Need for Aid Is Critical in Afghanistan After Devastating Earthquake

New York Times journalists talked to residents in the hardest-hit part of southeastern Afghanistan who were seeking help and beginning to reckon with their losses.

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More than 1,000 people died and 1,600 others were injured when the 5.9-magnitude earthquake rocked Afghanistan’s southeast.CreditCredit...Kiana Hayeri for The New York Times

Residents grieve, and attention turns to delivering aid.

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Credit...Ali Khara/Reuters

The day after what appeared to be the deadliest quake to hit Afghanistan in two decades, residents were assessing the damage and grieving their losses as attention turned to providing aid to the devastated region, a remote area in the southeast.

Major questions remain about whether the Taliban government, which stormed to power last year after a long period of war and was cut off from Western donors by sanctions, will be able to coordinate the massive and sustained humanitarian effort needed to help the impoverished area, where many have been left homeless.

Afghan officials in the hard-hit areas have estimated that more than 1,000 people died. The United Nations humanitarian office offered a slightly lower estimate — 770 people killed and 1,440 people injured — but cautioned that its figures were likely to rise.

In Geyan alone, one of the hardest-hit districts in Paktika, the U.N. agency said that 1,500 houses were damaged or destroyed.

Some residents live in homes of straw and clay, and survivors described entire villages being wiped out. Thousands spent the night in unseasonable cold, some battered by rain, wind and even snow.

The New York Times journalists Christina Goldbaum, Safiullah Padshah and Kiana Hayeri are reporting from destroyed villages in Geyan District.

The road to Geyan: Supply and aid convoys encounter a winding mountain path.

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Credit...Kiana Hayeri for The New York Times

New York Times journalists on Thursday set off toward Geyan, a district situated along Afghanistan’s mountainous border with Pakistan that was one of the most severely affected by the earthquake.

Scattered across the hillside are small villages of mud-brick homes that rise out of the dull clay and are accessible only by dirt roads weaving through jagged mountains specked with shrubs. Small squares of farmland are wedged in the valleys between mountains.

The road to Geyan offered signs of the gravity of the crisis and the collective outpouring of support for those affected: Nearly every car we passed was carrying some kind of aid. There were small cars from local charities with piles of bread in their trunks and large trucks ferrying loads of flour, rice and blankets in the back.

Ambulances filled with medical workers treating injured people who could not make it to the nearest hospital drove past. Military helicopters buzzed overhead.

But even with the gush of support from international humanitarian organizations, local aid groups and generous locals, the remoteness of the affected areas has hindered aid efforts.

The roads are punishing, climbing up steep mountainsides and spitting cars out down treacherous downhill slopes.

Green sacks of rice were piled at one rocky incline — most likely fallen from the back of a truck. Another truck just ahead of the spill prepared to make two journeys by offloading half the boxes of food it was carrying, for fear it would lose control on the downward slope.

In Geyan: Villagers recount the quake’s terrifying impact and its aftermath.

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Credit...Kiana Hayeri for The New York Times

In the village of Azor Kalai in Geyan District, partially destroyed mud-brick homes were scattered across the hillside — their walls collapsed and ceilings broken into pieces. Among them were the white tarps of makeshift tents that most surviving residents had constructed as temporary shelter.

Even before the devastating earthquake, most families in the village survived day to day, making just enough to feed their families by gathering and selling fruit — like apricots, apples and pine nuts — from nearby forests, or by finding daily wage labor in a nearby bazaar, residents say. Many do not make more than 5,000 afghanis — or $55 — a month.

Early Thursday evening, sheep milled around the tents while women sorted through the few items their families managed to salvage from the rubble.

Padshah Gul, 30, a laborer, stood outside what remained of his home in the brisk night air. Where two large rooms once stood was now a pile of rubble and a makeshift tent with blankets and cushions that other relatives brought for his family after the earthquake.

The family’s few belongings — pots, kettles, utensils — were still buried under the rubble, he said. Mr. Gul buried his face in his hand thinking about having to find the money to rebuild his home

“We have to stay here, winter or spring,” he said, gesturing to the makeshift tent.

Still, he said he felt lucky to be alive.

