KABUL HIGH

It's cold on the flatbed of the white Ford Ranger pickup. Despite my down jacket, gloves and thick woolen hat, the cold wind gets right into my bones. Winter is icy and clammy in Kabul. The sun has long been unable to penetrate the dense smog.

In front on the right, the white flag of the Taliban whips angrily in the wind. In the driver's cabin, huddled close together, three senior Taliban are talking. They are gesticulating wildly, but I don't understand a word they are saying. Even if I could hear them, I wouldn't understand them. My Pashto is about as bad as my Kurdish or Farsi.

Sitting with me on the cot are two young Taliban, one with an AK-47, the other with a fairly new M-4 from the U.S. Army's stockpile, which left billions of dollars worth of weapons behind in its utterly chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. The two boys are barely older than 15, their eyes as hard as their poses. After 10 days in Afghanistan, I don't take it quite so seriously anymore. Without exception, all the Talibs we have met so far have been friendly, helpful, and even joking in certain situations. They like to laugh a lot, the Taliban, unless a camera is pointed at them - then they play the tough guys. Similar to rappers in their sometimes silly videos - only with automatic assault rifles and camouflage jackets.
Disciplined but latently bored, they secure the right and left sectors of the vehicle. Because even though the Taliban are the undisputed top dog in Afghanistan, the IS keeps stalking them with bomb attacks, mostly with magnetic explosive devices under vehicles in the west of the city, where the Hazara in particular live. That's exactly where we're headed. To Sukhta Bridge, the drug hell of Kabul.

Sukhta means "burning". The scenery is absurd. The bridge is bustling with activity. Market stalls, market criers, fruit, vegetables, chickens. By Kabul standards, life is flourishing. Under the bridge, small groups of neglected men with sallow faces and lifeless eyes. They are as dirty as the ground on which they sit or lie. Some of them are completely unabashedly taking a shot as I walk past them. I am accompanied by two armed Taliban who are visibly tense. Many of the addicts are armed. And depending on what drug they are on - opium, heroin, Christal or hashish - the situation can escalate abruptly. My discomfort increases the deeper we go into this drug jungle. A sickening melange of smoke and excrement is omnipresent.

Suddenly, a man lies in front of us.
Despite the cold, I can smell that he is dead.
I know the sweet smell of decomposing bodies all too well from 10 years of conflict photography, unfortunately. Someone has placed a bag over his face. One of our companions pulls the bag from his face.
Milky dead eyes stare at me from a pale and sunken face. The dull hair is full of dirt, his beard amazingly well trimmed. The body is wrapped in a thin red blanket. It is cold at the almost dried riverbed, the temperatures drop below minus 10 degrees during the night. Presumably, the man fell asleep while intoxicated.
And then simply froze to death.
I shake my head, stand still for a moment. Try to imagine where he came from.
And what made him break.

As I turn to leave, I look at old Talib, who is accompanying us. His eyes are red. Has he been crying? We look into each other's eyes for a moment. For a brief moment, I am inclined to take him in my arms. Embarrassed, he clutches his AK-47 while I struggle for composure. Then we just nod at each other. The embarrassing moment of our shared touch is over.

Previously, I was at Camp Phoenix, a rehabilitation center for drug addicts. I want to learn more about drug smuggling and abuse in Afghanistan, one of the biggest challenges for civil society and the Taliban. In all, six ministries are working away to solve the problem. The prospects for success are as meager as the country's economy - and there is a causal link.

In a country that was marked by war and destruction for 40 years, trauma is a kind of widespread disease. Added to this is the lack of economic prospects. Both together drive tens of thousands of Afghans into mental flight. In a country where 2g of heroin can be bought for 100 Afghanis (about 1 dollar), the temptation for temporary escape from the harsh reality is simply too great.

In most cases, it is the men in the family who can only offer drugs to counter the sometimes brutal memories and the uncertain outlook for the future. As soon as addiction and the onset of acquisitive crime become a problem in the family - after all, the man is responsible for the income - the woman is often made dependent. Usually against her will. Forced prostitution and neglect follow. Children are also given drugs to make them compliant and to keep them quiet.
The Taliban know very well if this social problem.

"How are we supposed to build a country if everyone is high?" asks me Malawi Saqip, deputy head of the Taliban's anti-drug ministry, rhetorically. Good question.
I'm asking him whether he can understand that I'm having a bit of a hard time categorizing it - given various sources that show the Taliban made $400 million to $500 million from the opium trade last year alone. A third of their budget. "A lot of the information on this is not accurate," was the evasive response. Not very convincing - but this issue is not my focus.

My focus is on the people.

"How are we supposed to build a country if everyone is high?"

Malawi Saqip, deputy head of Taliban's anti-drug ministry

So I ask him how the Taliban punishes drug abuse, and somehow I fear a draconian answer.
"These are sick people who need help," he tells me. "Oha," I retort. I was expecting something else, like cutting off any limbs.

In a 45-day program, addicts are first detoxified and then physically and psychologically stabilized, he tells me. My left eyebrow jumps up in disbelief. Before I can follow up, he counters, "We know that's not enough in most cases. And we observe a 60 to 70 percent recidivism rate. But that's all we can do right now. We don't have the resources."
Indeed, since the withdrawal of most international aid agencies after the Taliban came to power, there is a shortage on all fronts. This is one of the reasons why I am in Afghanistan - with the Stuttgart-based organization STELP e.V., we have already spent a few days in Wardak Province distributing food and medicine to widows and orphans.

"How do you reach the addicts?"
"We collect them," id the curt answer.
Afghanistan's old government stigmatized addicts as criminals, I knew from previous trips. I heard stories of outright purges. Police thugs drove the addicts away from the various hotspots. They beat the defenseless addicts with clubs until blood flowed and bones broke. I'm curious to see how the Taliban handles this, so I ask.
"We are careful. The addicts tend to get very aggressive at times. But we don't use violence; it's not necessary."

We shall see.

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