A devastating earthquake in eastern Afghanistan, which killed at least 1,000 people and flattened homes in remote villages close to the Pakistani border, poses the biggest challenge yet for the Taliban since they seized power nearly a year ago.
The hardline group is governing an impoverished country beset by severe drought, widespread hunger and economic crisis and where the effects of decades of conflict are still keenly felt.
Now the earthquake risks exposing the limitations of an administration largely isolated from the outside world and desperately short of cash and resources.
While humanitarian assistance continues to flow, aid needed for longer-term development in Afghanistan was halted when the Taliban stormed Kabul last August. Further angering the Taliban, billions of dollars in Afghan reserves also remain frozen overseas as the West pushes for concessions on human rights, particularly for girls and women.
“The sanctions imposed after the Taliban takeover … and the economic collapse will make it incredibly difficult to respond with necessary medical and food aid, and to support reconstruction,” said Ashley Jackson, co-director of the Centre on Armed Groups and an expert on the relationship between the Taliban and civilians.
So far, a handful of ageing helicopters have been flying to and from some of the worst-affected areas, carrying the injured out and ferrying in supplies of food and medicine.
“The question is, will this disaster make the international community question the harmful costs that its policies are having on ordinary Afghans?” said Jackson.
Adnan Junaid, International Rescue Committee’s vice president for Asia, added: “The international community must … establish a roadmap that sets out strategies to resume development assistance, provide technical support to the central bank, and ultimately release Afghanistan’s foreign exchange reserves.”
The Taliban have appealed to the international community and several countries have promised humanitarian aid, some of which is already arriving. International aid agencies are also providing support on the ground.
Technical assistance, however, including specialist search and rescue teams that could fly in quickly from overseas, had yet to be deployed as of Thursday.
According to two UN officials and a Pakistani source speaking on Wednesday, teams from Turkey and Pakistan were on standby.
Syed Irfan Raza adds from Islamabad: Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on Thursday telephoned acting Prime Minister of the interim government of Afghanistan, Mullah Muhammad Hassan Akhund, and conveyed Pakistan’s solidarity with the Afghan people in the wake of the devastating earthquake.
According to the Prime Minister Office, Mr Sharif offered prayers for the departed souls and wished speedy recovery to the injured.
He also shared with Mullah Akhund details of the relief efforts mounted by Pakistan to provide emergency assistance to Afghanistan, including the dispatch of emergency medicine, tents, tarpaulins, and blankets.
He said the border crossing points of Ghulam Khan and Angoor Adda had been opened for the transportation of seriously injured Afghans to Pakistani hospitals for treatment.
The PM also highlighted the measures taken by Pakistan to facilitate trade and the movement of people through effective border management. He said Pakistan was committed to strengthening bilateral ties to promote the cause of peace, progress and prosperity.