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Afghans on U.S. bases losing jobs after years of devoted service

Interpreters, mechanics and others who depended on the good, steady pay now feel abandoned as American troops prepare to exit. Some fear militant retaliation.

May 12, 2013|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • Abdul Shakour was surprised to be laid off as a mechanic at Bagram air base in Afghanistan after working there seven years: He has a folder stuffed with certificates from his American supervisors citing his superior job performance.
Abdul Shakour was surprised to be laid off as a mechanic at Bagram air base… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

CHARIKAR, Afghanistan — Abdul Shakour was working the night shift at Bagram air base repairing American vehicles when he was called to an emergency meeting.

The news was bad: Shakour and 22 other Afghan mechanics were being laid off. After seven years at Bagram, Shakour was unceremoniously shown the door last month. He was told to return the next day to turn in his security badge and collect his final paycheck.

"There aren't as many vehicles to fix and not as many soldiers around, so they don't need us anymore," Shakour said outside the base, speaking with a thick accent the English he had learned from American civilians and troops.

The 11-year Western military occupation of Afghanistan has been a boon for the Afghan workforce, providing thousands of jobs for interpreters, mechanics, cleaners and drivers. But with bases being torn down and equipment shipped out as combat troops prepare to leave next year, many Afghan workers are no longer needed.

For Shakour and his close friend Padshah Gul, a mechanic who was laid off the same day, the consequences are devastating. Their Bagram jobs paid far more than typical semiskilled Afghans earn. The pair assumed that working for foreigners afforded more certainty and stability than the shaky Afghan economy could provide. Now that seemingly solid foundation has been torn away, leaving them feeling bereft and abandoned.

"I worked hard. I never made mistakes. I never missed work. I'm a very good mechanic; I can fix anything. So how can they send me away just like that?" Shakour asked. He clutched a folder stuffed with certificates from his American supervisors citing his superior job performance.

U.S. military officials referred layoff questions to private contracting firms, which hire most Afghans working on bases. The mechanics worked for Fluor, an engineering and construction company based in Irving, Texas. The firm did not respond to requests for comment.

The mechanics said Fluor supervisors told them the contract under which they were hired had ended. Afghan workers at military bases have been laid off periodically for years, but the pace has quickened this year as U.S. and coalition troops pull out.

Shakour, 28, a solidly built, gregarious man, says his $1,300-a-month salary has supported an extended family of 12, including his wife and 2-year-old son. Over the years, he had worked his way up from laborer trainee to mechanic supervisor.

Gul, 40, a slender man with a long, solemn face, has cared for 13 relatives, including his wife and six children, on his $900-a-month salary. He had toiled at Bagram since 2008, working his way up to a job in which he trained mechanics to repair civilian vehicles used by American troops.

"This hit me very hard. Times are difficult now, so it's very upsetting," Gul said, sitting dejectedly in his whitewashed farmhouse in Jabal os Saraj, a bustling market town about 20 miles from the Bagram base.

He said he was given no warning of the layoff and no severance pay. "Even the lowest government workers in Afghanistan get severance when they leave their jobs," he said.

Charikar, Jabal os Saraj and other towns in Parwan province have enjoyed a modest economic boom in the last decade, thanks to job opportunities at the massive Bagram base. About 25 miles north of Kabul, it is one of the two largest coalition air bases in Afghanistan, along with Kandahar Airfield.

"I think we have become too dependent on Bagram," said Ahmad Shah Khan, 46, another mechanic who was laid off the same day after seven years at Bagram. "Now everybody is depressed and wondering what will happen next."

Bagram has pumped up the local economy on and off for years, beginning when the Soviet military occupied the base in the 1980s. Now, layoffs are affecting thousands of extended families — "a huge problem the people are facing now," said Roshna Khalid, spokeswoman for Parwan's governor.

Some laid-off younger men drift into opium or heroin addiction, she said, and others leave the country in search of work. "As more people are losing jobs, that adds to violence and insecurity in the country as a whole," Khalid said.

Citing security concerns, a U.S. military spokesman declined to say how many U.S. troops or Afghan workers remain at Bagram. A colonel there said the base is home to 38,000 people: U.S. and coalition troops, plus thousands of Afghan and foreign workers.

In addition to the economic blow, laid-off mechanics face possible retaliation from insurgents for having aided the Americans. Afghan workers at coalition bases routinely receive Taliban death threats, often in the form of so-called night letters left at their homes. Scores of Afghan workers, especially interpreters working with U.S. troops, have been killed by insurgents.

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