Addicts in the Afghan police force

At training centres, up to 41 per cent have tested positive
Addicts in the Afghan police force
Photograph by Hitoshi Yamada/ Zuma/ Keystone

In Afghanistan, the illegal drug trade helps pay for Taliban weapons, explosives and training. To rebuild this war-ravaged country, counter-narcotics efforts are crucial—but according to a new report for the U.S. Congress, much of the Afghan police force is addicted to drugs.

At regional training centres, 12 to 41 per cent of police recruits tested positive for drugs, notes the report, prepared by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. And that number could even be deceptively low: opiates leave the system quickly, and “many recruits who tested negative for drugs have shown opium withdrawal symptoms later in their training,” it says. The report only confirmed what was already widely believed. Just last year, one U.K. official suggested some 60 per cent of police in Helmand province, a hotbed of narcotics production, were addicted.

This isn’t the first mark against the Afghan police force. Critics say it is badly trained and corrupt, with some reports suggesting that locals fear them as much as the Taliban. While the international community has long treated them as a crucial part of reconstruction, “the truth is, there wasn’t much infrastructure to reconstruct. There was no police, so they had to start from scratch,” says Lael Adams, a graduate student at Boston University who previously worked for the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development in Afghanistan. An Afghan police officer’s duty, then, “is to serve a state that hasn’t served them.”

With an estimated two million Afghans struggling with drug addiction, the problem goes well beyond the police. Still, U.S. officials are looking at ways to curb addiction among officers, including new rehab clinics at training centres. But there are larger challenges in the way of creating an effective police force. “Building a state means building a state of mind,” Adams says. “That sense of national pride is key to forming an effective police force, and the international community can’t create that by pumping in more money.”