Here in the United States, we hear a lot about the downside of the war on drugs: overflowing prisons, depleted state and federal budgets, prison sentences that disproportionately punish minorities and the poor. Tonight’s installment of Frontline, “Opium Brides,” takes a look at the unintended effects of counternarcotic efforts in Afghanistan. It may not be a surprise to learn that in this beleaguered country, children, and especially young girls, are most likely to become collateral damage.
Afghanistan is currently responsible for 90 percent of world’s opium output, and a tenth of the country’s meager economy is derived from the poppy harvest. The Afghan government has enacted a widespread poppy eradication program, destroying thousands of acres of poppy fields across the country. The government is supposed to offer these families seeds for alternative crops, but there’s little economical incentive for them to abandon their poppies. As one farmer laments, the flowers will earn him 20 times more than wheat. Even worse, the eradication program leaves many families indebted to the drug traffickers who often loan them money. With no crops left to harvest, an untold number of poor Afghan farmers have made the anguished decision to trade family members in order to pay off their debts. More often than not, these family members are girls as young as 6 or 7.
In the 32-minute report, which is preceded by an encore presentation of “The Secret War,” a segment about the C.I.A.’s drone program in Pakistan, Afghan reporter Najibullah Quraishi travels to remote areas of Afghanistan to interview families riven by the program. It’s impossible to say which tale is the most harrowing. One woman faces the unthinkable choice—if that word even applies—between her husband, held hostage by drug traffickers, and her 7-year-old daughter. One man, a former school teacher, was kidnapped and imprisoned for 6 months when his brother and father’s crops were destroyed by government forces and is now trying to raise ransom money to buy his children’s freedom. Having traded his daughter to drug traffickers, an aging father has turned to smoking heroin to numb the pain.
It’s all tremendously upsetting, and Quraishi is able to get a remarkable level of access to his subjects, even in remote areas of Afghanistan where cameras are a rare sight. (Much of the footage of the mountainous countryside, also shot by Quraishi, is stunning.) But the most troubling aspect of “Opium Brides” is also the one people are most reticent to discuss: what happens to these children once they are sold to drug traffickers. The obvious and sadly inevitable answer is that they become sexual slaves, but as we’re reminded, the subjects of rape and sexual abuse remain taboo in Afghanistan, where women are often blamed for their own victimization.
To his credit, Quraishi tries to get Afghan officials to address this particularly disturbing ripple effect of the poppy eradication program, but it's futile effort. One former member of Parliament, a woman, says the drug traffickers use the girls “in other ways.” When pressed on the subject, she will only say that they “use them as dancers and in other ways I can’t mention.” Likewise, the country’s director of counternarcotics refuses to admit to knowledge of these “opium briefs” but, off- the-record, says he knows about the practice but “it’s not something vote officials are supposed to talk about.” Their squeamishness might be understandable, given the grasp of fundamentalist Islam on Afghan culture, but it’s nevertheless infuriating. Not surprisingly, in a place where rape is rarely discussed in the open, there few shelters or programs designed to aid women and girls in crisis.
Frontline is not, in general, a show you watch for a little mindless fun. But even inveterate viewers of the documentary series are likely to find “Opium Brides” a harrowing half hour of television.