When the earthquake struck, Mr. Gul and his brother were sleeping outside their shared family home in the cool night air. Suddenly he heard a loud, low rumble from the mountains nearby as boulders began crashing down them, he said.

Within minutes, the ground beneath him began to shake and he could hear the walls of the house where his relatives were sleeping collapse.

“It was like a bomb exploding,” he said.

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Credit...Kiana Hayeri for The New York Times

For a terrifying 15 minutes, the earthquake and aftershocks rocked the village around him. When the ground finally stood still, he and his brother rushed into what remained of their shared home. Amid the dust, he could make out the lifeless faces of his cousin and his sister-in-law who had both been killed.

He also saw limbs protruding from the rubble and heard the voices of his relatives shouting for help, he said. Among them was a high-pitched scream from his 12-year-old niece.

“We didn’t expect they would survive,” he said, but he and his brother started digging — for more than eight hours. By the end they had rescued at least a dozen other family members alive, including his niece.

In the center of the village, aid organizations and workers with the Taliban government’s Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development set up a makeshift aid distribution site. As dusk settled, crowds of men helped offload bags of flour, rice and blankets from the backs of dust-covered trucks into bright blue tents, readying the items for distribution.

Many trucks had traveled more than 24 hours from Kabul, the Afghan capital, teetering slowly along the precarious roads into the far-flung district. Throngs of armed Taliban security forces flanked the site.

Ali Mohammad, 40, arrived at the site on his motorcycle, hoping to register his name with the aid groups and get support to rebuild his home, which had been destroyed.

Three of his cousins were killed as the house came crashing down, he said. His surviving 16 family members were now living in a makeshift tent.

“I am too sad for us all. We either have to wait for aid to rebuild our house, or we’ll be displaced and have to leave everything that’s destroyed here,” he said.

“I think we’ll leave to continue our life,” he added, looking at the tarps and bags of flour being loaded into the distribution site. “But then we have to start again from zero.”

The quake will test Biden’s refusal to avoid direct aid to the Taliban.

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Credit...Kiana Hayeri for The New York Times

The earthquake in Afghanistan could pose a difficult new test for the Biden administration’s approach to the Taliban, which it refuses to recognize or provide with financial assistance.

Since the Taliban takeover of the country last August, the Biden administration has denied recognition to the group and cut off its access to $7 billion in foreign currency reserves held in the United States.

American humanitarian aid to Afghanistan has continued throughout, with the United States sending more than one billion dollars directly to humanitarian programs within the country over the past year. But many human rights advocates say that America must work with the Taliban government and provide it with economic assistance to alleviate human suffering on a wide and lasting basis.

Taliban officials are also challenging Western nations to provide their country with more aid in the west of the disaster. On Thursday, Afghanistan’s deputy minister of finance in the government’s natural disaster management agency urged countries that cut off support for the Afghan government last year to “not politicize this aid and to continue their aid to the people of Afghanistan,” according to Kabul’s Tolo News.

So far, the Biden administration has rejected entreaties to directly fund the Afghan government, insisting that the Taliban meet its earlier promises to allow women the freedom to go to school and work, and to deny sanctuary to terrorist groups. U.S. officials fear that the Taliban might steal or redirect American aid for unintended uses.

The U.S. has “been looking very hard at ways to do that that are not a direct benefit to the Taliban, but that can bring benefits to the people,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said in public remarks on June 1. He added that the Taliban have not been living up to the international community’s expectations.

“What we’ve seen in recent months has been, I think, a serious reverse gear on women and girls in particular,” Mr. Blinken said.

But in statements on Wednesday, senior Biden administration officials signaled that they were open to discussing humanitarian earthquake relief with the Taliban government.

The State Department’s spokesman, Ned Price, said on Wednesday that the Biden administration had not received a direct request for assistance from the Taliban. But he added that he expected humanitarian aid “will be a topic of conversation between U.S. officials and Taliban officials in the coming days.”

And national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement on Wednesday that President Biden had directed the federal government to “assess U.S. response options.”

‘Now there is nothing.’ Survivors mourn their destroyed villages and the family they lost.

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Credit...Kiana Hayeri for The New York Times

SHARANA, Afghanistan — After the earthquake struck, Gulpar Khan emerged from the rubble and looked out what had once been his door. He could barely believe what he saw: Nearly every house had collapsed and a chorus of his neighbors shouting for help filled the air.

