The Land of a Million Addicts

By Shaun McCanna 04/09/13

During the US occupation, Afghanistan's heroin production has soared, exacting a heavy toll on a traumatized population. With exclusive video and images, The Fix reports on the crisis.

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Fazel Ahmed, a 20-year-old heroin addict who lives in a park in central Kabul.
All photographs and video: Shaun McCanna

It’s 5 am in Shar-e Naw Park in central Kabul. The sun hasn’t yet begun to rise, but those who call the park home are stirring. In the dim light their presence would go unnoticed if it weren’t for the occasional flickering of flames beneath draped coats and plastic tarps. Within an hour, the park will be filled with men jogging and young boys playing cricket and soccer. For now it belongs to the heroin addicts.

The US involvement in Afghanistan over the past four decades could stand as a lesson in unintended consequences. In the ‘80s, CIA funding for Afghans fighting Soviet occupation gave rise to the radical mujahideen factions that would ultimately spawn the Taliban. Now, after a decade of US occupation and nation building, Afghanistan is on the threshold of becoming a narco-state, and is awash in heroin and homegrown addicts.

“There are a lot of people with psychological problems after 30 years of warfare. So the addiction problem was waiting for us and it is now exploding in our hands,” says Jean-Luc Lemahieu of the UNODC.

Following the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the Bush administration quickly turned its attention to Iraq. Deprioritizing the Afghan war led to strategic choices that aided the cultivation of illicit crops: With a focus on developing a centralized government and securing Kabul, the US turned policing and control of large parts of the country over to warlords, many of whom had ties to poppy farming and the trafficking of poppy’s byproduct, heroin. Some poppy-rich areas of the country would see no foreign military presence until 2005—an error that facilitated the elevation of Afghanistan to the world’s number one poppy cultivator.

That increase in cultivation has been matched by a growing share of the world’s heroin market: Over the past decade Afghanistan has gone from supplying roughly 50% of Europe’s heroin to over 90% of the world’s. Worldwide, there have been 1 million deaths related to Afghan heroin since Operation Enduring Freedom began in 2001, estimates the head of Russia's Federal Drug Control Service, Viktor Ivanov. And at the source, a particularly intense version of that tragedy is being played out.

[Above: Exclusive Fix footage of Afghanistan, featuring interviews with UNODC country representative Jean-Luc Lemahieu and Kabul heroin addict Fazel Ahmed.]

“In 2002 we established a 10-bed facility in Kabul, and we had difficulty finding one drug user on the street,” says Dr. Turiq Suliman, director of the Nejat Drug and Rehabilitation Center—one of only a handful of such facilities in Kabul. “But by 2003 there were around 50,000 to 55,000 [addicts], especially returning from Iran and Pakistan, here in Kabul City.”

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[Above: Recovering heroin addicts at the Nejat Drug Rehabilitation Center’s residential treatment facility in Kabul. The center also offers outpatient night shelter and vocational training.]

During the Soviet conflict and subsequent civil war, millions of Afghans fled to refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran to escape the violence and find employment. Many developed addictions to heroin and opium while abroad, addictions they brought home after the US invasion.

But the precipitous rise in drug users following the US invasion can be attributed to a number of reasons besides the return of refugees. “There are a lot of people with psychological problems after 30 years of warfare. So the addiction problem was waiting for us and it is now exploding in our hands,” says Jean-Luc Lemahieu, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) country representative for Afghanistan.

The addiction problem is also being driven by what Lemahieu terms the Coca-Cola affect: “The supply, creating demand.” The increase in supply of heroin led to a dramatic drop in the domestic price. In Kabul, you can now buy three grams of pure heroin for $5 US. According to the UNODC, there are now over 1 million drug addicts in Afghanistan—roughly 8% of the adult population.

“It is an enormous social problem,” says Lemahieu. “An enormous health problem. It might even introduce HIV/AIDS now into this country, as if we don’t have problems enough.”

With the departure of US and NATO forces looming, the importance of illicit crops to the Afghan economy will only grow. Western officials are quick to link illicit crops with the resurgent Taliban, but often fail to note that the Taliban’s take from illicit crops and trafficking is less than 25% of the total profits.

[Above: A farmer scrapes opium latex from a poppy plant in Nangarhar province. Bulbs are scored with a sharp instrument and left for a period, allowing the latex inside to seep out. After being scraped off, the latex is used to make heroin.]

Currently, foreign funds from US and NATO occupation account for 53% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product; illicit crops account for 26%. With the withdrawal of foreign troops, the amount of cash flowing into the country will dwindle, so illicit crops will become a larger—if not the largest—portion of GDP.

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Shaun McCanna is a documentary filmmaker and writer who has worked extensively in Afghanistan since 2006. His print and documentary pieces have appeared on RT,PBS, Salon, TheChristian Science Monitor and others.