The Nepalis Fighting America’s Wars

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The Nepalis Fighting America’s Wars

Two new books examine the role of third-country nationals, especially Nepalis, in the defense contracting industry.

The Nepalis Fighting America’s Wars

A retired Gurkha in Pokhara, Nepal greets fellow Gurkha soldiers recently returned from Afghanistan, in front of a photograph depicting Gurkhas during the Malayan emergency (April 17, 2008).

Credit: AP Photo/Ed Wray

In his farewell address days before vacating the Oval Office in 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned Americans about an emerging “military-industrial complex,” saying, “In the councils of government, we must guard against [its] acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought.” The former five-star general added, “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.”

Eisenhower was concerned that the rising influence of the weapons industry amid a Cold War arms race would unnecessarily divert government funds from domestic priorities like education, health-care, and infrastructure. In the over-a-half-century since his speech, the role of private defense companies in America’s wars — from Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq, and the smaller conflicts in between — has grown immensely. In addition to arms suppliers, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) now relies on contractors to manage most of its bases abroad and to run and guard the bases’ supply lines for everything from diesel to water, food, and laundry services. The DoD receives nearly one-fifth of the U.S. federal budget. In 2013, it spent roughly one-half of this on contractors — in other words, approximately 9 percent of the entire U.S. federal budget went directly to for-profit contractors who arm, supply, feed, and guard the military.

American media coverage of defense contracting has often focused on its high monetary costs and high-profile tragedies like the 2007 Nisour Square massacre, when employees of the security firm Blackwater (later re-branded as Academi) killed 17 innocent Iraqi civilians. With a few notable exceptions, attention is rarely given to the conditions of so-called “Third Country Nationals” (TCNs) — people who are neither Americans nor locals (like Iraqis or Afghans), but who make up the bulk of defense contractor employees. TCNs include IT specialists from Europe and Central Asian mechanics, but most come from poor countries in South and Southeast Asia or Africa, attracted to war zones by marginally better pay as cooks, janitors, security guards, or other positions. Many are subject to exploitation, and in some cases, human trafficking.

Two new books help shine a light on the condition of these workers, who have been critical to the American war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Cam Simpson’s The Girl from Kathmandu: Twelve Dead Men and a Woman’s Quest for Justice (HarperCollins 2018), tells the story of the 2004 kidnapping and murder of a group of 12 Nepalis in Iraq, and their families’ nearly decade-long legal battle against the American company that employed them. The book’s chapters switch back and forth between scenes in a Nepali village, a way-station for migrants in Jordan, a U.S. base in Iraq, and a Texas courtroom. Simpson, an investigative journalist, is uniquely positioned to tell the story, having authored a 2005 Chicago Tribune report that first linked the deaths of the Nepalis to a major American defense contractor, Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR), and one of its Jordanian sub-contractors.

Simpson provides a glimpse into the history of American defense contracting, in which KBR played an outsize role. KBR’s Washington connections – its Texan founders helped bankroll President Lyndon B. Johnson’s political career – allowed it to enter the game of defense contracting early on, building roads in the Vietnam War. In the early 1990s, KBR was hired by the DoD to help design the Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP), a program to hand over to private contractors the responsibility for managing American bases throughout the world. This represented a major step toward the privatization of America’s wars.

After designing the program, KBR won the first LOGCAP contract in 1992 and ran U.S. bases in the Balkans, Africa, and elsewhere. Despite scandals over corruption and over-billing American taxpayers, KBR won another LOGCAP contract in 2001. Its political connections appeared important to this success: by 2001, KBR was a subsidiary of Halliburton, the corporation for which George W. Bush’s Vice President Dick Cheney had served as CEO in the 1990s. Signed on the eve of 9/11, LOGCAP III proved immensely profitable for KBR, as the United States soon launched invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. It was en route to a KBR-administered U.S. air base near Baghdad that the 12 Nepalis were kidnapped in 2004.

In telling the Nepali victims’ story, Simpson focuses on one of the murdered men, Jeet Bahadur Thapa Magar, and his widow, Kamala (“the girl from Kathmandu” of the title — although she and her husband are both from a village in western Nepal). Jeet had initially been recruited by a Nepali “manpower agency” that said it needed workers for a fancy hotel in Jordan. He paid around $1,000 – which the Nepali agency shared with a Jordanian counterpart – to secure the job. (As Simpson explains, Nepali migrant workers often go into debt to pay for their jobs, and some must work for months or even years to pay off the amount – a modern form of indentured labor primarily benefiting the employers and labor brokers.) Upon arriving in Amman, Jeet and his fellow recruits were told that the promised hotel jobs in Jordan did not exist; they were then essentially forced to accept jobs at a U.S. Air Force base in Iraq instead. Traveling from Amman to Baghdad in an unarmed taxi convoy, the Nepalis were kidnapped. Days later, an Islamist group, issuing a warning to other potential TCN contractors, released a gruesome video of the 12 men being shot and beheaded.

