The revelation that the number of opium-addicted Afghan adults and children has reached new highs is a dramatic consequence of the war in that country. Over the last few years, donors have disbursed hundreds of millions of dollars to control Afghanistan’s drug problem. However, most of those funds have been spent on poppy eradication and much less attention has been paid to the rising addiction problem. The US has spent over $7 billion in taxpayer funds to tackle this issue with no positive results.
The number of drug users in the country has increased from 920,000 in 2005 to over 1.6 million in recent years, according to reports from the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Zalmai Afzali, the spokesman for the Ministry of Counter-Narcotics (MCN) in Afghanistan estimates that quarter of those users are women and children. Afzali also said that, if current trends continue, Afghanistan could become the world’s top drug-using nation per capita.
A study by a group of researchers hired by the US State Department found staggering levels of opium in Afghan children, some as young as 14 months old, who had been passively exposed by adult drug users in their homes. In 25 percent of homes where adult addicts lived, children tested showed signs of significant drug exposure, according to the researchers.
The results of the study should sound an alarm, since not only were opium products found in indoor air samples but also their concentrations were extremely high, posing a serious health risk to women and children’s health. The problem is compounded by the lack of education of many mothers, who give opium to their children when they are restless and want to calm them down, ignoring the dangers that such approach may provoke later in their children’s lives.
According to the UNODC no other country in the world produces as much heroin, opium, and hashish as Afghanistan, a sad distinction for a country ravaged by war. This may explain why control efforts so far have been concentrated on poppy eradication and interdiction to stem exports with less attention paid to the rising domestic addiction problem, particularly in children. Among the factors leading to increased levels of drug use among adults is the high unemployment rate throughout the country, the social upheaval provoked by this war and those that preceded it, and the return of refugees from Iran and Pakistan who became addicts while abroad.
Those who are injecting drugs face the additional risk of HIV infection through the sharing of contaminated syringes. “Drug addiction and HIV/AIDS are, together, Afghanistan’s silent tsunami,” declared Tariq Suliman, director of the Nejat’s rehabilitation centre to the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs. There are about 95 treatment centres for addicts dispersed throughout the country but most are small, poorly staffed, and under-resourced.
The United States and its allies which have conducted the war have the responsibility and the economic possibilities to rapidly expand and adequately fund and provide the human resources needed by the treatment and rehabilitation centers throughout the country.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘The tragic consequences of the Afghanistan war’.