“It was like a scene from a movie — I could never imagine such a thing in the village,” he said Thursday.

Mr. Khan, 60, from a village in Geyan District in the devastated province of Paktika, was one of the survivors at a hospital in this eastern city where about 70 people were brought for treatment. He had lost 11 of his relatives — including his cousins, an uncle, his five sons and his wife.

He, and others at the hospital, described a nightmarish scene in pounding rain, as homes crumbled, cries for help reverberated and many people lay dead in the debris.

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Credit...Kiana Hayeri for The New York Times

Amid the rubble in their home, Mr. Khan and his 20-year-old son could hear the voice of his brother shouting for help from the room next door, he said. Mr. Khan yelled at his son, Spin Wali, to go to the village center and get help, but they quickly discovered little remained of the village.

Mr. Khan climbed to where he heard his brother’s voice and tried to peel away chunks of what had been their home as rain poured on them. His son screamed at him that it was not safe to be in that room but he did not listen, he said. His brother survived.

“In my whole life I never experienced anything like this,” he said.

In the hospital’s men’s ward, Abdul Hanan, 70, lay on a bed in the corner, staring quietly at his hands. He had gone to visit family in Barmal District on Wednesday afternoon and decided to stay the night. He was asleep in their home when he heard a loud rumbling sound and the walls of the mud-brick home began to shake, he said.

He and his relatives ran out of the house but, when the shaking subsided, they made their way back in and slept until daybreak. When he awoke, he saw the walls had cracked in half and windows were broken.

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Credit...Kiana Hayeri for The New York Times

He had begun the hourlong walk back to his own home, when he heard an announcement from a nearby mosque that stopped him in his tracks: The imam was asking everyone to help rescue people trapped after an earthquake in nearby villages — including his own.

“I froze, I couldn’t believe what I had heard,” he said.

He rushed home and found his house completely destroyed. Sitting under a tree in their yard, four of his relatives were crying and their clothes were drenched in blood. The other 17 family members who lived with him were dead beneath the rubble.

“Now there is nothing — our houses are destroyed, we have nothing to eat, nothing to drink, nothing,” he said, quietly wiping away tears.

The Taliban’s takeover last year left many Afghans feeling that with the war’s end, the prospect of instant, unexplainable violence and death had finally lifted. Now, that sense of security was gone, too.

“We were happy that war was over,” he added. “We were not expecting destruction like this could happen.”

From her hospital bed, a woman cries for her children killed in the rubble of their home.

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Credit...Kiana Hayeri for The New York Times

SHARANA, Afghanistan — As hopes of finding more survivors of Afghanistan’s deadliest earthquake in decades waned on Thursday, a mother lay in a hospital bed in this eastern city with her 1-year-old daughter asleep beside her in a rumpled purple dress.

Their mud brick house collapsed when the magnitude 5.9 quake struck early on Wednesday morning, and Hawa, 30, woke up choking on dust. She could feel her daughter’s chest barely moving beneath her hand.

They survived the disaster, but four of Hawa’s other children were killed along with 17 other relatives as the quake turned the mountainous, windswept region near the border with Pakistan into a tableau of death and despair.

On Wednesday, about 70 people were brought for treatment to the hospital in Sharana, the provincial capital, said Dr. Hikmatullah Esmat, the public health director of Paktika Province.

They included Hawa and Safia. The quake killed Hawa’s three sons, another daughter and 17 other relatives in their village in Geyan district, she said, speaking through tears.

Through clouds of dust and darkness, Hawa could make out her father trying in vain to lift bricks that had collapsed and buried other family members. Unable to move them, he ran toward the center of the village shouting for help.

“I didn’t expect to survive,” she said from the hospital bed. For five hours, she remained trapped under a heap of bricks, bracing her left hand to keep the rubble from crushing Safia.

Five hours later as daylight broke and a heavy rain beat down on what remained of the town, residents of nearby villages began pouring into the area to try to help.

“I lost everything, my whole world, my whole family, I don’t have any hope for the future,” Hawa said, her eyes wet with tears. “I wish I had lost everything, that we had all died, because there’s no one to take care of us, to find money or food for us now.”

Why was a moderately strong earthquake so deadly?