In a series of gripping scenes, Simpson details his own detective work for the Tribune, which revealed that the Nepali manpower agency had contracted with the Jordanian firm Daoud and Partners, which in turn had contracted with KBR. Ultimately, the Nepalis had been destined to work laundry jobs at the American Al Asad Air Base. In the years following Simpson’s initial exposé, a group of Washington-D.C. based human rights lawyers took up the Nepalis’ case, suing on their behalf for insurance payouts, as well as bringing a human trafficking case against KBR and Daoud. Jeet’s widow Kamala, just in her 20s, acted as a key witness in the cases.

Simpson’s description of the legal battle exposes serious problems in the American legal system’s capacity to protect TCNs who work for defense contractors. The many layers of contracting, subcontracting, sub-subcontracting, etc., that firms like KBR engage in allows employers to shirk responsibility for their workers. KBR and Daoud both denied ever employing the Nepalis until strong contradictory evidence emerged. The companies also wielded massively superior finances for the legal fight, and personally attacked the Nepalis’ lawyers, suing them for supposed ethics violations.

Simpson explains how certain laws worked in the plaintiffs’ favor, but remain unevenly enforced. For example, the World War II-era Defense Base Act guarantees insurance coverage for defense contractors, but companies are expected to self-report injuries and deaths to the U.S. Labor Department. In the case of TCNs — most of whom are unaware of their rights — companies routinely flout the rules, denying their employees access to insurance payouts. (Major U.S. insurance companies have also wrongfully denied payouts to many Americans contractors.) Though the Nepali victims’ families won their case for the insurance payouts, their second case against Daoud and KBR for human trafficking was ultimately thrown out because the relevant U.S. human trafficking statute was amended to include international crimes only after the kidnapping took place.

If Simpson’s book is a meticulous micro-level investigation into a single case of TCN contractor exploitation in Iraq, Noah Coburn’s Under Contract: The Invisible Workers of America’s Global War (Stanford University Press 2018) looks with a wide-angle lens at the experiences of local and TCN contractors in Afghanistan. Coburn, an anthropologist and Fulbright scholar who teaches at Bennington College, interviewed over 250 people involved in the industry, including Afghans and TCNs from Nepal, India, Georgia, and Turkey. The book’s strength lies in the quantity and variety of personal stories it contains. There is the Turkish businessman who survived kidnapping by the Haqqani network, the Indian IT worker who fended off Pakistani intelligence agents in Afghanistan, the female translator from Georgia who worked in Kabul, and the many young Nepali men who went to the country to work as guards, cooks, mechanics, or laborers (the majority of the book focuses on Nepalis). Coburn also draws on his own experiences working in Afghanistan for five years, as well as visits and sojourns in TCNs’ home countries.

Coburn argues that the war in Afghanistan, America’s longest, is also its most global due to the participation of coalition troops and TCN contractors from all over the world. He informs us that contractors – the majority of them TCNs – numbered over 100,000 during the 2011 troop “surge,” and at other times contractors have outnumbered soldiers by a ratio of nearly three-to-one.

Coburn acknowledges that the experiences of TCN contractors can vary drastically. “In contracting,” he tells us, “war, migration, citizenship, racism, and inequality are all knotted together.” Skilled workers fare better than laborers, but even within a given field, nationality and race are important factors in determining outcomes. For example, Coburn describes an implicitly racial pay scale for security guards, in which white South Africans and Eastern Europeans earn the most, followed by South Asians, black Africans, and finally Afghans. He also notes that a TCN’s nationality and their employer’s policies affect their ability to obtain a work permit, which can in turn affect their freedom of movement and exposure to risks. Unlike U.S. personnel, South Asians often travel without security, and in 2016, the Taliban bombed an unprotected bus of Nepali security guards working for the Canadian Embassy in Kabul. (Recently, the victims’ families filed a lawsuit against the Canadian government and the security contractor that employed them.)

Coburn examines several instances of human trafficking, including a case where a Nepali laborer was held for ransom by his Afghan labor broker, escaping only with the help of an informal network of Nepalis in Kabul. Coburn’s research points to a number of factors within TCNs’ home countries that create an environment ripe for exploitation. In Nepal, the fact that workers often purchase jobs abroad can lead to debt traps, desperation, and a willingness to accept higher risks when brokers engage in bait-and-switch tactics. At the same time, potential migrants often lack good information about what they are getting into, and legal murkiness surrounding work in Afghanistan puts them at a disadvantage.  Nepal has banned its citizens from working in several countries, including Iraq, but work in Afghanistan remains legal under certain conditions. Nonetheless, many Nepalis believe that work can be obtained in Afghanistan only extra-legally, and so they are willing to pay a higher premium for brokers to make arrangements.

