Under Contract
The Invisible Workers of America's Global War
Noah Coburn



The text names and some identifying characteristics of those interviewed have been changed except in the case of public figures and when interviewees explicitly asked that their name be used. With the interviewee’s consent, I recorded most interviews. However, while writing this book, I often found that paraphrasing quotes from interviews was far more effective at conveying the intended meaning as I understood it. In the cases where precise phrasing is important, I have indicated direct quotations by using quotation marks.

I attempted to confirm various details of these experiences to the extent that I could. For example, in Teer Magar’s case, most of the details of his trial were verified by a reporter whom I interviewed later. In this and most other cases, the contracting firm he worked for did not respond to my emails. In some cases, confirming specific details was often impossible because the contractor was alone or had lost contact with those he was with. Throughout the analysis, my emphasis is thus on perceptions of the war and the individual experience described by the contractors.

The sources I have used for various statistics are available in the Sources section. In general, however, there is a dearth of quantitative data on contracting (and, I would argue, these numbers often distract us from the more human aspects of contracting I explore here). This, I believe, is in part due to the chaos of the surge, when money was spent haphazardly and record keeping was not prioritized. More broadly, however, the suppression of data is a useful strategy by contracting companies to prevent the public from getting a real sense of the consequences of their practices. The U.S. government similarly benefits from the public’s having little sense of the economic or human costs of these ongoing wars. Furthermore, by keeping the process muddled and nontransparent, companies, brokers, and corrupt officials benefit while the workers suffer. I would thus argue it is not coincidental that data on contractors are often difficult to find.

As a result, the only way for workers to make it through these convoluted processes is by relying on personal networks. This research was also possible due to the generous sharing of experience and personal networks by a variety of people.

In particular, this book has four godfathers: Lieutenant Bodh Bikram (ret.) in Kathmandu, General Levent Gözkaya (ret.) in Ankara, Archil Kikodze in Tbilisi, and Dr. Jagdish Chander in Delhi. Each provided me with instrumental introductions in their respective countries, advice on logistics, and general moral support during formative phases of this project.

Dawa Sherpa was my research companion (assistant is not a strong enough word) for most of my time in Nepal and for some of my work in Delhi as well. Talking with him as we attempted to track down our initial contacts was instrumental to the shaping of the project, and his sharp eye and empathetic nature make him a fabulous researcher. Our coauthored work (Coburn and Sherpa, 2018) served as a place where I tried out some of the initial ideas that appear in this book. In addition, Kriti Upadhyaya provided me with research assistance in Delhi, and Ben Simpson relentlessly searched archives back in the United States in an attempt to untangle where the American government’s money in Afghanistan actually went. I am grateful to both.

In Nepal, my greatest debt is to Deepak Thapa and Bandita Sijapati at Social Science Baha and the Centre for the Study of Labour and Mobility (CESLAM). Some of the material in this book builds off a preliminary report I wrote for CESLAM, “Labouring Under Fire: Nepali Security Contractors in Afghanistan.” They graciously hosted my research in Nepal and provided valued context and guidance, particularly in getting the research started.

The Fulbright office in Kathmandu, headed by Laurie Vasily with the assistance of Yamal Rajbhandary, was immensely supportive, as was Manohari Upadhyaya at the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies. Also in Nepal, I am also grateful to Subel Bhandari, Bhojraj Bhat, Sara Schneiderman, Dinesh Regmi, Padam Prasad Upadhyay, Jacob Rinck, Neha Choudhary, Bhim Kala Limbu, and Amanda Snellinger, who provided me with valuable introductions and feedback on key aspects of the project. In Kathmandu, Sugat and Roshani Manandhar provided me a warm and welcoming place to come home to.

The following people all offered valuable introductions, as well as logistical, intellectual, and moral support for various aspects of the project: in Turkey, Z. Tuba Sungur, Navid Fozi, Sanem Guner, Asli Mutlu, and Christina Bache Fidan; in India, Taran Khan and Rajpal Yadav; in the United Kingdom, Neha Choudhary and Anna Larson; in the United States, Thomas Barfield, Michael Carrol, Ishmael Hakimi, Baheerullah Safi, Matt Zeller, Matt Handley, and Naeem Anis; and in Afghanistan, Shahmahmood Miakhel, Mohamad Hassan Wafaey, Muneer Salimzai, and Sediq Sediqqi.

I presented various material for this book in a variety of venues. I am grateful to David Gellner, Ina Zharkevich, and Bandita Sijapati for their conference, Circuits of Labour, Obligation and Debt: International Labour Migrants, Their Families, and the “Migration Industry” in Nepal,” hosted by the University of Oxford, Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology. I also presented material at Security, Society, and the State, a conference sponsored by the Gerda Henkel Foundation and organized by Wolfgang Seibel, and at a lecture arranged by Heather Hindman at the South Asia Institute at the University of Texas, Austin.

At Stanford University Press, Michelle Lipinski thoughtfully shepherded this manuscript through the editorial process. Dawa Sherpa, Michael Hutt, Matt Handley, Ronald Neumann, Catherine Lutz, Deepak Thapa, Philipp Münch, and my students in Bennington’s Social Science Senior Seminar read and provided feedback on early versions of various pieces of this book. I am particularly indebted to Beth Ruane, Laurie Rich Salerno, Dawa Sherpa, and Michelle Lipinski, who took the time to read and comment on more complete versions of the text. I am also grateful to the two anonymous reviewers at Stanford who provided insightful feedback.

The funding for the travel and the time it took to complete various aspects of this work came from a Fulbright Regional Scholar Fellowship, a grant from the Gerda Henkel Foundation, a fellowship from the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies, and a joint grant with Timor Sharan from the Hollings Center for International Dialogue.

Bennington College provided me with valuable time away to do most of the travel for this project and the flexibility with scheduling to complete the writing of it. It is a terrific place to teach and learn.

Beth Ruane-Coburn tolerated my peripatetic nature (during this research and in life more generally), and her companionship during this research including a willingness to take long bus rides and put up with my excitement at finding details of a particularly obscure construction contract, made the process more bearable and made this text more relatable on a human level. I will never stop being thankful that she decided to come along on this adventure.

Finally, my greatest debt remains to the over 250 contractors and others who agreed to sit down for one or more interviews with me. In addition to sharing their stories, both good and bad, many opened their homes to me, fed me, and even provided me a place to stay, often refusing to allow me to repay them. Their bravery and humanity are truly extraordinary. I hope that this book does some justice to their remarkable lives.