Under Contract
The Invisible Workers of America's Global War
Noah Coburn

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Contents and Abstracts
Prologue: No Small War
chapter abstract

This book begins with the political and economic changes brought to the area around Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan by the American invasion, comparing the author's experiences with those of a Nepali security guard who was imprisoned in Afghanistan for three years. It presents some of the less predictable consequences of the war, particularly for civilians working for the U.S. war effort. It looks at the wide range of actors who were part of the conflict in Afghanistan, from members of the NATO coalition to individual businessmen who were pulled in by the war economy, suggesting that far from a "small war," as most insurgencies are considered, the war in Afghanistan was truly a global affair. It concludes that understanding the consequences of the war in Afghanistan requires an anthropological approach and lays out the methods of the study that led to this book.

1 Mercenaries, Contractors, and Other Hired Guns
chapter abstract

This chapter recounts the experience of one Nepali security contractor in Afghanistan and the ways in which his experience, the money that he made, and the connections that he developed have reshaped his life. It looks at how this case is indicative of a wider trend by Western countries to outsource various aspects of war and international intervention. These practices, due largely to the secretive nature of private security firms, remain understudied and, as this chapter demonstrates, even attempting to do a census of such workers is nearly impossible. It also debunks the common myth that private security contractors are not put at the same risk that more typical military personnel are, suggesting that the wider nature of war has changed in ways that are not accounted for in most popular narratives.

2 Nepalis at War
chapter abstract

This chapter looks at the practice of recruitment of Nepalis into foreign militaries. The practice, which began under the East India Trade Company, eventually led hundreds of thousands of Nepalis to enlist in the British Imperial Army and, later, the Indian Army, the Singapore Police Force, and a range of other foreign bodies. This practice of relying on so-called Gurkha soldiers has shifted in recent years toward private security firms largely funded by the U.S. government. This neoliberal variation of earlier practices of labor migration has led to the commodification of the term Gurkha as these men and the symbols attached to them have been used to encourage orientalist appeals to the supposed martial nature of certain Nepali ethnic groups.

3 One Blast, Many Lives
chapter abstract

This chapter is the account of the 2013 suicide attack on a private security compound in Kabul through the experience of four Nepali guards who worked there. It looks at the difficulty of sorting out the details on an attack like this one, which was large enough to lead to several deaths, but since those killed were from non-Western countries, it garnered little media attention. Furthermore, the layers of contracting and subcontracting meant that the firm guarding and residing in the compound was not the same as the one that owned the compound, making liability and moral obligations difficult for those involved to sort out. The chapter explores how differently the attack affected the individuals we interviewed, with one being disabled for life with no future prospects, and another, with less severe injuries who used the compensation paid by his firm to start a new business.

4 Costs and Compensation
chapter abstract

This chapter looks at the various ways in which firms compensate those injured in attacks or other on-the-job injuries in conflict zones. In particular, it focuses on the U.S. Defense Base Act, which was set up to provide injured workers with compensation. While the wording of the law is expansive, many contractors from Nepal and other poor countries have struggled to take advantage of it, since they have limited legal knowledge and contracting companies often isolate them from the lawyers who could potentially help them file a claim. The chapter concludes by speculating about why attacks involving private security firms, particularly where there are non-Westerners killed, have been so easy to ignore and what this says about the current relationship between the media and the U.S. military.

5 Manpower
chapter abstract

This chapter looks at the process that Nepalis workers use to secure employment abroad. Usually they rely on a series of local brokers and, later, brokers in Kathmandu, who work with a labor firm to secure a contract and work permit abroad. The process has long been derided as corrupt, and most measures aimed at increasing transparency have, according to those going through the process, allowed officials and brokers to extract more bribes from potential migrants. It looks at the case of workers migrating to Afghanistan and how this practice, which was relatively limited following the initial U.S.-led invasion, rapidly expanded, attracting less reputable firms and leading to more bureaucracy.

6 Two Hundred Years of Gurkhas
chapter abstract

This chapter looks at the increase in employment of retired Gurkhas by international and American private security firms in the early years of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It looks particularly at the experience of two retired Gurkhas who worked at the U.S. embassy for a firm that was later charged with gross negligence. It traces how companies expanded the definition of what a "genuine" Gurkha was, first hiring from those who served in the British Army, then hiring those who had been in the Indian or Nepali armies, and eventually hiring those with no military training at all in order to save costs. It also looks at the experiences of these various groups upon returning to Nepal and the changes (or lack thereof) in their socioeconomic status.

