A few years back, when I was deployed to Afghanistan, I wrote a tiny bit about the workers who make the U.S. bases that pepper the region run smoothly, fueled on fried chicken, Subway, Burger King, and Baskin Robbins. I’m sure I’m not the only one to have struck up a conversation with the affable Nepalese men who run the barbershop on Ali al Saleem Air Base in Kuwait.
In the New Yorker this week, Sarah Stillman has written a rather penetrating look into the conditions these workers face. It’s almost sad to admit that many of the horrors she recounts—food riots, sexual abuse, appalling living conditions, and recruitment fraud—sound familiar if you’ve interacted with some of these workers.
AAFES, the organization that runs these service contracts, looks especially bad: they don’t respond to complaints, and they seem unaware of the problems many of these workers have faced in serving the U.S. personnel on these bases. I remember going into the AAFES-run salon on Bagram Air Field, in 2009. It was staffed mostly with Kyrgyz women who, yes, made a lot more money than they would have in Kyrgyzstan. At the same time, they also faced surprisingly terms on their employment: no days off for years at a time (literally working 12 hours a day, seven days a week), at maybe $500 a month. They were paid better than in Kyrgyzstan, but I still got the feeling they were being exploited.
The Indians who ran the nearby nearby Green Mountain Coffeeshop—where my colleagues and I spent many an afternoon sipping espresso and pondering how to “fix” the war—were often surly and made terrible drinks. I thought it was the constant lines, the really obnoxious European soldiers shouting at them, or having to work near the line of portajohns that always smelt of rotting shit. Maybe, just maybe, it was the recruitment fraud that lied to them about working in Dubai, or maybe it was the low wages, or maybe it was their living conditions.
When I spent time at bases away from the major transit areas like Bagram or Kandahar, it was difficult to get a read on the shop workers. I suppose I never spent the time there to really learn (Stillman focuses almost entirely on Iraq, which did have the highest number of workers and the most publicly reported abuses; I hope she is able, perhaps in a book, to also shed light on the workers in Afghanistan). But there was a definite segregation at play: the soldiers almost never interacted with foreigners aside from their interpreters (who were relegated to a separate housing area anyway). It was difficult to build friendships with any of them as a result. You just couldn’t find them.
Camp followers are as old as war, and I think we tend to overemphasize how pernicious the reliance on civilian workers to a war can be in a theoretical sense. Whenever you have an army deployed in any great number for any great period of time you will also have abuse, prostitutes, drugs, human trafficking, and any number of horrible things. At most large U.S. bases in Afghanistan, you can find all of these things: construction workers cooking crystal meth in their isolated housing camp with the cheap and abundant pseudoephedrine cold medicine available at the Base Exchange, Korean prostitutes running a kimchi house on Disney Drive, Egyptian medical workers selling cocaine outside their hospital, and abused women at massage parlors trying, desperately, to make enough money in tips to make their years of indentured servitude somehow worth the stress to their families. In their more honest moments, older U.S. servicemen will reminisce at the government-funded “comfort women” who used to frequent the bases in Southeast Asia. It is just another reason war is a horrible thing to be avoided whenever possible.
I wish I had an answer to this problem. It is appalling. I can remember laughing at the briefings we had to sit through in 2008 about human trafficking; it seemed so out-of-the-blue, so typical of the over-protective military bureaucracy. There is obviously a reason for these briefings to take place. The problem is that the people who need to see them—the subcontractors who run recruitment in other countries and then administer the workers once they’re deployed—almost never do. That needs to change, along with the ludicrous (and by now almost clichéd) lack of oversight of U.S. contractors.