KHOST, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Said Mohammed spends eight hours a day six days a week cementing walls with his bare hands, earning just $3 a day. He could barely be happier.
“This is a very good job, very good,” he says, beaming and eager to explain everything about it in his garbled, rapid-fire English apparently learnt from American TV shows.
“I come here from just nearby, spend eight hours, break for prayer, home at four. On Fridays I have day off. It’s very good. I support myself, seven brothers and two sisters,” he rattles off, slapping down dollops of cement as he talks.
Mohammed, 20, is one of several hundred Afghans employed at a U.S. military base in eastern Afghanistan, doing everything from digging holes to carrying furniture, building new barracks, cleaning toilets and filling sandbags.
While content, he is also a little jealous of some of the others working nearby who earn $8-10 a day doing similar jobs. They are employed by KBR, a U.S. firm with vast reconstruction and supply contracts in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
According to Mohammed, to get hired by KBR you have to know the man who finds the workers for the U.S. company. If you do not know him — a local from Khost — you get stuck on $3 an hour.
“Maybe soon I’ll get a new job with the Americans,” he says, looking over at the nearby work site, where 10-15 Afghans in traditional clothes with turbans on their heads — wearing dark sunglasses supplied by the Americans — are laboring in the heat under the watchful eye of a Western KBR contractor.
While the working conditions are grim — the hours are long, they are under constant watch sometimes by armed U.S. soldiers, and they have to march everywhere in single file with a “guard” behind — Mohammed and the others are in the lucky minority.
In Khost, unemployment is estimated by local officials to be running at somewhere between 80 and 90 percent — it’s hard to tell exactly because no one registers as jobless and many people manage to find informal work from time to time.
In the past, the lack of jobs and the frustrations that brings for young men eager to earn a wage and eventually marry, has been exploited by the Taliban to win recruits. Now, when they see men working and suspect it is for the Americans, the Taliban are quick to threaten, intimidate or kill.
“I can’t tell anyone what I do,” says Saif, a translator on the base who asked that only part of his name be used.
“Just recently, one man who worked here had his head cut off by the Taliban,” he says, estimating that in the three years he has worked for the Americans, around four dozen Afghans working on U.S. bases near the city of Khost have been killed.
The laborers though are more than happy to take the risk for the sake of a small but regular wage. Most have extended families to support and are struggling because of rising food and energy costs.
In the past six months, the price of a 50 kg (110 lb) bag of rice in the Khost market has risen from 1,100 Afghanis (around $22) to 2,000 Afghanis, locals say. Wheat has risen from 1,500 for a 100 kg bag to 3,500-4,000. Diesel prices have doubled.
“It’s hard for people to survive,” says Saif, who supports 18 members of his family on earnings of around $1,200 a month.
“The high prices and the lack of work, they are both things that force people to join the Taliban,” he argues, believing that many people ally themselves with the militants not for any political reason but for criminal gain.
Those that do not have work and do not side with the Taliban tend to blame their problems on the government, which they see as corrupt and inefficient. Perhaps as a consequence, local governors are keen for the Americans to launch more reconstruction projects — like new roads — to provide jobs.
“The expectations from the people are very high,” says Abdul Jabbar Naeemi, the governor of Maidan Wardak, a province near Kabul. “What I want are more development projects so that we can give the people some jobs. That’s what they want.”
Editing by Alex Richardson