7 "Who Will Be a Gurkha?"
chapter abstract

This chapter focuses on the ongoing practice of recruiting young Nepalis into the British army. It describes the selection process that choses 236 recruits from more than 6,000 applicants, and the rigorous physical tests and interviews that it includes. It looks at how the modern variation and the increased supply of young, unemployed Nepalis has given rise to an industry of training centers that charge for a variety of services. These centers rely on colonial myths about the promise of opportunities abroad, while misleading young Nepalis about the statistical improbability of success, leading many deep into debt and into the hands of manipulative brokers.

8 Through the Colonial Looking Glass
chapter abstract

This chapter looks at the ongoing practice of British military recruitment in Nepal and explores who this means for Britain's postcolonial relations with Nepal. It looks in particular at the Gurkha Welfare Scheme, which acts like a development organization, but instead of targeting the neediest communities, it focuses on those that tend to produce recruits for the British military. It explores the political campaign to award British citizenship to those serving in the British Army and asks what this means for young Nepalis who are successful in the selection process and those who fail, and the ways in which British practices continue to concentrate economic and political power in the hands of the Nepali elite.

9 The Labor of War
chapter abstract

This chapter compares and contrasts the experience of working at different companies in conflict zones, arguing that more than nationality, companies shaped the experience of war for various contractors. It looks at case studies from two of the largest contracting firms receiving U.S. funds in Afghanistan, DynCorp and Supreme, both of which hired private security contractors, but also Nepalis in a range of lesser positions, like mechanics and cooks. It tracks the hiring process of these companies and conditions that the workers experienced while in Afghanistan. Nepali workers at these companies judged them often not by using the language of Western human rights, but using more normative language that focused on day-to-day emotions, such as the perceived fairness of supervisors.

10 A Protective Government?
chapter abstract

Was working in Afghanistan legal for Nepalis? This chapter looks at the deeply complex answer to this seemingly simple question. It examines the bureaucratic processes of securing work permits and the corruption associated with the process in both Kathmandu and Kabul. It looks at the ways in which the system was made purposely opaque, a process that helped brokers who facilitated the application for government documents and the officials who could slow down or speed up the process greatly. It explores the various ways countries supplying labor to Western countries at war have failed to protect their citizens and how donor countries have encouraged these practices.

11 Of Roses and Revolutions
chapter abstract

This chapter looks at the involvement of the Georgian military and Georgian civilian contractors in the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It describes the experiences of several Georgian contractors in Afghanistan. It argues that the distinction between the experience of Georgia and Nepal in the war in Afghanistan and Iraq was that the Georgian government used involvement in these conflicts primarily to strengthen their alliances with the United States and EU countries. After the disastrous war in South Ossetia, it became clear that Georgia's allies were more concerned about relations with Russia than ties with the fledgling democracy, but officials interviewed still felt that participation in the wars had strengthened more informal ties between the militaries and ultimately contributed to the increase in foreign assistance to the country.

12 Economic Ottomans
chapter abstract

Turkey's experience of the war in Afghanistan was deeply shaped by the shared religion, cultural, and linguistic similarities. Based on interviewees with Turkish military personnel, this chapter looks at how Turkish strategy and objectives differed from those of its NATO allies. It argues that the long-term goal of the Erdo─čan government to reassert influence in the region was part of Turkey's attempts to cultivate new allies and distance itself from the decreasing likelihood of EU membership. In Afghanistan, this meant that the Turkish military and diplomats had a longer time horizon for their involvement in the country. The chapter explores the resulting military cooperation and economic investment, while arguing that the close personnel ties of Turkish officers to their NATO counterparts continues to ensure strong relations.

13 Turkish Engineers and Other Heroes of the Intervention
chapter abstract

Turkey's relatively high education standards and low cost of living meant that contracting companies in Afghanistan often looked to Turkey to provide engineers and other blue-collar workers. This chapter looks at the various contractors and Turkish businesspeople who took advantage of Turkey's position in the global economy, taking business deals that Europeans and Americans were likely to turn down. The chapter explores a case study of a Turkish designer and his life history from his early adventures abroad to his eventual extensive contracting for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Afghanistan.

14 Building an Empire?
chapter abstract

Despite the presence of numerous Turks working in Afghanistan, the Turkish government made little effort to regulate or even promote Turkish business there. The Turkish companies that succeeded in securing contracts from the U.S. military ranged from handling tens of millions of dollars a year to small family businesses. This chapter argues that it was often the largest of these that were able to undercut their competitors, establish contacts with Afghan companies, and dominate certain industries, such as the construction of U.S. bases. It also looks at some of the lesser-studied industries that support the war in Afghanistan and link together various companies and countries across the region, such as the network of freight forwarding companies that move cargo from Europe to Afghanistan.

