Desperate Afghans turning to U.S. Army for work

Amid staggering unemployment, day-laborer jobs prized

By ANITA POWELL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 23, 2006

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan — Every morning for the last two months, Abdul Hanan has come to the gates of Afghanistan’s largest American base looking for work.

And every evening, the 30-year-old father of six walked away empty-handed.

During those long days, he and about 350 other men — from hopeful 15-year-old boys to wizened grandfathers — wait patiently in a fenced area, gazing imploringly at American guards, hoping to be one of the 150 to 250 workers admitted each day for the daily wage of about $4. The work is basic, unskilled: cleaning, digging, manual labor. Any movement toward the waiting area — a soldier opening the door, an approaching visitor — triggers a near-stampede of workers, many of whom rush to the chain-link fence and eagerly press against it.

Some are lucky. Others, like Abdul Hanan, aren’t.

“Please help me,” he said. “You see these 300, 400 people? They come to feed their families. They come early in the morning and leave in the evening. What should we do? We don’t have any money to feed our families.”

Another worker, 25-year-old Zalmay, gave a similar story.

“It’s three months and I haven’t had a job,” he said in Dari. “Every day is like this.”

In Taliban times, he said, he worked in Pakistan.

“We came back and we thought our country was safe and the Taliban is defeated and we’d all have jobs,” he said. “We want the U.S. Army to provide a solution.”

Although no hard figures are available, current CIA estimates place Afghanistan’s unemployment rate at 40 percent. A recent U.N. estimate places unemployment as high as 78 percent.

At Bagram, the truth is somewhere in the middle: Of the 350-some waiting workers, between 150 and 250 make it in every day, said Capt. Trace Major, who oversees contracting operations for the 111th Area Support Group. Additionally, an estimated 500 men, all of whom lack the security credentials to get closer to the base, cluster daily around an Afghan checkpoint in Bagram looking for work on base.

Locals at Bagram universally complain that work has become harder to find since the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, a claim that’s hard to judge, as reliable unemployment figures are unavailable. However, in 1995 — which until 2005 was the most recent year for which figures were available — the CIA estimated that only eight percent of eligible workers in Afghanistan were unemployed.

Hanan, a former Northern Alliance soldier who looks at least a decade older than his 30 years, said he has exhausted local job possibilities.

“They don’t hire any person in the national police,” he said. “I tried many times, both in the national army or the police.”

He conceded that there are opportunities to earn money from anti-American forces, but, like many men appealing to the Americans for work, his hatred of the Taliban eclipses his desire for money.

“I was a prisoner in the Taliban time for two years,” he said. “There is opportunity, but we don’t want to go. The Taliban destroyed our life.”

But like many others, he was quick to pin a different culprit for his current problems.

“Of course it is the fault of the U.S. Army,” he said. “They came here. They have to support us.”

Those thoughts were echoed by locals both inside and outside the gate.

A one-legged man who gave his name as Shaker, who has a regular job writing down names of day workers, said he also believes the solution lies in American hands.

“If they provide a job for them, make a factory or a company,” things will be better, he said. “Of course the [Afghan] government doesn’t have the money to do that. But the U.S. Army can do that.”

Base officials say they’re doing what they can.

Currently, the base spends about $30,000 a month on day labor, said Sgt. Nathaniel Adamson, a member of the 111th Area Support Group who works closely with many of the day laborers.

“A lot of the work they’re doing are created jobs,” he said. “I think it’s a good program for a lot of people out there who work and benefit. There are some people who get picked up [to work] every day.”

“There’s a lot of times you want to do more for them,” he said. “You can’t help them all. There’s no way.”

Hanan, when asked to propose a solution, simply raised his hands in exasperation.

“I don’t know,” he said. “What should I do? God knows. Nobody knows.”

Men seeking work clutch at a chain-link fence dividing them from Bagram Air Base.

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