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

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PROLOGUE: NO SMALL WAR

REMAINDERS

On a mild April day in 2015 with the wildflowers on the hills in full bloom, I stood by the side of the road and watched half a dozen men, armed with crowbars and blowtorches, swarm a shipping container. With quick efficiency, they pried off the tops and sides. As if pulling apart a cardboard box to be recycled, they dismantled the container into neat piles of metal siding. They loaded these pieces into the back of an aged truck, which grumbled to life and, a few minutes later, trundled east toward Pakistan.

Just half a mile from the front gates of Bagram Airbase, these piles of scrap metal marked the end of President Barack Obama’s surge that the U.S. government had hoped would turn the tide in Afghanistan. Living in Kabul and visiting the area around the base regularly, I had watched with local Afghans as U.S. troop levels had shot up to almost 100,000 in 2011 as buildings sprang up rapidly on and around the base.1 With the troops came diplomats, development projects, construction contracts, and tens of thousands of workers. The troops were leaving, and soon, it seemed, not even these shipping containers would remain.2

Alongside the road, just below the watchtowers of the base, there were buildings and small compounds heaped with plywood and used office furniture, but also more bizarre sights, such as dozens of porta-potties, stacked up on their sides like blocks, and a small shop bursting with used printer cartridges. Overflow was spilling out the front door. Workers and traders crowded the street haggling over various goods. Anything on the base that could be salvaged had been snatched up and was now being carefully taken apart and repurposed. I walked up the road toward the base, watching shoppers and laborers sort through the debris that had come off the base, the remainders of the American invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent fifteen years of fighting.

While the war in Afghanistan was not over—there had been a Taliban raid in the area that morning—the period of vast American spending was drawing to a close. These funds had made many in certain industries wealthy. Supplies intended for the base flooded the local market. Aid rushed in, generating hastily thrown together development projects. Certain businesses boomed while others struggled.3 Now the base was being dismantled, and the scrap was being shipped off first to Pakistan and then beyond. Tens of thousands of soldiers, diplomats, aid workers, mercenaries, businessmen, and contractors were leaving the country, some with terrible injuries, others having made their fortunes. Those who had come for the conflict and had been reshaped by it were all moving on, just like me, creating an ever-expanding, largely invisible blast zone of the war.

All of us were marked by the violence and wealth that war creates.

I first arrived in Afghanistan in 2005 as a graduate student, eager to study local politics in an area north of Kabul, assured by the media and politicians that the war triggered by the U.S.-led invasion was over, or at least would be shortly. They were wrong. Soon there were reports of the Taliban retaking districts in the south of the country. And I, thinking my time in Afghanistan would be brief, perhaps eighteen months on the ground to complete my dissertation, was wrong too. Twelve years later, watching the dismantling of the war, I was still there, my work and life now intertwined with the future of the country.

The timing of my arrival had been lucky. During the period of relative peace, I had time to learn Dari, the variety of Persian spoken in Afghanistan, and get to know Afghans as they rebuilt from the destruction of the Taliban period. In the year and a half I spent researching a group of potters who lived about an hour west of Bagram in the town of Istalif, the war had spread gradually north, eventually encircling the district where I was working. Sitting in the bazaar, talking with local merchants, watching as prices rose and fell and marriages were arranged, the war touched our lives in unpredictable ways. There was little open conflict in the area, but the shifting politics and economics of the war created opportunities, particularly for merchants and contractors who managed to make deals with those on the base while those outside the elite tended to suffer.4

After finishing my graduate studies, with so much attention being paid to the country, I decided to stay in Afghanistan and see what I could contribute. I lived in Kabul, working for a local research organization, the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, as well as the United States Institute of Peace. Jobs were plentiful, and the funding allowed me to do the type of on-the-ground research on politics, conflict resolution, and elections in particular that interested me. As a white American man who spoke Dari and had lived with Afghans, I was in a privileged position. I could talk to international journalists and meet with diplomats at various embassies, but also visit small Afghan villages and see what some of the results of the ongoing conflict were—the crater from an insurgent rocket in my friend’s backyard; the storefronts that were damaged by an American convoy driving by too fast. I saw the war from more sides than most other people did.

Living on the edge of a war zone for five years, I had my share of close calls: a building had been blown up by a suicide bomber directly across the street from where I was standing. I had been in a high-speed car chase when my car in Kandahar had been targeted by a Taliban spotter. Friends and colleagues had been kidnapped or killed. But most of the time, life in Kabul had been more mundane. I had lived in a house with three roommates. We had a dog and two tortoises that hibernated in the winter and munched on our vegetable garden in the summer. We planned dinners and did the things that other young professionals did. The war was a constant in our lives and, at the same time, shockingly easy to ignore.

I worked with a team of Afghan researchers studying aspects of the international presence—for example, how internationally sponsored elections were changing politics on a local level. As an anthropologist interested in how the conflict was affecting others, I conducted interviews with diplomats, soldiers, development workers, and ordinary Afghans. I traveled to massive international bases, government offices, and the homes of Afghan friends. I tried to view the war from as many angles as possible. I became interested in the inadvertent effects of the war: businesses that had failed because aid money had disrupted the market, people who had been promoted since no one else was willing to go to Afghanistan, opportunities won and lost. These changes were often most visible in places like Bagram.

