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The multi-headed hydra that is the Afghanistan drug trade

Since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, every party to the conflict has claimed a stake in the narcotics industry.

An Afghan farmers harvests opium sap from a poppy field in Zari District in Kandahar province on April 9, 2018.
The US government has spent billions of dollars on a war to eliminate drugs from Afghanistan, but the country still remains the world's top opium producer. (Credit: 
 JAVED TANVEER/AFP/Getty Images)
An Afghan farmers harvests opium sap from a poppy field in Zari District in Kandahar province on April 9, 2018. The US government has spent billions of dollars on a war to eliminate drugs from Afghanistan, but the country still remains the world's top opium producer. (Credit: JAVED TANVEER/AFP/Getty Images)

HERAT, AFGHANISTAN — Hamid Amiri was only 11 years old when he took his first puff of hashish.

His friends — a mixture of fellow Afghan refugees and young Iranian boys — had offered him a hand-rolled hashish cigarette as they stood around a stream in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad, where Amiri’s family had been living as refugees.

At the time, Amiri felt a calm come over him as he stared out into the waters they swam in each afternoon. As the years passed though, he would find himself suffocating under the tidal wave of an insatiable craving. The next 21 years of his life, including 10 more as a refugee in Iran, disappeared under a drugged out haze.

Soon, hashish wasn’t enough, and he quickly moved from drug to drug. First it was opium, then he discovered the rush from a hit of heroin, and finally the surges of happiness and energy that came with crystal methamphetamine.

By the time he returned to his native Afghanistan in 2009, he was a full blown addict.

Like thousands of other Afghans, Hamid Amiri was first exposed to drugs while living with his family as a refugee in Iran. (Credit: Ali M. Latifi for ThinkProgress)
Like thousands of other Afghans, Hamid Amiri was first exposed to drugs while living with his family as a refugee in Iran. (Credit: Ali M. Latifi for ThinkProgress)

As Amiri’s own addiction grew, so did the country’s. In 2009, the United Nations estimated that one in 12 Afghans was suffering from narcotics addiction, double the amount from a 2005 survey. By 2018, that number would soar to 3.6 million, nearly 11.1 percent of the population, with drug use in rural areas being three times higher than in urban centers. The World Health Organization estimates that the prevalence of intravenous drug use has led to 4.4 percent of those intravenous drug users contracting HIV. 

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Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, the Afghan drug trade has evolved into a multi-headed hydra that has seen everyone from the Taliban to regional neighbors and government-allied militias and security officials claiming a stake in the narcotics industry, which the United Nations estimates is valued at nearly $7 billion annually, or up to 32 percent of the country’s GDP.

The societal uncertainties caused by the decades-long conflict has led to increasing social divides along glaring economic lines, a reality that, some say, has only further fueled the massive addiction rates in the nation.

“We have a huge gap between a rich minority who enjoy many privileges and a majority who are deprived of basic services and dignities. So, the youth who can’t accept poverty and can’t afford to be run in those circles of the wealthy and powerful fall prey to addiction,” said Orzala Nemat, director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a Kabul-based think tank that has done extensive research on the issue of drugs.

“The youth who can’t accept poverty and can’t afford to be run in those circles of the wealthy and powerful fall prey to addiction.”

Nemat says this is borne out by the fact that though Afghanistan has been in a state of conflict for four decades now, it is only in the last 17 years — when the economy and security have both taken massive dives — that addiction has become a major problem in the country.

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Recently, an official in the Western province of Farah said the current conflict in the province, which nearly fell to the Taliban earlier this year, is in fact a drug war, in which Iranian nationals also have a hand. The claim comes at the same time that officials have accused Tehran of arming and training the Taliban in several areas of Western Afghanistan.

At a recent event to mark the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, Minister of Interior Wais Ahmad Barmak admitted that government officials have been arrested on charges of drug smuggling.

“We have arrested 1,906 suspects who are in different categories including high-profile drug smugglers and even some elements who [have] been officials of government,” Barmak said.

