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Transnational Migration - "Under Contract" Book Review


Under Contract will change the way you think about ‘American’ wars. Coburn’s sweeping ethnography brings to light the complex network of transnational migration surrounding the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, displaying that so-called third-country contractors have become an essential component of the US war machinery.


This book is the product of extensive anthropological research; Coburn conducted interviews in Nepal, Georgia, Turkey, India, Sri Lanka, and the UK with 250 people who worked in Afghanistan as contractors or who were related to these migration flows. The narrative is accessible and easy to follow, comprising in-depth accounts from a smaller collection of participants. Through these ethnographic vignettes, Coburn makes visible the significance and experiences of third-country contractors who are so often obscured in main-stream narratives.


The experiences of contractors in Afghanistan were highly racialised and varied significantly by nationality. Racialised, nationality-based hierarchies extended far beyond employment opportunities, impacting every aspect of life for contractors in Afghanistan. Nepalis, at the bottom of this hierarchy, were poorly paid, at higher risk of trafficking and other forms of exploitation, frequently had their freedoms curtailed and had limited support from their own government. Meanwhile, Turks, for example, could own small businesses and count on some government support, but only Americans and other ‘expatriates’ could run large companies. These hierarchies mirror those in Gulf countries where transnational migration networks are similarly structured and have been labelled a ‘de facto caste system based on national origin’ by the UN Special Rapporteur on Racism, Tendayi Achiume.


These hierarchies also determined the level of conflict-related risk contractors were exposed to while providing essential security and defence work. This minimises risk and deaths of American citizens, allowing the US government to push a ‘small-war’ narrative and reduce opposition to the war from within the US. Further, contracting reduces US financial responsibility for compensation to people who have been injured or killed while supporting its war effort. The private companies employing contractors also frequently shirked this responsibility, leaving contractors without compensation or support following injury and illness related to their work.


In March 2012, the US Department of Defense alone had more than 75,000 non-American contractors in Afghanistan. While the scale of contracting in Afghanistan and Iraq was a departure from historical trends, these transnational migration networks and the practice of contracting is rooted in colonialism. Most notably, Nepali Gurkhas, soldiers revered for their bravery and loyalty, and recruited to the British Imperial Army since 1816, were highly sought after as security contractors in Afghanistan. Many retired British Gurkhas were recruited directly from the British Armed Forces to private sector jobs in Afghanistan. Thus, while the war in Afghanistan takes a unique form, the transnational migration networks underlying it reflect longstanding colonial practices.


While Coburn’s ethnography portrays a diversity of male experiences in Afghanistan, few women are foregrounded. Coburn acknowledges this, highlighting that it is a very male-dominated space. Nevertheless, research choices could have been made to address this limitation. For example, by interviewing Filipino women who, according to Coburn’s account, frequently worked as contractors in front of house serving positions. Further, the attempts to address the sex trafficking of women that is frequent around military bases were also extremely limited.

Overall, Coburn shows the central role international labour migration plays in the US Military-Industrial complex through a thoughtful engagement with the people it impacts.


Under Contract: The Invisible Workers of America's Global War. Noah Coburn. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2018. 368 pages. ISBN: 9781503605367

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