U.S. hires Afghans for airport duty

In its first symbolic initiative to help rebuild Afghanistan after the heavy bombing unleashed by American planes in the war against terrorism, the U.S. military and the CIA hired the first crew of Afghan men to begin work restoring Kandahar International Airport.

Some 21 Afghan men, dressed in clean turbans and embroidered long shirts colored with earth hues, showed up for their first day of work Thursday at the airport, amazed by the sight of the 1,500 soldiers who had set up camp at the once-shuttered facility.

Before the Marines took control of the airport a week ago, some of the local men had entered freely to take water from several wells. But now, razor wire, machine guns, anti-tank missiles and a colony of tents in a grove of pines greeted them and made it clear that their once-free water source was off-limits and property of the U.S. military and its allied forces.

"We're very happy that the Americans are here to help the people, the country," said Malek Nabeezada, 26, an unemployed hospital aide.

`Happy helping the Americans'

Life under the Taliban, which surrendered its stronghold of Kandahar two weeks ago, was very harsh, he said. "They used to shave the heads of young people and put them in prison and they hit young people," he said. "It's very good now. Prisoners are released."

While there are some jobs to be had in Kandahar, Nabeezada said, "we're a lot more happy helping the Americans."

The Afghans were spellbound by the heavy machinery and technology surrounding them, down to the digital cameras that the media used. A screen on the back of the cameras provided an instantaneous image. They all huddled around the camera in awe.

"You seem to like to take my picture," one man said.

Workers earn local wages

The 21 men, all screened by the military, will be paid the prevailing daily wage, which is only $6 a day, and their duty will be scut work: picking up debris, piling up clutter and connecting hoses between water tanks and their once-public wells.

Officials said they don't want to pay more to the workers, who will receive U.S. dollars at the end of each workday, because they fear the offer of high wages will cause a stampede.

"We can't have 1,000 people rushing in here," said Marine spokesman Maj. Chris Hughes.

The U.S. government will drive them to and from work, and they will work from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m., with a half hour given for lunch. The workers will be paid to bring a lunch because officials don't want to offend the Muslim diet with pork and any military food items.

In addition to the laborers, the military has hired four persons from Gul Agha Shirzai's forces to help provide security at a post where Highway 4 meets the airport's access road. From there, it's 1,000 meters to the terminal, which has intensive security, officials said.

Marine Brig. Gen. James Mattis, who oversees the airport occupation, said local Afghans have been willing to help the Marines, including when vehicles got stuck in rough terrain during interdiction efforts earlier this month.

"They seem to be eager to do this," Mattis said.

Earlier Thursday, during the predawn hours, Marine Commandant Gen. James L. Jones visited a tent of Marines and then the foxholes and scout sniper posts along the far perimeter of the occupied airport grounds.

Jones said the Marines' experience in Afghanistan marks a turning point in the way the force conducts missions. He cited the Marines' deepest inland expedition yet, first 420 miles from beach to Camp Rhino in southern Afghanistan and later 55 miles more to take control of the Kandahar airport, a strategic position for rebuilding and defending the country.

In addition, a detention facility for Al Qaeda and Taliban enemy forces has been established on the airport compound and now holds 15 men, who are being interviewed by FBI agents and the CIA.

"It's not just an amphibious force anymore. It's truly an expeditionary force," Jones said. "We bang our heads against the wall in Washington in front of different audiences saying we can do this, we can do this. . . . I think we are extremely well-positioned to be a major player in the war on terrorism.

"We are in the infancy of expeditionary operations, and truly our biggest operations in the 21st Century are going to be expeditionary operations from the sea," Jones said.

Self-sufficient camp

Meanwhile, the military began using one well, in an expansive rose garden in front of the terminal, to create drinking water -- another step in the military's progress toward establishing a self-sufficient camp. Currently, the military sends boxes of bottled water by air to the camp.

Cpl. Miguel, 21, of Los Angeles, was monitoring a water purifier that used reverse osmosis to clean the well water. The military has rented generators from local contractors for water pumps, which use a different voltage from that U.S. generators can provide.

Shortly after the occupation a week ago, the Marines had set up their latrine in the rose garden close to the water well, which Cpl. Miguel acknowledged was a bad idea. On Wednesday, the latrine had been moved out of the garden and across the road. Still, he said, the well water should not be contaminated. The well water also was checked for any biological or chemical agents and was found to have none, he said.

The water purifier can clean 600 gallons of water an hour, up to 12,000 gallons a day -- or enough for 2,400 people. Each Marine will be allowed to use 5 gallons of water a day. There are several other wells and a cistern on the airport compound, officials said.

"It tastes pretty good," Cpl. Miguel said of the treated water.