As relapse rates are particularly high in Afghanistan, the Center for Ending Addiction, a rehab facility in Herat has plans to establish a six-month follow-up program for recovered addicts who leave the facility. (Credit: Ali M. Latifi for ThinkProgress)
As relapse rates are particularly high in Afghanistan, the Center for Ending Addiction, a rehab facility in Herat has plans to establish a six-month follow-up program for recovered addicts who leave the facility. (Credit: Ali M. Latifi for ThinkProgress)

This means even provinces said to be free of poppy production have become hubs for the transit of narcotics and home to large amounts of addicts. The northern province of Parwan, which borders Kabul, has been poppy-free since at least 2015, but as a transit route for narcotics being trafficked between Kabul and the provinces of Balkh and Badakhshan, there are now at least 15,000 addicts in Parwan. This, despite the fact that Washington alone has poured more than $8.62 billion on counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan.

Like millions of other Afghans, Amiri was first introduced to drugs as a refugee in Iran, and as newer drugs began to penetrate the Afghan market, he tried almost all of them.

When Amiri first returned to Afghanistan, heroin was gaining popularity, but methamphetamine was still hard to come by. The first documented methamphetamine seizure — a mere four grams in the southern province of Helmand — was reported in 2008.

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But in the last decade, methamphetamine-based drugs, called sheesha (glass) and yakh (ice) have become increasingly prevalent throughout the country. Whereas in the past, most of the methamphetamines were trafficked across the border from Iran, workers and patients at the Center for Ending Addiction, a rehab in the city of Herat, say that, in the last two years, domestic production has taken off.

Earlier this year, officials in the eastern province of Kunar said the number of young people addicted to crystal meth had grown by 60 percent.

Afghan drug addicts smoke heroin on a street in Jalalabad. (Credit: NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP/Getty Images)
Afghan drug addicts smoke heroin on a street in Jalalabad. (Credit: NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP/Getty Images)

In the last year, the Kabul government, along with its Western partners have tried to ramp up their war on drugs, but much of that is focused on targeting so-called drug labs they say are run by the Taliban. In a single week last April, U.S. and Afghan air power targeted 11 drug processing facilities in the Western provinces of Farah and Nimroz. U.S. and Afghan officials insist that these bombings are inflicting financial damage of at least $16 million to the Taliban, however these figures have come under question by the London School of Economics’ International Drug Policy Unit and by the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the top U.S. watchdog on Afghanistan. Both reports took issue with what seemed liked trumped up figures issued by Washington.

A 2017 report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) says this effort by Kabul and Washington to try and create an inextricable tie between the Taliban and the drug trade in Afghanistan may be short-sighted and unhelpful.

“It would be naïve to say the Taliban is fighting because conflict helps it gain control over the profits of the drug trade, or that Afghanistan’s drug production boom is because of the Taliban,” writes Borhan Osman, senior Afghanistan analyst at the ICG. “The criminal economy thrives on weak state institutions, systemic corruption and poverty, while the insurgency represents, fundamentally, a political challenge.” 

Last year, the Herat Airport Police Chief, was arrested by the serious crimes unit on charges of drug smuggling.

A shrine and cemetery near the city’s old Jewish graveyard has become a gathering point for addicts in Herat, who usually convene in the area late at night. (Credit: Ali M. Latifi for ThinkProgress)
A shrine and cemetery near the city’s old Jewish graveyard has become a gathering point for addicts in Herat, who usually convene in the area late at night. (Credit: Ali M. Latifi for ThinkProgress)

In neighboring Farah province, residents speaking to local media said drugs can be easily bought in the provincial capital, even in areas in close proximity to police headquarters, an assertion that residents in Herat say applies to their own province. Further South in Helmand province, in 2015, opium farmers in Garmsir district reportedly made more than $3 million in tax payments to districts and provincial officials.

The government has made other efforts to fight the scourge of drugs in the country. In 2016, a former NATO military base outside Kabul was transformed into a treatment center for up to 1,500 addicts. Not every province is as lucky as Kabul, though. There are still provinces like Khost, where there is only one 20-bed rehab facility, despite a 2016 estimate that 10 young people turn to drugs there each week.

