Now in power, the Taliban set their sights on the Afghan drug world
Written by Samia Clapp, Mstislav Chernov and Philip Dana
KABUL, Afghanistan (AFP) – Now, Afghanistan’s undisputed rulers, the Taliban have set their sights on eradicating the scourge of drug addiction, even if by force.
At nightfall, seasoned fighters turned cops roam the drug-ravaged underworld of the capital. Beneath the bridges of the bustling city of Kabul, amid piles of rubbish and streams of dirty water, hundreds of homeless men addicted to heroin and methamphetamine are rounded up, beaten and forcibly taken to treatment centres. The Associated Press obtained rare access to one of these raids last week.
The scene provided a window into the new order under the Taliban: the men – many of them mentally ill, according to doctors – sat on stone walls with their hands tied. They were told to get up or face a beating.
These harsh tactics are welcomed by some health workers, who have had no choice but to adapt to Taliban rule. We are no longer in a democracy, this is a dictatorship. “Using force is the only way to treat these people,” said Dr. Fazlurrabi Mayar, who works in a treatment facility. He was referring specifically to Afghans addicted to heroin and methamphetamine.
Shortly after the Taliban seized power on August 15, the Taliban’s health ministry issued an order for these facilities, affirming its determination to strictly control the addiction problem, doctors said.
The dark-eyed and skeletal detainees encompass a spectrum of Afghan lives hollowed out by the country’s turbulent past of war, invasion and famine. They were poets, soldiers, merchants, and farmers. Afghanistan’s vast poppy fields constitute the source of the majority of the world’s heroin, and the country has emerged as an important producer of methamphetamine. Both led to massive addictions across the country.
Old or young, poor or affluent, the Taliban view addicts in the same way: a disgrace to the society they hope to create. Drug use against their interpretation of the Islamic faith. Addicts are also stigmatized by the broader and largely conservative Afghan society.
But the Taliban’s war on drugs is complicated as the country faces the prospect of economic collapse and an imminent humanitarian catastrophe.
Sanctions and non-recognition have made Afghanistan, which has long been an aid-dependent country, ineligible for financial support from international organizations that account for 75% of state spending. The appalling human rights record, especially with regard to women, has made the Taliban unpopular among international development organizations.
A liquidity crisis broke out. Public wages are months behind, and drought has exacerbated food shortages and disease. Winter is weeks away. Without foreign funding, government revenue is dependent on customs and taxes.
The illicit opium trade is intertwined with the Afghan economy and its turmoil. The poppy growers are part of an important rural group for the Taliban, and most of them depend on the harvest to make ends meet.
During the years of the insurgency, the Taliban profited from trade by taxing traffickers, a practice applied to a variety of industries in the areas under their control. Research by David Mansfield, an expert on the Afghan drug trade, indicates that the group made $20 million in 2020, a small fraction compared to other revenue sources from tax collection. Publicly, she has always denied her links to the drug trade.
But the Taliban also implemented the only largely successful ban on opium production, between 2000-2001, prior to the US invasion. Successive governments have failed to do the same.
Police arrests of drug addicts occurred during previous administrations. But the Taliban are more powerful and fearful.
On a recent evening, militants raided a drug den under a bridge in the Guzargah district of Kabul. They ordered the group of men out of their wet places with whips and their rifles with cables. Some of them came stunned, others were forced to the ground. The sudden sound of lighters came after another command to deliver belongings; The men preferred to use all the drugs they had before they were confiscated.
A man struck a match under a piece of tin foil, deepening his sunken cheeks as he sucked in the smoke. Staring into the void in the distance.
Another man was hesitant. “It’s vitamins!” begged.
The Taliban fighter Qari Fidai was handcuffing someone else’s hands.
“They are our countrymen, they are our family and there are good people inside of them,” he said. “God willing, the people in the hospital are kind to them and treat them.”
An old man wearing glasses raised his voice. He declared himself a poet, and if they let him he would never do drugs again. He wrote verses on a piece of paper to prove his point. did not work.
What drove him to drugs? He replied, “Some things are not meant to be said.”
In the end, at least 150 men were arrested. They were taken to the district police station, where all their belongings – drugs, wallets, knives, rings, lighters, a juice box – were burned in a pile because they are forbidden to take them to the treatment center. As the men crouched nearby, a Taliban officer watched plumes of smoke and counted prayer beads.
By midnight, they were taken to Ibn Sina Medical Hospital for drug treatment, on the outskirts of Kabul. The military base, Camp Phoenix, was established by the US military in 2003 and turned into a drug treatment center in 2016. It is now the largest base in Kabul, and can accommodate 1,000 people.
The men are stripped naked and bathed. Shave their heads.
Here, a 45-day treatment program begins, says Dr. Wahidullah Koshan, chief psychiatrist.
They will undergo withdrawal with some medical attention just to relieve discomfort and pain. Kochan admitted that the hospital lacked the alternative opioids, buprenorphine and methadone, which are commonly used to treat heroin addiction. His employees have not been paid since July, but he said the Health Ministry had promised to pay them.
The Taliban has broader goals. “This is just the beginning, we will go after the farmers later and we will punish them according to (Islamic) law,” said patrol commander Qari Ghafoor.
For Mansfield, the expert, recent drug raids have been rinsed out and repeated. “In the 1990s (when the Taliban were in power) they were doing exactly the same thing,” he said. The only difference now is that there are drug treatment centers. At the time, drug users were made to stand on molten mountains, or rivers, believing that it would wake them up.
He said whether they would be able to ban opium production is another story. Any real ban would require negotiations with farmers.
Muhammed Kabir, 30, a poppy grower from Uruzgan province, was hospitalized two weeks ago. He said that the demand by smugglers is still high, and harvest time comes in November, selling opium is his only means of making a living.
In the hospital, the total number of patients is 700, they roam the halls like ghosts. Some say they are not eating enough. The doctors said starvation was part of the withdrawal process.
Most of their families do not know where they are.
The waiting room is filled with parents and relatives wondering if their missing loved ones were among those taken away in the raids.
Sitara mourns when she is reunited with her 21-year-old son, who has been missing for 12 days. “My whole life is my son,” she cries as she hugs him.
Back in the city, under a bridge in the Kutsangi district, drug users live in a precarious situation under cover of darkness, fearing the Taliban.
One evening, they casually smoked next to the collapsed corpse of a man. He died.
They covered him with a piece of cloth but did not dare to bury him while the Taliban were patrolling the streets.
“It is not important that some of them die,” said Mawlawi Fadullah, a Taliban officer. “Others will be healed. After they are cured, they can be free.”