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Credit...EPA, via Shutterstock

The earthquake that struck eastern Afghanistan early Wednesday morning measured magnitude 5.9, making it moderately strong. Every year, about 1,300 quakes of similar strength occur around the world on average. Most attract little attention and cause few deaths, but the death toll in Afghanistan has surpassed 1,000 and is expected to rise as search-and-rescue operations continue.

What made this one different?

The earthquake struck in the middle of the night, when almost everyone in the area was asleep at home. When people are awake, they have more time to try to reach a safe area. During the day, people might be in offices or schools, which might be of higher quality construction than homes.

In this part of Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border, many houses are made of masonry or even mud. These materials break easily when subject to tension, the pulling-apart forces that occur when they are shaken and flexed repeatedly in an earthquake. Houses made of wood, steel or steel-reinforced masonry are generally more capable of withstanding these shaking forces.

The location of the earthquake fault probably played a role as well. The region is seismically active, a result of the stresses that have built up over millions of years as one of the world’s large crustal plates, the Indian, has collided with another, the Eurasian. Over time that collision produced the tallest mountain range in the world, the Himalayas, and its ragged and rocky foothills. It has also left the region riddled with faults, fracture zones between blocks of rocks.

Some faults are near the surface, others much deeper. The plates are still moving relative to one another, at a rate of about 2 inches a year — about as fast as fingernails grow — so stresses are slowly building up along the faults. Occasionally, they are relieved when an earthquake on a fault releases large amounts of energy.

In Wednesday’s quake, the fault was shallow, about 6 miles deep. At such a depth, there is less material to absorb the energy before it reaches the surface. That means that for a given magnitude, a shallower quake will be more powerful at the surface.

Many Afghans’ rudimentary homes were no match for the earthquake.

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Credit...Stringer/EPA, via Shutterstock

The house, a structure of mud and wood like many others in southeastern Afghanistan, shook when the earthquake hit after 1 a.m. Wednesday, and Mohammad Azam Qanuni thought the roof was going to cave in.

“My wife and children were scared and screaming, but we made our way to the corner of the house and still did not know what had happened,” said Mr. Qanuni, 35, who lives in a village called Afghan Dubai in Khost Province and has five children. “Thankfully, we were not harmed.”

But Mr. Qanuni’s house and hundreds of others in the region were left uninhabitable by the earthquake, the deadliest in Afghanistan in two decades. More than 1,000 people died and 1,600 others were injured, with the neighboring province of Paktika suffering the worst damage.

In the Sperah district of Khost, which includes Mr. Qanuni’s village, the death toll was more than 25, and more than 40 other people were injured, he said. Residents were looking for survivors in the aftermath.

“For now, we still are busy pulling the dead or injured from under the rubble,” said Sarhadi Khosti, 26, another resident of the district.

In one village, as many as 17 members of the same family were killed when their home collapsed, according to Mohammad Almas, the head of aid and appeals at Qamar, a charity active in the area. Only one child survived, he said.

The overall rescue effort in the rugged and mountainous region was hampered by wind and heavy rain on Wednesday, preventing helicopters from bringing in rescue workers or relief supplies.

Both Mr. Almas and the United Nations’ emergency response agency said they expected the toll to rise.

The first reaction to the earthquake from Mr. Qanuni, a school principal, reflected the recent history of the area, which has been plagued by insurgent activity for much of the past two decades.

“When the house shook, I thought it had been bombed,’’ he said.

Focus after devastating quake turns to aid.

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Credit...National Disaster Management Authority, via Associated Press

Even as the scale of the damage in Afghanistan was only beginning to become clear, officials said that rescue efforts were winding down, leaving little hope of finding more survivors. Attention was turning to providing aid to the injured and shelter to those left homeless.

“Relief agencies’ assistance included health assistance, food, tents, and blankets, but the crisis is widespread in the area and is not enough,” said Sanaullah Masoum, a spokesman for the provincial governor in Paktika Province, where the worst damage appeared to be. “We call on the aid agencies to provide more food, health, and humanitarian assistance.”

Some supplies had arrived in the country, the Taliban government said, including by air from Iran and Qatar and by land from Pakistan. Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban government, said that eight truckloads of cargo from Pakistan had been delivered to the affected areas, and that further supplies had reached Kabul, the capital, and would soon be delivered to the quake zone.

