After declaring their intent to clamp down on Afghanistan's vast opium production industry, the Taliban are turning their attention toward the country’s many addicted, impoverished drug users.
Armed with whips and rifles, fighters last week descended on one of Kabul’s notorious drug user zones, under a bridge in the city’s Guzargah district, and rounded up 150 people, many of them homeless and addicted to locally produced heroin and methamphetamine.
The action was captured in a series of astonishing photographs and interviews by journalists working for Associated Press. “They are our countrymen, they are our family and there are good people inside of them,” said one Taliban fighter. “God willing, the people in the hospital will be good with them and cure them.”
The people’s belongings were thrown onto a fire and burned before they were taken to the city’s largest drug rehab centre, the Avicenna Medical Hospital for Drug Treatment, where the new arrivals were stripped, bathed, and had their heads shaved.
“This is just the beginning; later we will go after the farmers, and we will punish them according to (Islamic) Sharia law,” said lead patrol officer Qari Ghafoor.
According to drug workers working on the ground, there are an estimated 100,00 to 150,000 heroin injectors in Kabul, many of whom are also addicted to smoking and injecting methamphetamine, a drug that is now being made locally from the mountain shrub ephedra and, like heroin, exported around the world.
The hospital, a former US military base called Camp Phoenix, opened in 2016 and runs a 45-day treatment programme for up to 1,000 patients. But the medical opioids used to wean people off heroin, such as buprenorphine and methadone, have run dry and staff have not been paid since July.
Mat Southwell, a British technical adviser for drug harm reduction NGOs in Afghanistan, who visited Avicenna in 2018 while it was under the control of the previous government, told VICE World News: “These people are basically being kidnapped for three months and locked up. They will receive very little medical treatment and their needs will not be addressed. Once released, they will just start using drugs again.
“It’s a brutal place surrounded by armed guards. It looks like a concentration camp because they shave people’s heads and make them wear pyjamas. When I was there I spoke to a soldier in the Afghan army who had been picked up while he was buying drugs. He was scared he would be punished for desertion.”
Southwell said regime fighters are battling drug cartels and burning down drug dealing hotspots in the city in an attempt at reducing supply. But he added the Taliban is still allowing methadone programmes, where drug users are handed the heroin substitute by doctors, to operate in three cities including Kabul. He is hopeful the regime can help drug users. “We need to engage with the Taliban about the best way to deal with drugs. Do they want to be known for persecuting those on the margins or can they become a government that provides their most vulnerable citizens with proper treatment for their drug dependence?”