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As part of our series on working conditions in the private security industry we interviewed Noah Coburn about his book “Under Contract, The Invisible Workers of America’s Global War”. Noah Coburn is a Professor of Anthropology at Bennington College. He is one of the few contemporary anthropologists with years of on-the-ground field research experience in Afghanistan.

Most of the work on American bases has been outsourced to private firms that then contract out individual jobs, often to the lowest bidder. An “American” base in Afghanistan or Iraq will be staffed with workers from places like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Turkey, Bosnia, and Nepal: so-called “third-country nationals.” Noah Coburn traces this unseen workforce across seven countries, following the workers’ often zigzagging journey to war.

This is part one of a two-part series. In this first series, we focus on Noah Coburn’s background and the current conditions and challenges faced by private security personnel. 



Could you share a bit about how you became interested in private security and how long you’ve been working on your book?

As a political anthropologist, I’ve conducted field research in Afghanistan since 2005. I lived in a small village doing very traditional anthropological research. And then the war came. All of a sudden, my village got pulled increasingly into the war. I got my PhD. I kept doing work in Afghanistan, and I ended up doing a book project about a military base down the road from my village, which hadn’t been what I was interested in originally. I decided to track down people and figure out what their experience of the war in Afghanistan was because I’m interested in how different groups experience it.

The summer of 2013 was when I started looking for guards who had been to Afghanistan. I started focusing on how they understood the war there. I spent almost a year and a half in different places: Nepal, India, Georgia, and Turkey, tracking them. The majority of the time was in Nepal. As I did that, I expanded out, did more research, and came to write more and more about private security contractors. My focus still expanded far beyond Afghanistan, eventually to Iraq, Yemen, or DRC. I also became interested in the role of Nepali guards in India, but my focus remains primarily in conflict zones. I came at it from a very “ground up” approach of trying to understand the conflicts from the guards’ perspectives. Subsequently, as I became increasingly interested, I started reading the literature on private security contracting.

I found almost everybody else comes at this from a “political science”, top-down approach. There are not tons of folks who are looking at that from the bottom up. My book was trying to focus on this aspect of it.

What are the different dimensions you think we should be focusing on in terms of improving working conditions in the private security industry?

Gender is clearly an issue, but not one that I have as much familiarity with because almost every single guard I spoke to was male. Skills development is also important but to me but the primary important dimension would be transparency and information: maybe this is also the difference between working in a conflict zone versus other areas, but particularly guards in conflict zones oftentimes have very little information going into the experience and would have made decisions differently if they knew about the security risks. Visa status was one of those things that was really manipulated a lot in Afghanistan. You hear about similar things happening in Qatar and the Gulf states.

As an anthropologist I am grounded in context: it’s like that in Afghanistan, but in the context of Iraq and Yemen it’s completely different. In terms of the code of conduct, it’s really difficult to have something that’s completely overarching because the experience of a Nepali guard in India versus a Nepali guard in Afghanistan is totally different, let alone being a Romanian guard in some places. Don’t get me wrong, I think what ICoCA is doing is great and I think it needs to be done. I applaud those efforts. I also often am annoyed by anthropologists because they try to torpedo these efforts because they say it’s so different everywhere. But that doesn’t mean that there are not some things that I do think could be more consistent.

Those conditions are just so variable, which is maybe why I’m focusing on transparency. I think there’s such a lack of transparency in the industry. At least the workers I talk to, jump from Iraq to Afghanistan to Yemen and they don’t always know or realize that the law about visa status in Iraq is totally different from the law about their visa status in Afghanistan.

How would you describe the working conditions of the guards you encountered in your research on Afghanistan?

Bad. I think it is an industry that shows very little interest in worker development. I think it is to its fault: oftentimes for the clients, not a lot of value is placed on experience or skills as long as they appear to fit the contract.

Frankly, the more dangerous the place you’re in, the more dangerous the job is. Guarding an embassy in Kabul was totally different than guarding a forward operating base. Oftentimes, the guards wouldn’t know what they were getting assigned to until they were already there. The guards who had been around for a while would then advocate to get transferred to these safer posts. If you’re working for the same company in the same country, you’re oftentimes earning the same amount through it all.

The other piece of the working condition that is conveniently outside the purview of the private security firm is how the worker got there and did the worker incur debts paying bribes to get the position. The firms will tell you, no, there are no bribes and there are no fees attached to getting this job.

A lot of the firms that I’ve talked with say they don’t traffick these workers. In reality, they rely on a labour pool that is only there by being trafficked. They are creating the economic conditions that are trafficking them. All the groups in Afghanistan I knew had outsourced this to so-called “labour firms”, mostly in India. None of these guard companies were actually trafficking, but they were all relying on traffickers who trafficked their workers.

In conflict zones, workers oftentimes feel highly confined to the bases that they’re on, in part because they’re told, there are Taliban everywhere and you’ll get killed if you leave. Also in part because sometimes their passports will be confiscated and sometimes held for their protection. In Afghanistan, contracting firms working for the US military would fly guards directly onto bases without passing through Afghan customs or immigration. These guards end up on Afghan bases without an Afghan immigration stamp on their passport, even if they have a visa. If that guard leaves the base and gets picked up by a police officer, they can be thrown into jail.

The firm imprisons them within the base by telling them they don’t have a passport or a visa. If they leave this base, they’re going to get arrested. This is back to the importance of transparency.

