Both American and Afghan counter narcotics officials said this is a new problem for the country. Afghanistan has for many years been a primary source of opium for the rest of the world. But only in recent years, as refugees from war fled to Pakistan and Iran, did a significant number of Afghans start using the drugs themselves. When they returned home, they brought both drug use and its noxious byproducts back with them, said Doug Wankel, who spent decades as the DEA's top man in Afghanistan and is now based in Kabul for the U.S. consulting firm, Spectre Group International.
Compounding the problem, Wankel said, is that the drug traffic originating in Afghanistan has changed, with more opium being converted into heroin before it leaves the country's borders.
Now, he said, "you've got enough heroin available to more than meet the demand of the international market… You actually have supply creating demand in a place like Afghanistan."
Dr. Mohammed Zafar, an Afghan counter narcotics official, confirmed that his country "did not have such a problem as we have it presently." And he said his government has few resources to fix it. "We have a very limited drug specialization centers, which is not enough for the drug population of Afghanistan which is more than one million," he said.
U.S. State Department officials have begun to establish drug treatment facilities in the most hard hit parts of the country. The Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs has established three programs in Afghanistan for addicted women and children, and expect three more to open their doors within the next month.
An international team that includes World Health Organization officials and experts from Johns Hopkins University and the Medical University of Vienna have designed the first-ever treatment regimes for young children.
But U.S. officials say there remain an array of challenges in treating a population that has be resistant to the physical and psychological rigors involved in kicking such highly addictive drugs.
Wankel said he believes the growing rate of addiction will increasingly prove to be a challenge for American troops who are attempting to stand up a police force and dissuade Afghans from becoming radicalized.
"It plays well into the hands of those who want to continue insurgency, certainly corruption, criminality," he said. "It's a serious, serious problem."