KABUL, Afghanistan — For much of the past two decades, the southeastern part of Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border, was plagued by insurgent activity, as Taliban fighters frequently overwhelmed police and military outposts and received little benefit from the US military presence.
The Taliban’s seizure of power in August finally brought relative peace to the remote population, despite the difficulties they continued to face as the country suffered from drought and economic collapse.
Then, early Wednesday morning, a 5.9-magnitude earthquake hit the region, shattering what little peace and stability the people had been able to maintain after so many years of hardship and violence.
More than 1,000 people were killed and another 1,600 injured in the quake, officials said, dealing another blow to a country that has grappled with a dire humanitarian and economic crisis since the Taliban seized power in August.
The quake, the country’s deadliest in two decades, struck about 28 miles southwest of the city of Khost, a provincial capital in the country’s southeast, the US Geological Survey said, and had a depth of about six miles. But the worst damage was in neighboring Paktika province, which sits along the border with Pakistan.
“Almost all government and private hospitals are full of victims,” said Awal Khan Zadran, a doctor in Paktika’s Urgun district. Some of the wounded were flown to Kabul, the Afghan capital, by helicopter and others were flown to nearby provinces, he said.
At the same time, the Taliban have struggled to attract foreign aid from Western donors since they announced edicts barring girls from attending secondary school and restricting women’s rights. Under the previous Western-backed government, foreign aid financed 75 percent of the government budget, including health and education services, aid that was abruptly cut off after the Taliban seized power.
Those challenges have only added to Afghanistan’s struggle to emerge from decades of war. The cumulative toll from a series of conflicts dating back to the 1970s has left more than half of the country’s estimated 40 million people in need of humanitarian aid, according to the United Nations. Three quarters of the population lives in conditions of extreme poverty.
Wednesday’s earthquake only added to that misery.
Sarhadi Khosti, 26, who lives in the Sperah district of Khost province, said he was woken up by the tremor after 1 am and that several houses, especially those made of clay or wood, had been completely destroyed.
“For now, we are still busy pulling dead or injured from under the rubble,” he said.
Raees Hozaifa, director of information and culture in the eastern province of Paktika, said 1,000 people in the province had been killed and another 1,500 injured. Local residents said a landslide that followed the quake had completely destroyed at least one village, and others said hundreds of people were trapped under demolished houses.
In Khost province, Shabir Ahmad Osmani, director of information and culture, said 40 people had been killed and more than 100 injured there.
Search and rescue efforts are continuing, led by the country’s defense ministry, but wind and heavy rain are preventing helicopters from landing and casualties are likely to rise, the United Nations emergency response agency said.
Mohammad Almas, head of relief and appeals for Qamar, an Afghan charity active in the area, said he expected the final death toll to be high, because the affected areas are far from hospitals and because the earthquake struck at night, when most people were sleeping indoors.
As many as 17 members of the same family were killed in one village when their house collapsed, he said; only one child survived. Mr. Almas, contacted by phone from Pakistan, said that more than 25 villages were almost completely destroyed, including schools, mosques and homes.
Rugged, mountainous and in many areas inaccessible except by dirt roads, Paktika province is one of the most rural in Afghanistan, where some make a living illegally cutting down trees to sell for firewood.
It is also one of the poorest, with residents in some areas living in houses made of dirt and clay. The area is overwhelmingly Pashtun, the same ethnic group to which most of the Taliban belong.
The Taliban government on Wednesday called on aid organizations to provide humanitarian support, even as militant rulers have increasingly distanced themselves from the West following their refusal to loosen restrictions on women’s education while imposing other draconian rules.
President Biden has directed the US Agency for International Development and other parts of the administration to assess how best to help Afghanistan after the earthquake, Jake Sullivan, national security adviser, said in a statement on Wednesday.
Mr. Sullivan said the administration’s humanitarian partners were already in the process of delivering medical care and 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 after this terrible tragedy,” said Mr. Sullivan.
Even before the earthquake, the Biden administration faced mounting pressure to provide more humanitarian support to Afghans, an issue that became even more politically divisive after the Taliban took power.
The administration has taken some steps, including waiving some sanctions and allowing money transfer companies to send money into the country as long as it doesn’t benefit people on a terrorist list.
In January, the United Nations requested more than $5 billion for humanitarian aid in Afghanistan to avert what Martin Griffiths, the UN’s emergency relief coordinator, said could become a “full-blown humanitarian catastrophe.” Much of that appeal went to food after the economic collapse plunged half the population into life-threatening food insecurity.
The quake was felt in various parts of Pakistan, especially in the northwest, but the country was spared the kind of damage seen in neighboring Afghanistan, officials said.
Some of the quake-affected areas are in remote and rugged areas near the Pakistani border and were the scene of heavy fighting before and after the Taliban took over Afghanistan. Telecommunications are poor or nonexistent, making it difficult to get a full count of casualties.
For civilians in Afghanistan, earthquakes are yet another risk in a country traumatized by decades of war. Many of the country’s densely populated towns and cities sit on or near various fault lines.
The earthquake was felt in Kabul, the Afghan capital, and in the northern part of Pakistan, according to a map that the European Seismological Center for the Mediterranean posted on its website.
The earthquake, according to the US Geological Survey, appears to originate from movement between the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates.
The agency said in a report this year that more than 7,000 people had died in the past decade from earthquakes, an average of 560 a year. In an area between Kabul and Jalalabad, a magnitude 7.6 earthquake was estimated to affect seven million people.
In January, two earthquakes struck a remote mountainous area in western Afghanistan, killing at least 27 people and destroying hundreds of homes.
In March 2002, at least 1,500 people were killed when a series of magnitude 5-6 earthquakes struck northern Afghanistan, destroying a district capital in the Hindu Kush. A 1998 6.9 earthquake killed 4,000 people in northern Afghanistan.
Safiullah Padshah reported from Kabul, Afghanistan, Alissa J. Rubin from Baghdad, Iraq, and Mike Ives from Seoul. Christina Goldbaum contributed reporting from Bamiyan, Afghanistan, and Najim Rahim from Houston, Texas. Isabella Kwai, Emma Bubola and Matthew Mpoke Bigg contributed reporting from London, and Salman Masood from Islamabad, Pakistan.