In the line of fireIncreasing costs may outweigh the opportunities for Nepalis in Afghanistan in the days ahead
The death of 13 Nepali contractors working for the Canadian embassy in Kabul last June was a grim reminder of how dangerous work in Afghanistan is for workers from Nepal and other countries in the region. More recently, President Donald Trump’s speech this week on Americans in Afghanistan suggests things may get even more dangerous for international workers from countries like Nepal. Two of my previous publications analyse some of the vulnerabilities that these workers are exposed to and they should be read with new caution as the Trump-led phase of America’s war in Afghanistan begins.
While the Trump administration’s approach to Afghanistan seems little changed from Obama’s—he has removed a clear end date to troop presence and is posed to send another 4,000 or so troops—many of his top advisers have advocated for an increased reliance on private security contractors. Leaders from key security companies have lobbied the president for more contractors to provide assistance to the Afghan Army and Air Force, as well as for the support of international troops in a variety of ways. While no clear policies have been made, it is likely that such an approach would put Nepali and other contractors increasingly in the line of fire. Furthermore, as contractor numbers increase, so will the dangers that they face.
In 2015-16, I interviewed 250 contractors who had worked in Afghanistan, as well as those brokers and officials associated with the industry. These contractors were from India, Turkey and the Republic of Georgia, but by far the highest percentage of security contractors were from Nepal. Many of those I spoke with earned good money and returned safely. Others, however, did not.
Workers, particularly those working for smaller, less legitimate companies are exposed to a series of risks. Some were given wages far less than initially promised and forced to work long hours. Others were housed in terrible conditions and abused by bosses. Still others were kidnapped, robbed or arrested, generally receiving little protection from the companies that they worked for.
During the height of the war in 2009-2011, there was approximately one contractor for every one American soldier in Afghanistan. Since then, as troop numbers have declined, there are now three contractors for every one soldier. This means much less air or medical support for contractors, as well as an increased opportunity for the exploitation of workers from countries like Nepal. With less US government money being spent in Afghanistan it also means some of the larger, more legitimate companies have left the market, leaving openings for smaller, less scrupulous firms.
While conducting interviews in Nepal, one of the things that I found was that many Nepalis working in Afghanistan are often not provided with the right equipment or support. Working for a company that does not have direct support of the US military can leave workers exposed if they are attacked by the Taliban. Brokers and representatives of some companies in Nepal, or larger centres like Delhi and Dubai, will often lie to potential recruits and mislead them about some of the risks they will face in Afghanistan.
The current political and military instability in the country makes things more difficult for contractors. Currently, the Afghan government is a fragile partnership between rival politicians who greatly mistrust each other. This has made the government increasingly unresponsive and corrupt. The Taliban has taken advantage of this, seizing districts that had previously been held by American and Afghan troops. In such a militarily volatile time, contracting companies will struggle to stay out of the line of fire. In interviews I conducted, I found that Nepali workers often times ended up working in areas that were more dangerous than they were initially told. In some cases the Afghan government is more of a hindrance than a help, and workers I interviewed had been robbed or arrested on false charges by corrupt Afghan police. Especially in a constantly changing security environment like the one Afghanistan is in today, conditions can change quickly and brokers are happy to exploit the lack of knowledge that many recruits have.
Gathering from the accounts of Nepali contractors who have worked in Afghanistan, it is clear that many forms of exploitation are most likely on small company bases in comparison to larger bases with a large international presence. However, as large bases close and the number of international troops remains low, there are more and more opportunities for exploitation; this exploitation will be difficult for either the US or the Nepali government to adequately monitor. If a company commits abuses, it will be more and more difficult for workers to address concerns.
After last year’s attack, the Nepali government officially put a ban on Nepalis working in Afghanistan, but in reality, little changed and the Nepalis that I interviewed who were working there continued to travel to the country regularly. As the security conditions continue to deteriorate, there will be even less that the Nepali government can do.
Unfortunately, in Nepal it is all too common to hear the success stories of workers abroad who earned good wages and returned rich. It is less common to hear stories of those contractors who faced hardships and exploitation abroad. Yet, these are the stories potential recruits should listen to before risking their lives traveling to conflict zones like Afghanistan.
While brokers may make bold promises about high wages for work in conflict zones, Nepali workers should think twice and check the reputations of companies carefully before taking the risk of working in a place like Afghanistan.
Coburn is a political anthropologist at Bennington College in the US; he has worked with the Centre for the Study of Labour and Mobility in Kathmandu to study the fates of Nepali contractors in Afghanistan, and is the author of Labouring under Fire: Nepali Security Contractors in Afghanistan