The Taliban offer salaries to fighters and give addicts the potential to earn a much needed income.
Drug addicts joining Taliban to feed their habit
Maidan Shah, Afghanistan // For the young men of Maidan Wardak province, the only escape from a life of unemployment and war can be found in Iran. During the past 30 years of bloodshed, millions of Afghans from throughout the country have travelled across the border in search of a job. Some originally went as refugees, others smuggled themselves at great personal and financial risk to escape. Now they find they are back here facing the usual obstacles but with one added problem - they are drug addicts.
"If I smoke opium then I can work. Otherwise I can't do anything. When I can't find work I ask my brother to lend me some money because I am sick," said Hashim, a 22-year-old. "But I am happy that I have never stolen. I try my best to work and get the money [for the drugs] myself." Afghanistan is infamous for being the world's number one opium producer, but it also has a growing rate of addiction that some experts believe is an equally severe threat to the country's future.
In Maidan Wardak, a province just south-west of Kabul, the fallout is already becoming clear. According to residents, many men first get hooked in Iran when their employers provide them drugs to help improve their work rate. After beginning with hashish or opium, they later progress to heroin. When they return to their homeland they pass the habit on to friends and family. This has led to a rise in violent crime and even helped swell the ranks of the Taliban, who offer salaries to fighters and give addicts the potential to earn a much needed income.
Nasir Mohammed, 18, is a student who has seen men of a similar age go to Iran in search of employment only to return impoverished and drug-addicted. "Whenever they come back they are addicted and their future is not good. They will start begging in the street or robbing and killing people," he said. "Some join the Taliban. They don't want to help them, they just want to find money and commit robberies in the name of the Taliban. They are given money by them as well.
"If I finish my education but can't find a job I will do the same thing. I will go to Iran, become addicted and then join the Taliban because there is no other way." Opium production has declined in Afghanistan, falling from 8,200 tonnes in 2007 to 7,700 tonnes last year. However, that was still the second biggest harvest on record. The most senior UN anti-drug official has even praised Iran for "holding back a flood of heroin" from its neighbour, describing counter-narcotics police there as "among the best in the world".
The severity of the addiction problem is far less clear cut, although anecdotal evidence suggests it is getting worse. The most recent UN numbers published in 2005 said there were 50,000 heroin users and 150,000 opium users in the country. Nearly four per cent of the population used some kind of drug. Islam Husseini is the director of the labour and social affairs department based in Maidan Shah, Maidan Wardak's provincial capital. He put the unemployment rate here at about 60 per cent and complained about the lack of investment in the province.
"I agree that a lot of our young people are going to neighbouring countries, especially Iran, to look for work. When they come back they are addicted and a danger to other young people. In my opinion the future for the districts and villages will be very bad," he said. Mr Husseini added that there had been little in the way of reconstruction, with the government and the international community showing no real interest in creating job opportunities. This means the male population has few incentives to stay out of trouble.
"I can't believe that educated people want to join the Taliban, but one thing makes that possible. The reason is that they can't find work and of course if somebody is unemployed, the enemy will want to use them. "Another reason people want to join the Taliban is that there has been no reconstruction in Maidan Wardak. Nobody cares about this province," he said. firstname.lastname@example.org