The area is far from many clinics or hospitals that could help the wounded. The Afghan Defense Ministry sent seven helicopters and a medical team to transport the wounded to military and civilian hospitals, the state news agency reported.

Mr. Masoum said that the rescue operation in Paktika ended on Wednesday evening. Local authorities in Afghanistan have told international organizations that their search and rescue efforts in the areas were 90 percent complete, and aid groups were focusing on providing shelter and care for survivors, said Isabelle Moussard Carlsen, head of the Afghanistan office of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

On Thursday, temperatures were rapidly rising, raising concerns that people who suffered through a frigid night would soon be left out in the scorching heat, Ms. Carlsen said. Lack of clean drinking water and sanitation could bring diseases in the coming days and weeks, compounding the crisis, she said.

“It’s layers and layers of aggravating factors,” she said. “After the immediate lifesaving response, these communities will take a long time to recover. There was already very high vulnerability in the area.”

Residents in quake-hit areas begin to take stock.

Desperate rescue efforts were underway in a remote part of southeastern Afghanistan where an earthquake killed more than 1,000 people and injured another 1,600, according to officials, with the toll expected to climb as local authorities and aid agencies dig through the rubble where many more are feared trapped.

Many of the homes and structures in the impoverished, mountainous region bordering Pakistan were built with mud and crumbled when the earthquake hit after 1 a.m. on Wednesday. Heavy rains and flooding were also hampering rescue efforts in the rugged terrain where many villages are only accessible by dirt roads.

The magnitude 5.9 temblor was the country’s deadliest in two decades, centered about 28 miles southwest of the city of Khost, a provincial capital.

Before the earthquake, Afghans faced a series of overlapping crises.

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Credit...Kiana Hayeri for The New York Times

Since the Taliban seized power from a Western-backed government last year, Afghanistan has struggled with a severe drought, widespread hunger, attacks by militants and an economic crisis that has caused more than a million peopleto flee their homes.

At the same time, many Western governments that recoiled at the Taliban’s policies, not least on human rights, have severed diplomatic relations. Many of the country’s assets overseas have been frozen and international support has collapsed.

The Taliban have struggled to attract more foreign aid for public services from Western donors since announcing edicts barring girls from attending secondary schools and restricting women’s rights. Under the previous Western-backed government, foreign aid funded 75 percent of the governments budget, including health and education services — aid that was abruptly cut off after the Taliban seized power.

Afghans had been struggling to emerge from decades of conflict: the 20-year war between the United States and its allies against militants, the civil war of the 1990s, the Soviet occupation before that. The cumulative toll of the conflicts, stretching back to the 1970s, has left more than half the country’s roughly 40 million people needing humanitarian aid, according to the United Nations. Three-quarters of the population live in acute poverty.

In January, the United Nations appealed for more than $5 billion for humanitarian relief for Afghanistan to avert what Martin Griffiths, the U.N.’s emergency aid coordinator, said could become a “full-blown humanitarian catastrophe.” Much of that appeal was for food after the economic collapse plunged half of the population into potentially life-threatening food insecurity.

“Part of the Afghanistan population is already in a humanitarian crisis,” the U.N. resident coordinator in Afghanistan, Ramiz Alakbarov, said at a news conference on Wednesday. People had been buying expired bread that would normally have been fed to animals, he said, adding that the food crisis “does add to the burden.”

The problem of hunger has been exacerbated by a drought, declared by the government a year ago, that has debilitated the country’s already limited ability to cope with a lack of rainfall. Drought and conflict can feed off each other, experts said, by worsening the contest for scarce resources and increasing poverty, which itself causes greater instability.

For much of the last 20 years, the southeastern part of Afghanistan near the Pakistani border was plagued by insurgent activity. Police and military posts were frequently overwhelmed by Taliban fighters, and the region received few benefits from the American military presence.

Although relative calm has prevailed since the Western-backed government fled from the Taliban’s advance, security remains a problem around the country.

On Saturday, fighters stormed a Sikh temple in the capital, Kabul, leaving several people dead and others wounded despite Taliban claims to have eliminated the threat posed by the militant group ISIS. Since April, terrorist attacks have killed more than 100 people, mostly civilians among Afghanistan’s Shiite and Sufi minority groups.