In the bazaar at Bagram, the contrast between those who had benefited from the war and those who had not was stark. Local businessmen and government officials had made money from the building of the base and providing it with supplies. Others had made millions setting up private security firms.5 The newly rebuilt compound of a local parliamentarian and the brand-new mosque he added next door contrasted the dusty, dilapidated structures on either side of the street, bullet holes visible in houses built decades prior. The Congressional Research Service calculated that through December 2015, $686 billion had been spent on America’s Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, and that had created immense wealth for a select group of people.6

Those working in the bazaar and other ordinary Afghans benefited much less. Those who were not in the tiny ruling elite tended to live in houses that still lacked running water, and electricity was available only for those in the largest towns in the area. According to the World Bank, in 2006–2007, 36 percent of Afghans were poor and did not have the buying power to satisfy basic material needs. Five years of international funding later, in 2011–2012, the numbers had changed little: 36 percent of the population was still poor and the bottom 20 percent had experienced a decline of 2 percent in the amount of money they had to spend on basic necessities, while the top 20 percent had seen a 9 percent increase.7

Afghans were not the only ones shaped by the war: there were also soldiers and their families, diplomats, and aid workers. Back at home, the fallen had been memorialized, movies had been made, and memoirs had been written.

Inside Bagram, however, was another group that had not received much attention in the international media. These were the so-called third-country nationals—workers from places like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Turkey, Bosnia, and Nepal, who were ever present but largely invisible during the war. They did most of the work on bases like Bagram, everything from manning the guard towers and cleaning the latrines to more technical jobs like engineering and accounting.

I had met some of them working at places like Bagram and the U.S. embassy and wondered how they experienced the war. They were different from soldiers. None of them spoke of patriotism or other ideological motivations but were drawn to jobs that were not available in their home countries. Many paid brokers large sums, families falling deeply into debt, to secure their positions. Some had come legally; many had not. Most of them also tended to stay much longer than the majority of soldiers. Many of these contractors prospered working for the American war; they saved and sent money home. Others struggled. The human trafficking networks that supplied many of the workers allowed for easy exploitation. Some workers were scammed, while others were detained, kidnapped, or thrown into jail.

These migrant workers had fascinating stories to tell, but few had gotten a chance to do so. One of these migrant workers was a Nepali man named Teer Magar.8

SMASHING TELEVISIONS

Teer Magar’s case had not been covered in the international media, but as I began to seek out contractors who had also been in Afghanistan, first in Nepal and then elsewhere, his name came up repeatedly in interviews. In these accounts, Teer was simultaneously something of a legend and a cautionary tale. Depending on your point of view, his detention allegedly was for spying, but others argued that he was simply a scapegoat for those higher up at his company. His eventual escape was reassuring. It proved that workers could extract themselves from the worst possible situations when going to conflict zones like Afghanistan. His story also served as a warning for how easily it could all go wrong, particularly when a company abandons its workers.

Teer passed through Bagram Airbase the same spring in 2015 that I watched the breakdown of the bazaar outside. In his mid-thirties, like me, he came to Afghanistan in part to look for work and also because he felt it would be a good adventure—something to tell his children later in life, he said, when I finally arranged to meet with him at a café near his home in Bandipur, in the center of Nepal. Like me, he first arrived in Kabul and worked on several international compounds. His experience of the war, however, could not have been more different than my own.

During his almost three years in Afghanistan, Teer spent most of that time in prison. He didn’t speak Dari or Pashto, and often went for long stretches without talking to anyone. The few words of Pashto he was able to pick up allowed only limited communication with the guards and fellow inmates. His only visitor was a French representative of the Red Cross, who occasionally managed to send some letters home to his wife in Nepal.

I spoke with Teer after he had returned to Nepal and was working on his brother’s farm in the mountains. Getting to his village in the hills of the southern Himalayas was not easy due to an ongoing fuel crisis, but eventually I found a seat on one of the buses heading west out of Kathmandu. I rode west for four hours to a small junction where the driver indicated to me that the road to Bandipur headed up into the mountains. After a taxi ride, I arrived at a café, tucked into a scenic corner between the hills.

Teer occasionally paused to take a sip from his Coke. He would then set his bottle down and continue his story, slowly and thoughtfully, like a man used to waiting. As I scribbled down Teer’s dark tale in this beautiful mountain setting, the river churning below us, it felt like the long journey for both of us was a reminder of just how far-flung and unpredictable the consequences of the war in Afghanistan were.

For the most part, Teer said, the Taliban prisoners he was mixed in with had left him alone. It did not seem to bother the other prisoners much that he had worked as a contractor for an American-funded project. At one point early in his detention, a large, bearded Talib came to him and demanded that he convert to Islam, he said. Teer tried to explain that he respected all religions. He wasn’t sure if the Talib understood him, but after a while, he was left alone again.