In addition to this, add into that the debt with the broker. The broker will say, “Take out a loan, pay me 3000 USD and I will get you a job that pays you 1000 a month and you’ll get it back in three months”. The broker delivers the guard to the airport. The airlines fly some into Afghanistan, and he gets there and the guard firm says, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. We’re paying you $400 a month. That’s what the deal has always been.” At that point, the guard can’t leave the broker. The company might even offer to fly the guard out. However, the guard currently carries a burden of $3,000 in debt and prefers not to return home by air, fearing it may exacerbate issues related to reputation, honour, familial debt, and the stigma of failure. Consequently, these guards find themselves effectively indentured while stationed at these bases.

How have working conditions changed over the years?

In the post-9/11 wars, the U.S. government set in motion practices that are now being used by other governments, like the Saudis, the Emiratis, or the Russians with the Wagner group. By relying on contractors so heavily in Iraq and Afghanistan the U.S. has set the bar and plenty of people are happy to skate underneath that bar. I think it’s gotten worse as we’ve had more fragmented conflicts and conflicts that are not in the news as much.

This is an issue for injury compensation, which often doesn’t get paid. The Nepalis that have been able to defend themselves have done that usually by using journalists as companies are concerned about their reputation, then some sort of cash payment oftentimes gets arranged. But there are very few journalists in Yemen, and there are even fewer journalists in some of these smaller conflict areas where there are still quite a few guards. I really worry about transparency there.

The practice of hiring workers from abroad continues in places like oil platforms off the coast of Nigeria and places where there are no State authorities, but you have companies that are hiring their own military forces. Oftentimes, the government in Nigeria will require a certain number of these workers to be Nigerian, but there’s still a bunch that are not. I think that practice will continue. I heard quite a bit of that in South Sudan where you had workers guarding oil fields. You’re essentially working for a private security firm that’s funded by a private company as opposed to funded by a government entity, which makes monitoring just that much harder.

During World War One or World War Two, when the US was building a base, cleaning a latrine, or feeding soldiers, it used soldiers to do that. They did the work of war. In Afghanistan at the height of the intervention, there was one contractor for every single soldier. You had as many contractors as soldiers. During the Trump administration, they drew down the troops, but they didn’t draw down the contractors resulting in 1 soldier for 4 contractors.

What you get is this world in which the labour of war is increasingly being outsourced to people whose lives are less expensive economically and politically. The reason most US politicians do this is having an American soldier come home in a body bag is more of a political cost than anything else, but having a Nepali guard die while guarding a fuel convoy is not.

The US military will say we don’t hire those contractors to do military operations, but this is a misrepresentation. Let’s take the example of delivering fuel to bases in Afghanistan, a fuel convoy is constantly targeted by insurgents. To deliver fuel to a base, you need to anticipate kinetic activity, you have a battle plan. You have forward escort vehicles; you have back vehicles. You lay out a military strategy to deliver that fuel to that base. But now the US military doesn’t deliver its own fuel to its bases. It pays companies to deliver fuel to its bases and those companies hire guards. Nepali guards are then thrown onto these things conducting kinetic events. I would argue then you have this trickle down, particularly in the Gulf to Saudis and to Emiratis. I would argue that the Russians are seeing this and are just doing something similar, more nefarious, more devious. I think this proceeds a similar understanding of what war is and how war should be fought today.

What are the working conditions like at different stages of the workers career, from recruitment to departure?

It depends on where you are and who you know. I will say among the Nepalis, Indians, or Turks I met, those who did the best were the ones that knew somebody else in the industry.  Somebody who could advise them on the good companies to trust.

The people that tended to be most exploited were the younger ones, obviously the less educated ones. Illiteracy is a giant barrier here in terms of accessing your rights. The ones that fared better were the ones that had a background and were experienced such as the “real” Gurkhas, Nepalis who had served in the British military, had British military training, retired from the British military, and then joined one of these firms. They knew which companies treated people better.

All that being said, even for them, working conditions were bad. In 2015 there was an attack on a van full of Nepali guards on their way back from the Canadian embassy in Kabul, which sort of highlighted the practice that the Nepalis are paid to guard the Canadian embassy or the U.S. embassy but they don’t actually live there. They live in these much less secure bases by the airport. They were asked to provide a certain level of security to people who were not providing them with that same level of security.

When it comes to departure, little to no support would be the answer. The one extreme case of this is injury and a real question about what happens to guards when they are injured while on the job. If you’re working on a U.S. contract, you are guaranteed under US law certain forms of compensation. The companies will then try to get around this compensation. But oftentimes just getting them out of the country as quickly as possible and handing them a cash payment of 25,000 USD, along with sort of a veiled threat of here and without them knowing that really under US law, they’re probably entitled to several hundred thousand. And the company has made sort of a bet that 25,000 USD is enough to shut them up. And you just ship them back to Nepal.  I’ve tracked down a couple of attacks in Afghanistan where I knew US soldiers, US contractors, and Nepali contractors had all been injured in the attack. The U.S. contractors and the U.S. soldiers were all treated medically in Afghanistan at military bases which have state-of-the-art, western medicine. As for the Nepalis, they were being flown to Kathmandu to have this operation.

The Nepalis love collecting certificates and things like that. So, they get trained in a new gun, get a certificate for it, and keep the certificate. So oftentimes what I do is I sit in these interviews, and they’d have these big binders filled with all these certificates, and they were really actually good at sort of saving every little document of the work that they had done. One of these guys who was attacked had all of this spread out for me, and you could go through it up until the day of the attack and then the documentation halts.

The company would not give him any document that acknowledged he had been injured, that acknowledged an attack that happened or that acknowledged he had been dismissed. The one document he got was a document that stated he had turned in his gun the day of the attack. So that’s that.

In the second part of this interview series, we will unpack the causes and implications of working conditions and the outlook for improvement. 






The views and opinions presented in this article belong solely to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the stance of the International Code of Conduct Association (ICoCA).