ISLAM QALA, Afghanistan — The addicts stalk the streets of this border post like hollowed-out skeletons, hair matted by filth and eyes glassy. The villages that hug the roads are veritable zombie towns, where families of men, women and children hide their addiction within barren mud compounds.
"Sometimes I feel it is better to die than live like this," said Haidar, 30.
In western Herat province, held up as an island of stability and progress in Afghanistan, this forlorn border town is instead a showcase for an intensifying crisis: Long the global leader in opium production, Afghanistan has now also become one of the world's most addicted societies.
The number of drug users in Afghanistan is estimated to be as high as 1.6 million, or about 5.3 percent of the population, among the highest rates in the world. Nationwide, one in 10 urban households has at least one drug user, according to a recent report from the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. In the city of Herat, it is one in five.
From 2005 to 2009, the use of opiates doubled, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, putting Afghanistan on par with Russia and Iran, and the number of heroin users jumped more than 140 percent. Most drug experts think the rate of drug use has increased since then.
The focus of the international community and the Afghan government has been on reducing opium production. Since the beginning of the war in 2001, the U.S. has spent more than $6 billion to curb Afghanistan's opium industry.
In the past two years, opium cultivation has increased to the highest level since 2008.
Perhaps nowhere in Afghanistan presents a bleaker picture of addiction than Herat province. The province enjoys a booming economy, a relatively progressive society and a vibrant capital, but beneath the surface, Herat is contending with the country's most serious drug addiction problem.
Substance abuse has taken root in the local community, infecting entire villages around Islam Qala.
"The entire region is addicted, whole villages," said Arbah Shahabuddin, an elder in Islam Qala.
To demonstrate the devastation, Shahabuddin, a homeopathic doctor, offered a tour of the drug villages.
At one home, a woman answered the door and ran to collect her husband, Dad Mohammad, who was getting high. Mohammad, 35, said he had been using heroin for the past seven years. His wife, Bibi Gul, complained that her husband beat her every day and took money from their children to feed his addiction.
Mohammad stared into the distance, smiling.