said.
At around 6 p.m. that same day I visited a 100-bed military hospital inside the base. Built by the U.S., it was clean and well equipped but short of medicine and with an intermittent electricity supply. There, I met Lemar Gul, a man in his 60s from the Barmal district of Paktika province. He described to me how the earthquake had buried him under two floors of rubble. Terrified and struggling to breathe, he could hear members of his family and his neighbors yelling desperately for help. When he also tried to shout, he began to choke on dust and debris. After most of the other villagers had been rescued and he was still trapped, he became convinced he would not survive. He raised a finger, said the Shahada — the Islamic profession of faith — and began to cry. It was then, he said, that he felt a light breeze wash over him and glimpsed some people walking through the ruins. This time, they heard him when he shouted and made sure he was pulled free.
Fourteen members of Lemar Gul’s family died in the earthquake. After he was dragged from the rubble, he did not want to leave his village without saying goodbye to the dead. Before one of the Taliban’s helicopters arrived to take him to the hospital, he insisted on seeing their bodies. Nothing was more important to him than showing them some last respect.