At the same time, efforts to clear addicts from parks and bridges in cities like Kabul, Jalalabad, and Herat were also started. However, this tactic just led addicts to seek out new gathering grounds, like a cemetery in northern Kabul.

In 2009, the United Nations estimated that the entire Western region of Afghanistan, including Herat, was home to between 88,000 and 101,000 addicts, a figure which calls the current rate of 60,000-70,000 drug addicts in Herat into question. (Credit: Ali M. Latifi for ThinkProgress)
In 2009, the United Nations estimated that the entire Western region of Afghanistan, including Herat, was home to between 88,000 and 101,000 addicts, a figure which calls the current rate of 60,000-70,000 drug addicts in Herat into question. (Credit: Ali M. Latifi for ThinkProgress)

“It’s been two years, three months, and 24 days that I’ve been clean,” Amiri said proudly. Like the other recovered addicts at the Center for Ending Addiction, he counts his sobriety by the day.

Amiri is most proud that he has not only kicked his addiction after several previously failed attempts — but that he has joined the Afghan National Police Force, where he makes the equivalent of $108 a month serving his country.

“I used to be a burden on my family, I used to scare them, but now I provide for them.”

During a recent trip to Kabul he specifically asked to see the infamous Pol-e Sokhta bridge, under which thousands of people gather in squalor to get high each day. Looking down at the thousands of people huddled in the filth under the bridge, Amiri saw what his future could have been had he not taken that first step towards sobriety.

“I saw them and I thought to myself: ‘That could have been me.’ But to be honest, it was me, I may not have been under the bridge, but I certainly was those people.”

Though Herat is home to tens of thousands of narcotics addicts, unlike Kabul and Jalalabad, few addicts venture out onto the main streets of the city. (Credit: Ali M. Latifi for ThinkProgress)
Though Herat is home to tens of thousands of narcotics addicts, unlike Kabul and Jalalabad, few addicts venture out onto the main streets of the city. (Credit: Ali M. Latifi for ThinkProgress)

Indeed, signs of addiction are all around the Western city.

From the dusty cemetery where addicts huddle among the graves to get high, to the man in a brown piran tomban sitting across from Amiri, whose body flinches and convulses from the pains of withdrawal, Herat has long been a city struggling to deal with the harsh realities of being one of the main arteries of the narcotics trade in Afghanistan.

And even if  those suffering from addiction do manage to recover, the ease of access to narcotics in the country — videos uploaded to social media have shown holes in the ground in Herat where people can drop cash and receive any number of narcotics in return — makes the chances of relapse incredibly high. Recent findings from the Ministry of Public Health estimate that between 70 and 80 percent of people treated for addiction will once again turn to drugs.

Noor Ahmad Arab, the director of the Center for Ending Addiction, which also runs 17 similar treatment centers throughout Herat province, said that they are working to lower the relapse rate. Despite its successes, the center remains entirely reliant on the generous funds provided by families like Hakim’s, who bring in their own relatives for treatment. At a ceremony marking the National Mobilisation Week against Drugs in Kabul earlier this week, Deputy Ministry of Public Health, Fida Mohammad Paykan, said each year the government spends at least $2.5 million on drug rehabilitation programs that treat up to 40,000 people per year.

The Center for Ending Addiction has 18 drug treatment facilities around Herat province. (Credit: Ali M. Latifi for ThinkProgress)
The Center for Ending Addiction has 18 drug treatment facilities around Herat province. (Credit: Ali M. Latifi for ThinkProgress)

But although Arab and his team aid the ministry in their round ups of drug addicts across the province — so far this year, 1,000 addicts, including women and children have been sent to treatment — they receive no government assistance.

“These families give us a few thousand Afghanis each, some who can’t afford it don’t give us anything, we won’t turn anyone away, but we have no outside help,” Arab said.

Arab uses the estimate of addiction in the province — between 60,000 and 70,000 people — as proof of the lack of government attention to the plight of addicts in Herat and Afghanistan as a whole.

“That statistic is nearly a decade-old number,” he said “The truth is we have no clear idea how many addicts there are in Herat or any other province.”