Gyanendra Shrestha* spent most of the past 13 years in Afghanistan, helping the United States fight its longest war. A month and a half ago, he was laid off from his job guarding a gate at Bagram Airbase, in preparation for the U.S. troop withdrawal. His employer, the defense contracting company AC First, sent him home to Sindhuli District, in Nepal’s Himalayan foothills. Speaking with The Diplomat by phone, Shrestha says that some of his former colleagues in private security contracting are now finding work in other war zones and he, too, is considering whether to venture abroad again.
The U.S. war effort in Afghanistan has relied heavily on so-called Third Country Nationals (TCNs) like Shrestha — workers from poor countries in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and beyond — who work for contracting companies that serve the military, Department of State, and USAID. Often invisible in media presentations of the war, TCNs perform work ranging from guarding convoys to cooking meals on bases, and from building installations to defusing mines. Many do work nearly identical to that of U.S. soldiers. Now, as U.S. troops withdraw, many TCNs are leaving Afghanistan — and fanning out around the world.
“Some of the guys from my company are trying to get jobs with contractors in Iraq now,” says Shrestha. Other TCNs are looking for work with the militaries of Gulf countries reliant on contracted private security, or in oil refineries in West Africa, or in casinos in China, or with shadowy firms in Syria.
Recent reports suggest that private security contractors from Latin America were unwittingly recruited to assist in the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse. Listening to Shrestha discuss the various recruiting firms that these contractors are now working with, it is easy to see how contractors, many of whom have been thoroughly trained with U.S. tax dollars, could end up inadvertently participating in such activities.
In Afghanistan, TCNs often risked their lives for far less pay than their American counterparts at contracting companies, and are often exploited by their employers. Post-Afghanistan, as these vulnerable workers are pulled into even less transparent conflicts, it has become more likely that they will be injured, killed, or exploited.
A Nepali Army veteran, Shrestha first embarked for Afghanistan in May 2008 at the age of 37 because his paltry military pension was insufficient to support his family. He says he paid an underground labor agent 250,000 Nepali rupees (nearly $5,000 in today’s dollars) to arrange a job, traveling first to Delhi and then to Kabul on an Afghan tourist visa. But upon arrival, Shrestha learned that the job had not, in fact, been arranged. He spent the next nine months waiting in a boarding house and living illegally without a visa, gradually using up his own meager funds, before getting a job on Bagram Airbase.
Shrestha in many ways was lucky. We interviewed other TCN contractors who paid bribes to secure contracts or visas that never materialized. Some thought they were going to comfortable jobs in Gulf countries, only to wind up on bases in Afghanistan or Iraq, deeply in debt and unable to leave. An entire network of human labor firms in countries like Jordan and India has been feeding migrant workers from poor countries into the United States’ conflicts. In some cases these firms are little more than traffickers, and several workers have been kidnapped and held in Afghanistan until their families and friends paid ransom.
When Shrestha first arrived on Bagram — a huge military installation that was built by the Russians in the 1970s — he worked for a Turkish subcontractor of Northrup Grumman, the U.S. defense company. Shrestha earned $600 per month as an escort for Afghan laborers on the base. For the first year, he says he lived inside a tent, as there was insufficient housing available for TCNs like him on the base. The Taliban fired small rockets onto the base on a near-daily basis, which worried him, but the pay was better than what he could have earned in Nepal. “Of course, we have to take risks to earn money,” he says.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of TCNs to the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. Although the Defense Department is notoriously bad at keeping records on its contractors, official data indicate that just after the height of the Obama administration’s troop surge, in 2012, there were 86,100 U.S. soldiers and 36,826 TCN contractors working for the DoD in Afghanistan. Today, there are 6,399 TCNs working for the United States in Afghanistan, compared to just a few hundred troops. Additional TCNs work for the Department of State and USAID.
TCNs earn far less than their U.S. counterparts, even while taking greater risks. Bases like Bagram are typically surrounded by three layers of security: the outermost layer is composed of Afghan security forces, the next layer is handled by TCN contractors, and the innermost (and thus safest layer) is composed of U.S. contractors and soldiers.
A U.S. military veteran who later worked for a contracting firm in charge of security for the U.S. embassy in Kabul in the mid-2010s, who asked not to be named, says he earned more than four times his Nepali colleagues and received more benefits and leave time – an inequality that left him feeling uneasy. He said that Nepali guards were assigned the dangerous task of completing initial vehicle checks before Americans came out to complete additional checks, and that Americans sometimes referred to the Nepalis as “our flak jackets” and “bait” for suicide bombers. What is more, he said the Nepalis’ guard sheds were inferior to the blast-resistant structure he spent most of his working day inside.
“They were shit, bro,” says the American of the guard sheds. “They were held together with metal bands, and they weren’t even, like, arc-welded, they were spot-welded, sometimes. There was zero way those things would hold up in a blast — which they didn’t.” He noted that several of his Nepali colleagues sitting in those structures were severely injured during an enemy attack.
TCNs are not protected by laws against discrimination or workplace safety that are commonplace in the United States. One of the few protections they do have is the Defense Base Act, a U.S. law that requires contracting and subcontracting companies to buy workers’ compensation insurance for all employees, covering injuries, disabilities, and deaths. If a worker is killed or injured while working on a U.S. government contract, they are entitled to certain rights and compensation. Few TCN workers know this, however, and if they are denied these resources, their only recourse is appealing directly to the U.S. Department of Labor – something almost impossible for a Nepali based in Afghanistan to do.
“[Contracting companies] think that they can get away with not compensating injured or killed workers and save yet another amount of money that goes into their profits,” says Matt Handley, an American lawyer who has represented many Nepali and other TCN workers to win compensation.
Ultimately, we don’t know exactly how many TCN contractors have been killed or injured during the United States’ wars. For such data, the U.S. government relies on a database kept by the Department of Labor, but contractors and contracting companies have a significant incentive not to report incidents.
Many TCNs like Shrestha are already looking for the next war. Speaking by phone from a hotel in Dubai, Kamal Manandhar* explains that he recently left Bagram, where he worked for Fluor Corporation, and is now hoping to go to Iraq.
“There are 12 of us Nepalis here, and four of us have applied for jobs with Vectrus [a defense contractor] in Iraq.” Manandhar said he heard the starting salary is $9,000 per year. If he can get one of the jobs, he plans to go. But he concedes, “No one wants to leave their family and go to a war zone. I’d rather be at home having a good time with my family. But I come here because it’s a compulsion.”
As the United States increased its reliance on contractors from one contractor for every 100 soldiers in the first Gulf war to a ratio in Afghanistan where there were often more contractors than soldiers, other countries have followed suit. There are reports of Russia hiring more contractors; many Gulf countries now rely on them to fill the ranks of their militaries and it is more and more common for private companies to build out their own militias. The end of U.S. involvement in the war in Afghanistan is not the end of the conflict, and may actually be an inflection point as many of these contractors move on to less transparent war zones.
Over the past 20 years, conflicts have become more likely to blend commercial and political aims, and more likely to pull in contractors from poor countries like Nepal, while providing them with fewer protections. What will change with the end of U.S. involvement is access for journalists and academics who have studied these practices. This will make the shadowy world that Shrestha works in more difficult to understand and exploitation more likely.
*Names of contractors were changed upon their request.