And earthquakes are yet another risk. Many of the country’s densely populated towns and cities sit on or near several geological faults, some of which can produce earthquakes of up to 7 in magnitude.

In January, two earthquakes struck a remote, mountainous area of western Afghanistan, killing at least 27 people and destroying hundreds of homes, officials said at the time.

In 2002, at least 1,500 people were killed when a series of earthquakes with a magnitude between 5 and 6 struck northern Afghanistan, destroying a district capital in the Hindu Kush. A 1998 quake measuring 6.9 killed up to 4,000 people in Afghanistan’s north.

U.N. warns of the risk of a cholera outbreak in Afghanistan.

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Credit...Ebrahim Noroozi/Associated Press

The United Nations warned on Thursday of the risk of a cholera outbreak among the thousands of people whose homes were destroyed by an earthquake that it said has killed at least 770 people in Afghanistan.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a report that 500,000 cases of acute diarrhea had already been confirmed across the country, and that in the aftermath of earthquakes, cholera outbreaks are a serious concern.

“A destruction of such scale, plus rain, and lack of sanitation” could lead to the spread of waterborne diseases, said the U.N. resident coordinator in Afghanistan, Ramiz Alakbarov, at a news conference on Wednesday. “It would be a very, very unwelcome scenario.”

About 10 tons of medical supplies were dispatched to the area in the aftermath of the earthquake, as well as other supplies for injured and displaced people, officials said. But 1,000 tents were still needed, according to the report.

In recent years, cholera has spread in Yemen, where war has created a severe humanitarian crisis. And in Haiti, in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, there was an outbreak that at least three investigations linked to poor sanitation by U.N. peacekeepers there.

On Thursday, O.C.H.A. also said that at least $15 million would be needed to respond to the consequence of the earthquake in the next three months. The U.N. has expressed a willingness to provide funds, and South Korea and the humanitarian aid department of the European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, have already donated a total of some $2 million, with other donors expressing interest in contributing funds.

The U.N. humanitarian office estimated that 770 people had been killed and 1,440 people injured, while cautioning that those figures were likely to rise. Afghan officials estimated on Wednesday that the quake had killed more than 1,000 people.

The U.S., the U.N. and others move to help Afghanistan.

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Credit...EPA, via Shutterstock

The United States and the United Nations took steps toward helping Afghanistan in the wake of the earthquake on Wednesday, as aid groups and the Taliban called for urgent assistance.

President Biden directed the U.S. Agency for International Development and other parts of the administration to assess how it can best help Afghanistan, Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, said on Wednesday in a statement.

He said humanitarian partners of the administration were already in the process of delivering medical care and shelter supplies to those on the ground.

“We are committed to continuing our support for the needs of the Afghan people as we stand with them during and in the aftermath of this terrible tragedy,” Mr. Sullivan said.

The South Korean government said on Thursday that it would provide $1 million in humanitarian assistance to quake victims.

Even before the earthquake, the Biden administration had faced increasing pressure to provide more humanitarian support to Afghans — an issue that became even more politically divisive after the Taliban retook power last year from a Western-backed government.

The Taliban have struggled to attract foreign aid from Western donors since announcing edicts barring girls from attending secondary schools and restricting women’s rights. Under the previous Western-backed government, foreign aid funded 75 percent of the government’s budget, including health and education services — aid that was abruptly cut off after the Taliban seized power.

The Biden administration has made exemptions to some sanctions and allowed money transfers to the country as long as they did not benefit people on a terrorism watch list. But Afghanistan has continued to suffer from starvation and high malnutrition levels as its economy has deteriorated.

António Guterres, the secretary general of the United Nations, said U.N. aid teams were on the ground assessing the needs following the quake and providing initial support to affected Afghans. U.N. agencies and international aid organizations have also deployed health and nutrition teams and shipped medicines to the affected areas, along with blankets, tents, kitchen utensils, tarpaulins, mattresses and pillows.

And the World Health Organization said on Twitter that a shipment of about 10 tons of medical supplies was on the way.

“We count on the international community to help support the hundreds of families hit by this latest disaster,” Mr. Guterres said in a statement. “Now is the time for solidarity.”