15 Detained
chapter abstract

This chapter looks at the experiences of contractors who were detained by the Afghan authorities. It argues that in contrast to the importance of company of employment in other aspects of the contracting process, nationality most clearly shaped how contractors were treated by the Afghan government. The chapter studies the case of a Nepali laborer who was imprisoned for three years on false charges and was released only after being aided by a journalist. It contrasts this man's experience with the experience of an American and Turk who were also detained.

16 Kidnapped
chapter abstract

This chapter focuses on the experience of one Turkish contractor who was kidnapped by the Haqqani network with a group of other contractors while working in Afghanistan and taken into Pakistan, where he was held for a month before his release. It explores his background and how he came to be working on an isolated base near the Afghan-Pakistani border. The chapter looks how his treatment compared with a Russian contractor, kidnapped at the same moment, and how his religious identity as a fellow Muslim led to better treatment. The chapter examines the confusing attempts by the Turkish and Afghan governments to secure his release and the importance of good luck and self-preservation instincts during such incidents.

17 Hom Bahadur
chapter abstract

For workers in Afghanistan, visas and other forms of documentation were often the difference between liberty and confinement. This chapter is an in-depth case study of a Nepali contractor who, upon arriving in Afghanistan, was kidnapped and essentially held hostage for several months by an Afghan broker, with the aid of both a Nepali broker and the Afghan police. It was only through the kindness of other laborers, connected through social media, that the worker was eventually able to secure his release. The chapter looks at how brokers are able to take particular advantage of those workers who are poorest with few political and social connections.

18 The Boredom of Being Trafficked
chapter abstract

This chapter looks at the importance of New Delhi as a transit point for young Nepalis and other South Asians looking for work abroad. It explores the conditions that these young people endure while waiting for brokers to arrange visas, contracts, and other documentation for them. In particular, it studies how brokers promote certain narratives about the potential economic wealth of work abroad in order to keep these young people in limbo and encourage them not to speak with other laborers. Ambiguity becomes an effective economic strategy for these brokers. The chapter asks how assumptions about the involuntary nature of trafficking shape our views and policy on the concept.

19 Accountants at Wars
chapter abstract

The experiences of white-collar Indians contracting in conflict zones differed greatly from the experiences of poor laborers. This chapter expands the notion of labor migration and explores the importance of Indian administrators, particularly in the human resources and accounting offices of various contracting firms. These individuals often had better educations and connections than their other South Asian counterparts, and this gave them an agency that other contractors did not have. Through a series of case studies, this chapter explores the different experiences and security threats that these individuals faced, particularly in the form of targeting by Pakistani groups.

20 Classes and Genders at War
chapter abstract

Labor migration is largely built on the narrative of economic promise abroad, but what happens when this promise does not materialize? This chapter looks at a series of case studies of Indian and Nepali contractors in Afghanistan to argue that while employment held the promise of upward mobility, instead it tended to solidify gender norms and economic divides. The hypermasculinized world of contracting allowed women to participate, but only in specific ways that further diminished their agency. The chapter also looks at how social media and other new technologies have allowed brokers to target and exploit poor workers. While the capitalist free market language of labor migration promises upward mobility, ultimately it enriched only the ruling class that controlled the mechanisms of migration.

21 Returning Abroad
chapter abstract

In the 2000s, the United Kingdom began granting citizenship to Nepalis who had served in the British army. This led to a growing population of Nepalis who settled in garrison towns in England, such as Aldershot. This chapter explores these communities, the effect of the war in Afghanistan, and the increasing pull of private security contracting that led many to leave the military. At the same time, this growing population has led to questions about Britain's place in a globalizing world and the legacy of colonialism. The chapter explores the contrast between the promise of a more globalized version of Britain that citizenship for Gurkhas provides, with the discrimination and nativist rhetoric that many Nepalis in the United Kingdom face.

22 When You Can't Go Home
chapter abstract

Following the targeting of Iraqi and Afghan contractors who had worked as interpreters for the U.S. military, the U.S. government designed the Special Immigrant Visa program aimed at providing former contractors in danger with visas to settle in the United States. This chapter looks at the challenges that this program has faced and the bureaucracy it has created. It also looks at the lives of several Afghan interpreters who settled in the United States. These former contractors often face challenges far different from what they expected, living in poor, segregated neighborhoods in large American cities that they are ill equipped to navigate.

23 Where the War Went
chapter abstract

As the United States has increasingly subcontracted aspects of its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, these practices have spread globally, with countries in the Persian Gulf, for example, increasingly relying on mercenaries to staff their militaries. This chapter looks at the potential repercussions of these aspects of the war in Afghanistan. As contracts end, the result is a demobilized army of former contractors willing to fight for anyone willing to give them a paycheck. The chapter case study is of a group of young Nepalis who ended up working as bodyguards in western Russia for a mafia boss. Particularly as new technology and the Internet marketplace make such transactions easier, this chapter asks what the future of warfare might be.