By SAMYA KULLAB, MSTYSLAV CHERNOV and FELIPE DANA
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Now the undisputed rulers of Afghanistan, the Taliban aim to eradicate the scourge of drug addiction, even by force.
As night falls, seasoned fighters turned policemen roam the drug-ravaged underground world of the capital. Under the bustling bridges of Kabul city, amid piles of garbage and streams of dirty water, hundreds of homeless people addicted to heroin and methamphetamines are rounded up, beaten and forcibly taken to centers treatment. The Associated Press gained rare access to such a raid last week.
The scene opened a window to the new order under Taliban rule: the men – many of whom suffer from mental illness, according to medics – sat against stone walls with their hands tied. They were told to sober up or take beatings.
The brutal methods are welcomed by some health workers, who have had no choice but to adapt to Taliban rule. “We are no longer in a democracy, it is a dictatorship. And the use of force is the only way to treat these people, ”said Dr Fazalrabi Mayar, who works in a treatment center. He was specifically referring to Afghans addicted to heroin and methamphetamine.
Shortly after the Taliban seized power on August 15, the Taliban’s health ministry ordered the establishments, stressing their intention to strictly control the drug addiction problem, doctors said.
With teary, skeletal eyes, the detainees encompass an array of Afghan lives carved out by the country’s tumultuous past of war, invasion and hunger. They were poets, soldiers, merchants, farmers. Afghanistan’s vast poppy fields are the source of the majority of the world’s heroin, and the country has become a major producer of methamphetamine. The two fueled massive addiction across the country.
Old or young, poor or once well-off, the Taliban see drug addicts the same: a stain on the society they hope to create. The use of drugs goes against their interpretation of Islamic doctrine. Drug addicts are also stigmatized by the wider and largely conservative Afghan community.
But the Taliban’s war on drugs is complicated as the country faces the prospect of economic collapse and impending humanitarian catastrophe.
Sanctions and lack of recognition made Afghanistan, long an aid dependent country, ineligible for financial support from international organizations which accounted for 75% of state spending. A appalling human rights record, especially with regard to women, has made the Taliban unpopular among international development organizations.
A liquidity crisis has set in. Public wages are several months behind and the drought has exacerbated food shortages and disease. Winter is weeks away. Without foreign funds, government revenues depend on customs and taxation.
The illicit opium trade is closely linked to the Afghan economy and its turmoil. Poppy growers are part of an important rural constituency for the Taliban, and most depend on the harvest to make ends meet.
During the years of insurgency, the Taliban profited from trade by taxing traffickers, a practice applied to a wide variety of industries in areas under their control. Research by David Mansfield, an expert on Afghan drug trafficking, suggests the group made $ 20 million in 2020, a small fraction compared to other sources of income from tax collection. Publicly, he has always denied any links to drug trafficking.
But the Taliban also implemented the only largely successful ban on opium production, between 2000 and 2001, before the US invasion. Successive governments have not done the same.
Police raids on drug addicts have taken place during previous administrations. But the Taliban are more powerful and feared.
Recently, fighters raided a drug lair under a bridge in Kabul’s Guzargah neighborhood. With wire whips and guns slung, they ordered the group of men out of their foul quarters. Some stumbled out, others were forced to the ground. The sudden jingle of lighters followed another order for personal effects; the men preferred to use all the drugs they possessed before they were confiscated.
A man struck a match under a piece of foil, his hollow cheeks deepening as he sucked in the smoke. He stared into the distance.
Another man was reluctant. “These are vitamins! he pleaded.
Taliban fighter Qari Fedayee tied the hands of another.
“They are our compatriots, they are our family and there are good people in them,” he said. “God willing, the people at the hospital will be kind to them and heal them. ”
An old man with glasses raised his voice. He’s a poet, he announced, and if they let him go, he’ll never use drugs again. He scribbled verses on a piece of paper to prove his point. It did not work.
What prompted him to take drugs? “Some things are not meant to be said,” he replied.
In the end, they were at least 150 men gathered. They were taken to the district police station, where all their personal belongings – medicines, wallets, knives, rings, lighters, a box of juice – were burned in a pile because they were prohibited from taking them to the treatment center. As the men crouched nearby, a Taliban officer observed the plumes of smoke as he counted the rosaries.
At around midnight, they were taken to Avicenna Medical Hospital for drug treatment on the outskirts of Kabul. Formerly a military base, Camp Phoenix, created by the US military in 2003, was transformed into a drug addiction treatment center in 2016. It is today the largest in Kabul, capable of accommodating 1,000 people.
The men are stripped and washed. Their heads are shaved.
Here, a 45-day treatment program begins, said chief psychiatrist Dr Wahedullah Koshan.
They will undergo withdrawal with just some medical attention to relieve the discomfort and pain. Koshan acknowledged that the hospital did not have the alternative opioids, buprenorphine and methadone, typically used to treat heroin addiction. His staff have not been paid since July, but he said the health ministry had promised salaries would be paid.
The Taliban have broader goals. “This is only the beginning, later we will pursue the farmers and punish them according to the (Islamic) Sharia,” said chief patrol officer Qari Ghafoor.
For Mansfield, the expert, the latest drug raids are history rinsed and repeated. “In the 90s (when the Taliban was in power) they were doing the exact same thing,” he said. The only difference now is that there are drug treatment centers; back then, drug addicts were forced to stand on melting mountains or rivers, thinking that would make them sober.
Whether they are able to ban the production of opium is another story, he said. Any significant ban will require negotiations with farmers.
Mohammed Kabir, a 30-year-old poppy farmer from Uruzgan province, visited hospital two weeks ago. He said demand from traffickers remains high and that at harvest time in November, selling opium is his only way to earn a living.
At the hospital, the patients, numbering 700, float in the corridors like ghosts. Some say they are not fed enough. Doctors said hunger was part of the withdrawal process.
Most of their families don’t know where they are.
A waiting room is full of relatives and relatives wondering if their missing relatives were among those taken away in the raids.
Sitara cries when she finds her 21-year-old son, who has been missing for 12 days. “My whole life is my son,” she cries, kissing him.
Back in town, under a bridge in the Kotesangi district, drug addicts live in precariousness under the cover of darkness, in fear of the Taliban.
One evening, they casually smoked next to a man’s collapsed body. He was dead.
They have covered it with cloth but will not dare to bury it while the Taliban patrol the streets.
“It doesn’t matter if some of them die,” said Mawlawi Fazullah, a Taliban officer. “Others will be healed. Once healed, they can be free.