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Afghans Feel Bite Of Military Pullout

Afghan businesses face uncertainty.
Afghan businesses face uncertainty.

BAGRAM -- Atiqullah gazes out at his sprawling scrapyard, musing over what the future may hold for him.

Atiqullah's livelihood depends on the chaotic heap of tangled plastic and scrap metal, broken air-conditioning units, and piles of used mattresses he has assembled.

Much of his collection originates from the nearby Bagram Airfield, the U.S. military's largest base in Afghanistan and, for many, the top of the local war-economy food chain.

But with the drawdown of U.S. and international forces, bases like Bagram are shrinking in size, leaving Atiqullah to sell what he can, pack his bags, and move on.

"I started selling this scrap three or four months ago, but business is bad. No one is buying or selling," says Atiqullah, adding that U.S. military is selling off destroyed military gear and equipment as it gradually dismantles the base. "What else can I do? There's no work and there’s no other way of making a living."

Atiqullah first arrived in 2004, winning a four-year contract from the U.S. military to pave the massive runway at the base. After his contract expired, he won another contract to transport concrete and asphalt to the base.

But earlier this year he was abruptly fired. "They said, 'We don't need you anymore because we're leaving," says Atiqullah, who will move back to his home in the eastern province of Nangarhar.

Deployment To Employment

According to an unpublished United Nations report, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) estimates that 11.5 million Afghans -- nearly 40 percent of the population -- live within a five-kilometer radius of at least one military base or facility.

They have been a source of employment for tens of thousands of Afghans over the past 13 years, attracting cooks, cleaners, manual laborers, mechanics, translators, and security guards and altering the country's demographics. Afghan businesses were contracted to supply fruits, vegetables, and bottled water, transport companies ferried supplies to and from bases, construction companies built the system, and logistics firms helped tie it all together.

From 2011 to 2012 alone, the U.S. government and various agencies dispersed more than $5 billion directly to Afghan companies as prime contractors, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

In the capital, the livelihoods of nearly 90 percent of Kabul’s population of some 5 million were directly tied to 75 NATO military bases and Afghan military facilities, according to the UN report. One of Kabul's most famous markets -- the "Obama Bazaar" -- thrived off of American gear and foodstuffs smuggled from U.S. bases.

But business has fallen off since the height of the foreign presence in Afghanistan in 2011, when NATO had 130,000 soldiers and around 800 military bases. By the end of 2013, the number of bases fell to just 80, and more have closed since then. By the end of 2014 only a handful are expected to remain, along with 9,800 U.S. soldiers.

The drawdown has already proved disastrous for many industries and businesses, and a fall in international aid threatens to compound already ominous economic conditions.

When Afghan businesses close shop, their owners often leave the country, taking much-needed cash with them. The housing bubble, fueled largely by the war economy, has already burst, with prices in the capital slashed by about half in the past three years.

Economic growth, which stood at more than 14 percent in 2012, fell to around 3 percent last year, according to the World Bank. It is expected to shrink further this year. To top it all off, prolonged wrangling over the outcome of Afghanistan's presidential election has exacerbated financial uncertainty.

Booming Bagram Going Bust

Nowhere is the U.S. military's effect on the local population more visible than in the town of Bagram, located just a few kilometers from Bagram Airfield.

Halim, a bearded, middle-aged man, lost his job at the base earlier this year. Today the 50-year-old sells fruit, vegetables, and cigarettes from a simple stall to make ends meet. He says it hasn't been easy.

"I had a contract for seven years paving the airstrip," says Halim, who adds that he was also contracted as part of a group of laborers to build a watchtower and a housing complex for American soldiers and civilians living at the base. "Now I rent a stall. There are fewer people in Bagram and those who are here are not buying anything because they don’t have any money."

For years, Bagram was a boom town, becoming the one of the epicenters of business and opportunity in the country. Fast-forward to the present day and the town's prospects look altogether different.

Bagram, with a population of over 200,000 and located in the northern province of Parwan, appears to be going bust.

The city's bazaars, once filled with foreign goods and electronics, are emptying. Businesses are closing shop. And Afghans who moved to the area for work are now leaving en mass.

While some 50,000 Afghans were employed at the base several years ago, according to Eliasuddin Bakhshi, the head of the Bagram District Development Council, only a small fraction remain. More will lose their jobs by the end of the year, and numerous Afghan contractors have been let go without any reason.

"The drawdown has had a huge effect on Bagram," says Bakhshi, who adds that job cuts at the base began around two years ago. "Around 80 percent of the people at Bagram don't even have the money to eat more than one meal a day. Not many people are working at the base anymore. Most have been let go."

Locals have done what they can to express their dismay, holding several demonstrations outside the base in recent months as dismissals rose. One local official even went on hunger strike for a week to protest the firings.

Khitab Ahmad, a young, stocky man, is a prominent local activist. He recently opened an organization specifically to help find jobs for youths in the area. Ahmad says massive unemployment has already had devastating effects on the town.

Joblessness, he warns, has increased insecurity in the area as youths become involved in pretty crime and others join the ranks of militant groups. "A lot of the youths are unemployed and have been fired from the base by the Americans. This has pushed many toward violence, killing, and theft."

With the pink light from the late afternoon sun setting on Bagram, Atiqullah closes up and heads back home for the night with his 15-year-old son. "The Americans have been occupiers for the past 13 years," says Atiqullah as he waves goodbye. "But they also spent a lot of money to rebuild Afghanistan. The future is uncertain without them."

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.