The prison was actually nice by Afghan standards, Teer continued. When I first heard of his case from some other Nepalis, I imagined him sitting in the dark jail I visited in western Afghanistan around the same time that Teer was detained. I had visited it as part of my work for the United States Institute of Peace in 2010, and it was one of the more disturbing scenes from my years in Afghanistan. There, in a cramped room filled with thin mattresses on the dirt floor, insurgents were mixed in with the mentally ill. Flies buzzed in the dim light around a stack of dirty tin bowls.

Teer’s prison, however, had been newly built by the British specifically to hold insurgents caught on the battlefield. Clean and sterile, it was one of the thousands of structures built for the Afghan government by the international community to help it battle insurgents and terrorists. After getting to know the other prisoners, however, Teer decided that few were terrorists and most were simply local people, inadvertently dragged into the conflict, perhaps found with guns in their homes when the Americans went out on raids. In this sense, Teer fit in with the other prisoners, who felt confused and unjustly detained during the war.

Teer explained, step by step, how he had ended up in this distant prison. The local office of the construction firm he had been working for had been accused by a rival firm of spying for the Pakistani government. When the Afghan secret police raided the office, the Afghans in the office had managed to make it look like Teer was the one guilty of stealing plans for the bases they were building. Since he had no translator during his trial, it was difficult for him to plead his case or even understand the charges, and before he had any real sense of what was happening, he was sentenced to eighteen years for espionage.

Thinking back, Teer said, the most frustrating aspect of having members of the Taliban in the prison was that some of the more conservative prisoners argued that television was against Islam. For supposedly religious reasons, they prevented other prisoners from watching. Some prisoners protested and cited Koranic verses they claimed proved that television was permissible. Nevertheless, this religious dispute continued. Then, during a riot in 2013 when the prisoners briefly took control of the building, the televisions were all smashed, ending the debate over whether they could watch television, Teer said.

As Teer talked, the afternoon moved to early evening. The story of how he ended up in an Afghan prison, and then how he made it back to this peaceful town, was complicated, filled with betrayals and more than one kind stranger. Separated from his family and unable to communicate with them for much of the time was painful, and he paused several times during our conversation to collect himself.

Over time, it became clear to me that Teer’s tale was not entirely remarkable. During the fifteen months I systematically sought out and interviewed non-Western contractors, I talked to men who had been arrested, kidnapped, trafficked, and forced to work essentially as indentured laborers. I also interviewed contractors who had built new houses, started businesses, and enrolled their children in better schools than they would have been able to afford before coming to Afghanistan. For these men and women, the outsourcing of war and the use of international contractors was neither clearly good nor clearly bad. The lack of transparency around the international migration of these workers and the vastly different experiences that they had show how personalized the experience of war is and how important it is to understand the repercussions of how wars are being fought on an individual level.

The accounts from these contractors were different from past interviews I had gathered about the conflict from local Afghans, U.S. soldiers, development workers, and diplomats.9 They told the story of a conflict that was similar to the one I had witnessed as a graduate student and later as a researcher, yet it had a different logic and set of rules. For Teer and other Nepali contractors, the bombs and rocket attacks were dangerous, but they were even more afraid of deportation, losing their jobs, or getting tricked by a broker or their employer and abandoned without a visa in a foreign land. And this was all too common an occurrence. The Nepali government had no embassy or other representation in Afghanistan, and it apparently was unaware of Teer’s plight until a Nepali reporter working for a German news organization in Kabul happened to overhear two other Nepali guards talking about Teer in a grocery store two years after his arrest.

But that is getting ahead of our story.

Notes

1. Peters, Schwartz, and Kapp 2015, 3–4.

2. President Obama declared an end to U.S. combat missions in Afghanistan on December 28, 2014, and by spring, just under 10,000 U.S. troops were to remain in the country primarily in a training and support capacity, drawing down by the end of the year (White House 2014). As the Taliban reasserted itself and the Islamic State began organizing more attacks in Afghanistan, debates over troop levels renewed, and the White House decided to maintain troop levels through 2016. The Trump administration then slightly increased troop levels again in 2017 and 2018, while relying on an intensified bombing campaign For ordinary Afghans, perhaps the most important fact was that by 2015, it was clear the numbers would not reach the 2010 levels, when there were almost 100,000 U.S. troops in the country, along with another 50,000 from other coalition countries (Rosenberg and Shearoct 2015).

3. There are numerous analyses of various aspects of this era and the effects of the massive influx of funds. Some of the more useful are Suhrke 2011, Wissing 2012, and Chandrasekaran 2012.

4. Much of this research can be found in Coburn 2011.

5. Many of the local Afghan firms providing security were little more than formalized militias made up of many of the men who had fought against the Taliban or during Afghanistan’s civil war in the 1990s. See Sherman 2015, 106.

6. Belasco 2014, 6. This number does not include long-term costs like veterans’ benefits. See a more thorough discussion of costs in Stiglitz and Bilmes 2012.

7. Joya, Nassif, Farahi, and Redaelli 2015, 17.

8. Names and some identifying characteristics of those interviewed have been changed in most cases. For more, see A Note on the Research.

9. See, in particular, Coburn 2016a.