Troubling reports emerged last week that the Trump administration is continuing to consider moving to a strategy in Afghanistan more dependent on private security contractors. Reportedly encouraged by a proposal floated by Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater and brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, this would continue the process of replacing U.S. military personnel with private contractors paid to fight for the United States.
There are already more U.S. Department of Defense contractors than members of the U.S. military in Afghanistan, and the continued privatization of warfare would allow increased opportunities for nepotism and corruption, lower accountability, and encourage human rights abuses through trafficking, all while making a peaceful end to the war less likely.
The outsourcing of the conflict to contractors has been criticized from numerous angles, including a scathing report from Congress’s Commission on Wartime Contracting. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has published dozens of reports on waste and corruption in U.S. spending in Afghanistan. A careful read of these reports shows that much of this happens through the lack of accountability and transparency that comes from the multiple layers of contracting, sub-contracting, sub-sub-contracting and downwards. Contracting firms will not hasten the end of the war, in part, because peace would mean an end of profits.
Unfortunately, most of the debates over the effectiveness of contracting in war zones have focused on financial costs, while ignoring the undocumented human costs of the war. Hom Bahadur, a young laborer I met in western Nepal, for example, is the type of figure who does not end up in Congressional reports or statistics on human trafficking. Hom was promised a job by a Nepali broker on a U.S. base in Afghanistan in 2016. He was trafficked to Afghanistan through India, relying on a network of Indian, Nepali, and Afghan criminals with connections to both Afghan government officials and the international companies working for the U.S. military.
When Hom arrived in Kabul, the job he had been promised vanished. A dispute between traffickers over who would receive Hom’s payment led to his imprisonment by an Afghan broker with connections to the Afghan police. With no Nepali diplomatic representation in Kabul and no means of contacting his family, Hom languished for months in a dirty compound in Kabul, unable to leave. Appearing on no official lists of contractors or victims of trafficking, Hom only managed to escape months later through a network of other Nepalis working in Afghanistan.
Hom is one of over 250 contractors from Nepal and other Asian countries I interviewed who had been to Afghanistan or other war zones. While not all their stories are as dramatic as Hom’s, most still paid bribes to secure their jobs. Many families fell deep into debt sending their sons to risk their lives on U.S. bases and face various forms of exploitation. Few of those I interviewed were much better off for having worked abroad.
Instead, the ones profiting off of the war are the companies that do the contracting, along with the thousands of brokers, traffickers, and low-level government officials that help the process continue. A strategy that relies on private contracting may allow the Trump administration to claim that it has extracted the United States from the conflict in Afghanistan, but it will not do anything to actually end the conflict. It will simply mean those directing operations will be driven more by profit than anything else and they will be more likely to turn a blind eye to the plight of workers like Hom.
You can support or oppose continuing American involvement in the war in Afghanistan, but moving toward a contractor-centric model of intervention would be political ineffective, financially questionable, and morally wrong.
Noah Coburn teaches political anthropology at Bennington College and has been conducting research in Afghanistan since 2005. His most recent book, Under Contract: The Invisible Workers of America’s Global Wars, focuses on the plights of tens of thousands of Nepalis and others who contracted for the U.S. military in Afghanistan.