Drugs in Afghanistan: a home-grown problem

14 December 2016

by Jawed Nader - BAAG Director

Afghan drugs, considered a regional & global security threat, are also taking their toll at home

I was a victim of petty crime during my recent trip to Kabul. Leaving my brother’s house, I noticed the car’s side mirrors and wheel trims were missing. It was my first time being robbed in Afghanistan so I felt rather deflated.  My brother on the other hand was more relaxed, categorically blaming the theft on the local podary, the ‘powder users’ - a term used in Afghanistan to refer to drug addicts. His home is about two miles away from the infamous Pol-e Sokhta, (the ‘burned bridge’), under which a dishevelled swarm of drug users congregate, shoot up, and powerlessly fall victim to their addictions on a daily basis. During daylight, they spread to the surrounding areas and mostly beg, but at nights, they engage in more unfriendly acts. My brother has been attacked twice in the last three months by such characters on motorbikes, who in failing to snatch away his golden chain still managed to make off with his mobile phone. 

Kabul is not unique when it comes to the issue of drug addiction. Use of opium and its derivatives in Afghanistan is nearing a national crisis in recent years, triggering a parallel rise in crime levels. According to Afghanistan National Drug Survey 2015, drug use occurs in about 31% of households, with 11% of the population testing positive for one or more drugs. Rural drug use is almost four times higher than in urban areas. A recent BBC Persian report on Ashto village in the central province of Daikundi found that only a handful of the village’s 500 households were drug-free. Users sustain their addictions by stealing whatever they can, from sheep to eggs and utensils. As a result, the whole village suffers the consequences.

It is not just theft that has increased with drug addiction in Afghanistan. Families are torn apart, children are forcibly addicted as result of second-hand inhalation at home, many users lose their jobs and almost half of the unlucky addicts lose their lives.

A 2014 UN survey showed the link between addiction and domestic violence. Over half of family members interviewed said they had hit, or been hit by, a relative during confrontations regarding drugs. Women bear the brunt of such violence. Local media occasionally reports drug addicts beating their female relatives - wives in particular - in severe cases causing grievous harm, cutting off body parts or other such gruesome crimes. The same UN report also found that 60% of those interviewed had a relative who had lost their job due to drugs, and about 70% of them had to borrow money or came into financial difficulties as result.

There are numerous causes behind the increasing drug addiction in Afghanistan. In the initial years after 2001, Afghan returnees from neighbouring Iran and Pakistan formed the bulk of the drug using population, bringing with them the habit gained in those countries. And then, following the drawdown of the international military presence in 2014, the Afghan economy suffered miserably. Unemployment rates are currently estimated to be 40%, increasing pressures on jobless youth who are especially vulnerable to drug addiction. Lack of law enforcement means that drugs are readily available and produced on a mass scale. Afghan drug production was recently estimated to have increased 43% over the course of 2016 alone.

Drug addiction is presenting itself as a national crisis and should be treated as such. The lack of drug treatment facilities means that only one in ten addicts have access to support, attending a small number of clinics which are poorly resourced. There are some private clinics too but the majority of drug users lack the means to afford them. Earlier this year, the Afghan government converted an abandoned NATO air base into a drug treatment centre. The year before President Ghani approved the National Drug Action Plan. Experts think this new policy might improve current ‘inconsistent’ government efforts, however, they call for upholding and demonstrating clear political will to tackle the issue.

Political will is in short supply. In 2015, President Ashraf Ghani addressed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit and spoke about the drug problem. Acknowledging his government’s shortcomings, he also blamed the security gaps in countries where Afghan drugs are trafficked and consumed. He said ‘those who consume [drugs], have as much on their hands as those who produce’, referring to the inabilities of regional and international governments to clamp down on drug-related crimes in their countries. If his statement is to be accepted, Afghanistan is in even deeper trouble because it has become both a producer and a consumer of drugs.

It is key to prioritise tackling drug consumption as it cuts across a whole set of other challenges Afghanistan currently faces, not least the economic wellbeing of the nation, poverty and public health, and rates of domestic violence. Fighting it is no doubt a long and difficult process, as it means tackling deeply and widely entrenched criminal networks and the persisting influence they continue to have across many areas of Afghan economy and society. With drug addiction in Afghanistan more than double the global average, the day-to-day safety of citizens is at stake. Drug addiction is now clearly a national security problem.

As for my brother’s car, he has decided for the time being not to install new wheel trims.