Afghanistan

Drugs Problem Deeply Ingrained in Society

In Afghanistan, the world's main producer of opium, poppy cultivation was down for the first time since 2001. However, a UN report warned that it could go up again this year. Ratbil Shamel reports

For most Afghan families opium is the only affordable medicine and pain killer (photo: UN)
According to statistics, about one in twenty Afghans is addicted to narcotics

​​The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says Afghanistan's drug situation remains vulnerable, because of mass poverty, lack of security, and the fact that the authorities have inadequate control over the territory.

The second highest official in Afghanistan's counter-narcotics ministry is General Khodai Dad. He says it is not only the poppy growers and drug dealers who keep the drugs trade alive, but also members of the government:

"If people with influence in our country, high-ranking police officials, members of the government, governors and armed war lords weren't involved in the drugs trade", he explains, "then the growers wouldn't be able to produce opium and the couriers wouldn't be able to transport it over the road network and out of the country".

Numerous influential backers

The general seems to have lost all hope of winning Afghanistan's war on drugs. He cannot fight on several fronts at once, he says. He often doesn't know the identity of his opponents; this is an illegal industry with numerous influential backers.

Afghanistan's illicit drug trade is worth about four billion dollars annually. With sums like these in a country as poor as Afghanistan, the drug barons can buy almost anybody.

Poverty is one of the country's biggest problems and both the government and the international community have failed to bring about any perceptible improvement in living standards. Opium production is often the only source of employment. But the risks are high. Many of the day labourers, most of whom are women, become addicted.

Poverty leaves no alternative

Zalmai Afzali is spokesman for the counter-narcotics ministry. "The women and young girls have to test the poppy syrup to see if it is ripe and they do this with their tongues. This leads very quickly to addiction", Afzali explains.

They are aware of the dangers, but the extreme poverty in which they live leaves them no alternative. One of the women tells of her experiences:

"I have often seen young girls collapse after spending hours working in the fields. I remember one of them staggering home quite recently, only to die the same night."

It is estimated that an around a million people in Afghanistan are addicted. For a country of 22 million, this is a horrendous figure. But apparently nothing is being done to combat this problem, to gradually scale back the number of addicts.

Afghanistan officials say their country's narcotics trade is an international issue and as such can only be resolved with international assistance.

Ratbil Shamel

© Deutsche Welle 2006

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