Pashmul, Afghanistan (AFP) Jan 10, 2011
At the entrance to a military base in southern Afghanistan, US Army Staff Sergeant Andrew Cunningham hands out money to locals employed to help rebuild their villages devastated by war.
Last summer, the whole of the rural district of Zahri, in the traditional Taliban heartland of Kandahar province, was in the grip of war and under the overall control of the hardline Islamists.
But after months of fighting in which six coalition troops and three Afghans were killed, the US military says the rebels have been pushed out -- and they want to make sure that they cannot return.
Men from the 101st Airborne are now taking steps to help the population rebuild villages and irrigation canals through a cash-for-work scheme, part of the counterinsurgency plan to keep locals from backing the Taliban rebels.
One worker on the scheme, 19-year-old Nisar Ahmad, fled to Kandahar city, 30 kilometres (20 miles) away, when his village was hit by fighting between militants and coalition troops.
"But we will move our families back here soon, when the village is rebuilt," he says.
Mohammad Hashim, 26, who used to grow drugs on his farm, is now in charge of a group of 34 men who work to repair canals in the village of Pawendy.
"It was very, very difficult," he says, describing his former job. "I grew cannabis because it brought in the most money."
He now earns up to $20 a day, while labourers earn around $6.
Marijuana, which sells for about $60 per kilogram ($27 per pound) in Afghanistan, is far more profitable than farming fruit crops such as grapes, which are harder to grow in the dry soil and fetch only $1 per kilo.
Afghanistan is the world's biggest producer of both marijuana and opium.
On pay day, hundreds of workers on the scheme gather in front of the US base at Pashmul South in the middle of the countryside, where around 100 soldiers, both Afghan and American, are stationed.
About 1,000 Afghan workers are employed through the base and all have to provide identification before receiving their cash, which is dispensed by Cunningham from a booth.
"The most important (thing) is that one day, the Afghan government steps in and realises that we've created an infrastructure and jobs," the soldier says.
"The Afghan government could employ people for years, there's so much to do here."
International troops are due to end their combat role in the country by the end of 2014 and hand responsibility for national security to the Afghan army and police. Cunningham says the real test will come when the coalition pulls out.
"The result of all this will depend on what the next unit here will do and on what the Afghan government will do in 2014," he says.
Later on the military base, about 100 workers are left annoyed when Cunningham runs out of money to pay them.
They will have to wait for their pay until next week -- more frustration for a population which has faced years of it.
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