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Unemployment spike in Afghanistan leaves locals more open to Taliban

Laborers work on a road project near Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan. Unemployment in the area has skyrocketed in the past six months as many residents have been laid off from jobs at the base, a scenario unfolding throughout Afghanistan as international forces withdraw from the country.

BAGRAM, Afghanistan — A new and dreaded word has crept into the local lingo of this bustling town in the shadow of one of NATO’s main logistical hubs: “layoff.”

It was inevitable that thousands of civilian employees would be made redundant as NATO’s military operation in Afghanistan winds down after nearly 12 years of war. But some are questioning the handling of mass layoffs, and whether the result might be to strengthen the Taliban at a time when the guerrillas are escalating their operations ahead of next year’s withdrawal of foreign combat troops.

This sudden spike in unemployment has left towns like Bagram, adjacent to Bagram Air Field, contending with poverty, rising crime and drug use, and there are concerns about a possible boon for insurgent recruitment among the young and jobless. The potential danger was underscored June 18, when several rockets slammed into Bagram Air Field, killing four U.S. troops. Rocket attacks at the air field, about 40 miles north of Kabul, often come from the surrounding villages that rely heavily on the base for employment.

“This base is very important for locals here because there are a lot of people who used to be jobless who got jobs at the base,” said Haji Shamsul Haq, the head of Bagram’s development and solidarity council, which tackles local economic and reconstruction issues. “If the young men are jobless [again] they will get involved in violent acts.”

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force had about 800 military bases across Afghanistan. But it has been rapidly shutting them down in recent months, putting in peril an already fragile Afghan economy heavily dependent on international aid and military contracts. There are only about 100 coalition bases left, according to a military spokesman.

The ripple effects are being felt throughout Afghanistan, but are especially acute in towns near bases.

Haq said killings such as the recent murder and robbery of a Bagram hotelier are becoming more common, and residents are afraid to go out at night, giving insurgents free reign in the streets after dark. Heroin use, once almost unknown in Bagram, is on the rise, he said.

About 2,000 people in Bagram and outlying villages have lost their jobs at the base in the past six months, Haq said, and during a walk around the town it was not hard to find those who had been laid off.

All had the same story: One day a supervisor escorted them to the base gate without explanation, took away their entrance badges, which were then cut up, and sent them on their way.

“I’m angry because I worked there for six and a half years,” said Sheryala, who used to make crates for logistics trucks at the air field and now works at his father’s vegetable stand. “No one complained about my work, so when they fired me, at least I should have been told why.”

Jan Baz, 30, fit pipes to water tankers on Bagram Air Field for six years, but lost his job in March. He now struggles to support five children, while running a small appliance shop across from the base perimeter.

“Me and my family are losing our savings,” he said. “I opened this shop but there is no business here.”

A similar scenario has unfolded in Kandahar province, the cradle of the Taliban and one of the most violent corners of Afghanistan.

Haji Mukhtar, a member of Kandahar’s provincial council, said 70 percent of Kandaharis who used to work at bases in the province have lost their jobs in the past year. The city of Kandahar, the second-largest in Afghanistan, is home to the major ISAF air hub, Kandahar Air Field, as well as many smaller bases.

Mukhtar echoed the complaints from Bagram of rising crime and stepped-up insurgent recruitment of jobless men.

“Villagers come to us and say they don’t have any other option than to join the Taliban,” he said. “The government has done nothing about this issue.”

Brian Lobo, a senior manager at Central Asian Development Group, a major military contractor in Afghanistan, said strict security restrictions placed on Afghan employees — they must go through lengthy security screenings, have an escort at all times on base and cannot stay overnight — make it much more convenient to hire workers from other countries, like Nepal, the Phillipines and India.

Because of this, Lobo said, Afghan employees are the first to be laid off when contractors scale back operations.

Ali Iftekhari, spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled, said the government is trying to increase sustainable employment options in sectors like mining and agriculture, though he didn’t offer specifics. More immediately, he said, competition for base jobs from non-Afghan workers is making a grim employment picture worse.

“Our main concern is that some foreign companies are bringing foreign workers to Afghanistan legally and illegally,” Iftekhari said.

Spokesmen for the NATO-led military coalition in Afghanistan and the command for U.S. forces in the country said no programs were in place to transition Afghan workers who are laid off from jobs at international military bases in Afghanistan.

Local leaders interviewed for this story had little to offer in terms of long-term economic planning for a post-international future, other than hope for new factories or continued international aid.

The official unemployment rate in Afghanistan is 35 percent, but when factoring in rampant underemployment, that number jumps closer to 50 percent, according to Hamidullah Farooqi, a professor of economics at Kabul University. These numbers are likely to rise as international troops and organizations leave Afghanistan.

Many young Afghans have vaulted into the middle class working for foreigners, and as those jobs dry up many will face a stark new reality, Farooqi said.

“Unfortunately, due to the circumstances, they must lose their jobs and we will be facing another disaster in that area,” he said. “These people were getting high incomes … and unfortunately the local job market is not able to hire them and not able to pay them a high wage.”

The difficulty of finding jobs for the newly unemployed is complicated by corruption and criminality in government and the business sector, which discourages investment in the country, Farooqi said.

Afghan leaders “don’t understand economic issues,” he said. “They are only thinking about the political and how to create the political environment” to continue their lifestyle.

Meanwhile, in towns like Bagram, local leaders like Haq see the crumbling economy and rising violence as reminiscent of the early 1990s, when Afghanistan plunged into a bloody civil war after a guerilla campaign against the Soviet army.

“We are people who have suffered a lot of fighting, and the worst future is to live like we lived in the past.”

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.

druzin.heath@stripes.com
Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes

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