Though only a minority of contractors do security work like guarding bases or acting as armed escorts, all face security risks. In one section, Coburn speaks to several Nepalis who survived a bomb blast at a contractors’ housing facility outside of Kabul. Although all of the victims received some compensation, it is unclear whether their employer provided them with the correct amount and reported the casualties as required by the Defense Base Act. Coburn explains that employers often send injured TCNs home quickly with a lump-sum payment large enough to quell discontent, but smaller than the insurance payouts they are legally entitled to. Although letting insurance cover the casualties would spare employers the cost — especially since the U.S. government pays the premiums — they often flout the law because they worry about bad press when reporting dead or injured workers, according to Coburn.

Whereas Simpson leaves readers with a sense that profit-driven, amoral corporations like KBR hold primary guilt for exploiting TCN contractors in war zones, Coburn outlines a more complex meta-narrative. Although working in Afghanistan does not substantially improve the life or career trajectories of most of his interviewees, he notes that some TCN contractors do benefit significantly from their work. In explaining problems with the industry, Coburn cites not only greedy companies and a lack of regulation by the U.S. government, but also corrupt bureaucracies in Nepal and Afghanistan, ineffective efforts to regulate manpower agencies in sending nations, and a lack of attention to aiding TCN contractors by international migration NGOs.

As an anthropologist, Coburn sometimes seems reluctant to pass judgment. Upon meeting a Nepali who had been wrongfully imprisoned for years in Afghanistan, Coburn wonders why he is not more resentful: “Was he still in shock from the years of detention? Or was I simply too caught up in Western assumptions about justice and individual rights?” Ultimately, however, Coburn is clear about who benefits most from a contracting system that leaves many people prone to exploitation. “It seems difficult,” he writes, “to imagine that the U.S. government would have been able to bear the political costs at home of waging the longest war in American history in Afghanistan if the country had supplied its own labor to run the war.”

So what can be done to better protect TCN contractors in war zones? Neither book explores this question in depth, though both suggest more regulation and cooperation between the United States and sending countries’ governments is necessary.

In several fascinating chapters, Coburn looks at the role of Nepali troops – “Gurkhas” – in the British army. Though Nepal was never colonized, the British began recruiting Gurkhas in the 19th century from its neighboring colony in India. (Nepalis had a reputation for bravery and loyalty, surrounded by Orientalist mystique.) Hundreds of thousands of Nepalis served in World Wars I and II, and 10,000 were killed in World War II alone. Two Gurkha regiments continue to serve in the British army today. While Coburn describes the unequal legacy of this system, he also notes that modern British Gurkhas receive many benefits such as military-standard healthcare and benefits, and even the opportunity to become British citizens upon finishing service.

He contrasts this with the treatment of TCN contractors, who receive few benefits and have little connection to the United States despite serving the war effort. For example, he describes an instance where a Nepali who had worked in security in Afghanistan was denied a visa by the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu because his travel history to Afghanistan seemed “suspicious.” Likewise, Coburn explores problems with the Special Immigrant Visa program, which allows some Afghan and Iraqi contractors – like translators and office staff who served the American military and development projects – to settle in the United States. Relatively few visas have been granted, the system for determining eligibility remains opaque, and recipients get little support after arriving in the U.S.

Does the British Gurkha model – formally incorporating foreigners into the military, with attendant benefits – represent a viable alternative to America’s strategy of private contracting? A U.S. military program begun in 2009 granted a path to citizenship for certain skilled foreign recruits, but the program is now defunct and the United States seems unlikely to pursue this strategy on a greater scale. The contracting model is cheap, both monetarily and politically.

Smaller fixes are more conceivable. Coburn suggests the U.S. government partner with TCN-sending countries like Nepal to certify and register workers. Simpson notes that in 2012, then-U.S. President Barack Obama issued an executive order that barred U.S. government contractors from using labor provided by brokers that charge migrants fees to secure jobs. However, it is unclear whether the Trump administration will continue to enforce such regulations. Enforcement will also remain difficult so long as complex webs of contractors and subcontractors continue to obfuscate lines of responsibility for employees.

On the whole, it seems that private companies will continue to expand their roles in executing American wars, just as Eisenhower forewarned in 1961. Recently, Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, who also happens to be Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ brother, talked with Trump administration officials about a proposal to replace the remaining roughly 14,000 American troops in Afghanistan with a 6,000-strong private security force. For the time being, the Trump administration has not signed on, but the idea of fully privatizing American wars seems to be growing more politically plausible.

Peter Gill is Kathmandu-based journalist who tweets at @pitaarji