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As Crime Soars, An Afghan Province Fights Back Against Drug Addiction

Afghan security forces destroy an illegal poppy crop in the Noor Gal district of eastern Kunar Province. (file photo)
Afghan security forces destroy an illegal poppy crop in the Noor Gal district of eastern Kunar Province. (file photo)

ASADABAD, Afghanistan -- Nadir Khan, 50, says his son is among the latest victims of increasing crime in a remote Afghan province where locals and officials blame soaring drug addiction for a dramatic rise in robberies and violence.

Khan says his son Zabihullah was recently mugged when he visited them in the remote district of Shigal in eastern Kunar Province for a relative’s funeral.

“He was attacked late in the evening after withdrawing his salary from the bank,” Khan said of the robbery, which took place last week on the road connecting Shigal to the provincial capital, Asadabad. “They broke his arms and took all his money and possessions after threatening him with handguns,” he added. “God saved him from certain death.”

Khan says the attack is linked to crime fueled by drug addiction. “We didn’t have these kinds of crimes before. They are certainly linked to the rapid increase in drug addiction,” he said.

Syed Agha, in his early 20s, says he began experimenting with drugs eight years ago and is now addicted to heroin and crystal meth. “I often steal from houses and other places to get money to buy drugs,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.

Rising criminality is something new for Kunar. The mountainous region bordering Pakistan is a known hotspot where the Taliban, Islamic State militants, and other insurgent groups have either fought Afghan and international troops or clashed among themselves. Residents say they are concerned about the new crime wave.

“I am really afraid of the young men and teenagers hanging around on the streets after sunset,” says Sangar Rahmani, an Asadabad resident. “Addiction of various drugs has increased over the past few years, and we are now dealing with its effects on our community.”

Local police say they have seized increasing amounts of heroin, crystal meth, and Tablet K. (illustrative photo)
Local police say they have seized increasing amounts of heroin, crystal meth, and Tablet K. (illustrative photo)

Ikramullah, another resident of Asadabad who goes by one name only, says the rising instance of drug addiction is wrecking families in the conservative region, where youth are expected to obey their elders and are often responsible for taking care of their extended families. “Young people have no choice but to feed their habit all their time and money, which is devastating,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.

Haji Jamaluddin Sayar, the former head of Kunar’s provincial council, says that in recent years the abuse of heroin, crystal meth, and Tablet K pills, which are speculated to contain MDMA, has skyrocketed in Kunar’s remote valleys, where hashish used to be considered the only drug. “There are thousands of youth who are now addicted,” he said.

As in many remote Afghan provinces, crime statistics are elusive in Kunar, where insurgents control many of the remote regions. But the anecdotal evidence about the correlation between crime and the addiction rate paints a stark picture.

Kunar Police Chief Mohammad Yousaf Mazlumyar oversees an overstretched force that mainly deals with insurgent attacks and feud-related homicides. He says they are now dealing with at least two thefts or robberies a day -- crimes that were virtually nonexistent just a couple of years ago.

Mazlumyar says their focus is stopping the distribution of drugs and have made several drug busts to break up drug gangs. “We have arrested 35 people and seized drugs including heroin, crystal meth, and Tablet K,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.

Last week, Mazlumyar says, they successfully nabbed five suspected thieves in Asadabad. “Our aim is to end such crimes,” he said.

But some in the province are not banking on the government’s efforts alone. In a gathering this week, tribal and community leaders in Chowkay, one of Kunar’s 15 districts, decided to completely ban drugs. “We observed that the increasing use of drugs was leading to a rise in thefts, which forced us to unite against this menace,” Haji Mohammad Kamil, a tribal leader, told Radio Free Afghanistan. “This is why we have imposed a complete ban on the use and trade of drugs in this region.”

Chowkay’s community leaders have announced a fine of nearly $1,500 for anyone caught using or selling drugs. “We are not going to allow visitors or residents to use drugs,” says Mohammad Asif Miakhel, a youth activist in Chowkay. “We have decided to hand over anyone violating this ban to the authorities, and we will forbid anyone from bailing them out.”

Miakhel says the remote region saw more than a dozen thefts last month, including solar panels and batteries that were taken from mosques.

In Asadabad, Mazlumyar says they are trying to replicate Chowkay’s model across the province. “We are joining forces with tribal leaders to fight against drugs,” he said.

Beginning in the 1990s, Afghanistan became the leading producer of illicit opium and its more deadly derivative, heroin. Addiction rates have rapidly increased over the past two decades. The United Nations estimates the country of 35 million people now has more than 2 million people with drug addiction.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Rohullah Anwari’s reporting from Asadabad, Afghanistan.