Kicking the habit in Kabul

Kicking the habit in Kabul


Afghan officials opened a new drug treatment centre in an abandoned NATO military base in Kabul, in the latest attempt to stamp out the country's massive problem of drug abuse.

Afghanistan is one of the world's biggest sources of opium, producing around 3,300 tonnes last year. Here doctors check on a man during a police operation to round up suspected addicts.

. Kabul, AFGHANISTAN. Reuters/Ahmad Masood

With the economy in ruins after decades of war and unable to provide jobs for young Afghans, demand is high for the temporary relief provided by drugs.

Camp Phoenix, a former training camp on the outskirts of Kabul, set up by the U.S. army in 2003, will take in about 1,000 homeless addicts who will get food and medical treatment, said Public Health Minister Ferozuddin Feroz.

. Kabul, AFGHANISTAN. Reuters/Ahmad Masood
A man waits his turn to get cleaned up at Camp Phoenix.

"We give them a proper shave," he said. “They will take a shower, winter clothing and treatment will follow.”

The facility offers a 45-day course of treatment for homeless drug addicts.

"We will return them as normal members of society,” said Feroz.

. Kabul, AFGHANISTAN. Reuters/Ahmad Masood

It’s the latest in a long series of anti-drug initiatives backed by the government and its international partners. Still, it’s only a very small step to tackle the issue, and many remain sceptical.

Police regularly round up addicts who shelter in areas including the Pul-e Sokhta bridge in the west of the capital, but successive governments have been powerless to resolve the problem.

. Kabul, AFGHANISTAN. Reuters/Ahmad Masood
A man runs away during a police round-up of suspected drug addicts.

In May, a U.S.-funded report said between 1.9 million and 2.4 million Afghan adults may be drug users, out of a population of about 30 million.

The country has 123 treatment centres, enough to treat just over 10 percent of opium and heroin users. Even addicts who go through the centres often fall back into drug use.

"I have received five rounds of treatment already, but am still using," said Sayed Dawod, one of the addicts at the new centre.

. Kabul, AFGHANISTAN. Reuters/Ahmad Masood
Police detain a man to be taken to Camp Phoenix.

Ministers say they are aware of the threat from the drug problem, not just to public health but also how it feeds endemic corruption in the government, from police officials on up.

Feroz was himself attacked by a dealer who tried to stab him with an infected needle in an operation to collect addicts and take them to the new centre.

. Kabul, AFGHANISTAN. Reuters/Ahmad Masood
People run away during a police round-up.

Officials have only limited ability to curb a billion-dollar industry protected by powerful regional interests and controlled in part by warlords and Taliban militants who use the proceeds to fund their insurgency.

"Leaders of the unity government know the threat illegal drugs pose to our society," said Salamat Azimi, the counter narcotics minister. “They are committed to dealing with this.”

The failure of past efforts leaves many uncertain of success this time.

. Kabul, AFGHANISTAN. Reuters/Ahmad Masood
People sit in lines at Camp Phoenix following a police round-up.

Najibullah, an addict who, like many Afghans, goes by one name, was dubious as he saw how few addicts got on the buses going to the treatment centres.

"This is for show," he said. "If the government wants to bring about change and treat addicts properly, they have to put more pressure on police to arrest those who sell illegal drugs."

. Kabul, AFGHANISTAN. Reuters/Ahmad Masood