The Drug Trade's Collateral Damage
KHOSANWith widespread unemployment in this Afghan border town has come a growing epidemic of drug abuse. Khosan, 10 miles from Iran, is a transit point for smugglers, and residents here say that their town is awash in hashish and opium that is available in nearly every market shop. Two bean-size rocks of the newest and most popular drug here, crystal opium, sell for $2.
The situation is serious, says the head of the local women's council, who estimates that 2 out of every 3 women in town use drugs. "Most of the ladies don't have anything to do during the day, so they are becoming addicted," says Ziagol Tajik. The numbers are similar for the men, says another senior leader here.
There is another deeply troubling trend as well, says Tajik: Some husbands force their wives to become addicted so the women don't complain about the money the men spend on drugs. Though she calls drug abuse her No. 1 concern, Tajik says that she has received little support from the town council: "We don't have any big leaders in town thinking about this. We went to higher departmentsthey say they don't have any budget for it." She says she was told to check with the nongovernmental aid organizations.
In Kabul, the capital, the issue of how to curtail opium production is widely debated; less so the topic of drug addiction. A senior counternarcotics official, Razaq Amiri, downplays the idea of women as addicts, though he says that more jobs are needed to discourage drug use by men.
Still, Tajik is hoping that U.S. troops will consider providing drug treatment for the town's addicted women. But town senior leaders tend not to pass along the pleas of the women's council. Indeed, after a trip to Khosan to hear about local requests, U.S.military officials said that no one had mentioned drug abuse or a treatment clinic.
Bumper crops. Drug addiction here is largely a byproduct of Afghanistan's soaring production of opium poppies. Afghanistan currently accounts for an estimated 90 percent of the world's opium supply. Last year, opium exports were estimated at $3.1 billiona third of the country's gross domestic product.
Under the rule of the Taliban, opium cultivation was nearly eradicated, at least briefly. But the ban, which threw many farmers deep into debt, undercut support for the Taliban, and farmers returned to the crop in the anarchy following the regime's ouster. A study by the United Nations and World Bank concluded that the ban very likely would not have been sustainable for much longer anyway, even with the Taliban's harsh enforcement methods.
Today, Afghanistan's new government is struggling to extend its reach to the vast rural areas, and NATO soldiers are busy battling the remnants of the Taliban. Despite efforts to eradicate opium poppies, farmers harvested a record crop last year, and forecasts suggest this year's production could be higher. Not that the smugglers really need it: There are estimates that Afghan farmers and traders have amassed as much as a five-year stockpile of the raw drug.
The bulk of the opium cultivation currently takes place in Afghanistan's southern provinces. But the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that as much as 60 percent of the illicit drugs are trafficked through Iran, a trade that affects these poor border villages.
Currently, severely addicted women are put in a mud hut in town, but they don't receive treatment, says Tajik. Others go house to house, asking to borrow money or selling off possessions. Tajik would like to see more projects for women in the region. "All of the ladies want to work here," she says.
Projects to promote skills like tailoring or carpet weaving could succeed with start-up funds for training, she says. But residents need the investment before it's too late. "If you build a lot of projects, and a generation is addicted, it's a big problem, and it's all for nothing," she says. "Right now," she adds, in a variation on an American idiom, "we are digging ourselves into a deep well."
With Kevin Whitelaw in Washington
This story appears in the July 2, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.