Migrant Workers and the US Military in the Middle East

by Darryl Li
published in MER275

Over the past 15 years, the United States has waged two major land wars in the greater Middle East with hundreds of thousands of ground troops. Shadowing these armies and rivaling them in size has been a labor force of private contractors. The security company once called Blackwater has played an outsize role in the wide-ranging debate about the privatization of war and attendant concerns of corruption, waste and human rights abuses. But this debate has also largely overlooked a crucial fact: While Blackwater was founded and largely staffed by retired US military personnel, the vast majority of the overseas contractor work force is not American.

The so-called privatization revolution has also been an offshoring revolution, with US contractors frequently overseeing an even larger set of foreign subcontractors and workers. Accompanying US forces are both local workers and migrants imported from outside, dubbed “third-country nationals” (TCNs) by the Pentagon.

Over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of TCNs have worked in support of the US military’s Central Command or CENTCOM in an arc of countries stretching from east Africa to central Asia. Migrant labor has become indispensable to Washington’s war machine, with TCNs often outnumbering American and local contractors and even most allied contingents.

For much of 2010 and 2011, there were more TCNs supporting the US military in Iraq than American and local contractors combined. According to the latest figures, from April 2015, only 39 percent of the over 54,000 contractors in the CENTCOM area of responsibility are American, the rest being roughly equally divided between locals and TCNs. [1]

TCN workers are involved in nearly all aspects of base life, including construction, food preparation, entertainment, firefighting and even armed guard duty. They have come from dozens of countries, including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Chile, Colombia, Fiji, India, Nepal, Peru, the Philippines, South Africa and Uganda. In Iraq, TCNs continued to play a major role in supporting US government operations after the formal end of combat operations and will likely do the same in Afghanistan as well in the event of a troop withdrawal. Post-sequestration downsizing of the US military is likely to further strengthen pressures to employ migrant workers.

On US bases abroad, foreign workers are usually paid a fraction of what US citizen contractors and soldiers make; they are not included in the politically sensitive figures of “boots on the ground”; and their deaths and injuries are not officially tallied and rarely register in debates in Washington. [2] TCNs present additional benefits from the Pentagon’s perspective: They are deemed less likely to make common cause with insurgents than local workers and they are readily deportable if non-compliant. Many TCNs are forced to pay recruiting firms exorbitant fees to secure their jobs, leaving them highly indebted and effectively indentured. Not surprisingly, stories of horrific abuse and mistreatment of TCNs have received considerable media coverage in recent years and sparked reform efforts back in Washington.

Military Privatization and the Shift to the Gulf

The US military has a long history of employing local citizens on its overseas military bases. Indeed, the use of private actors in military affairs is historically the norm rather than the exception, with the high point of US centralization of the instruments of force likely taking place in the twentieth century under the Cold War national security state. The few precedents from this period stand out precisely because of this backdrop: After the 1959 revolution, the naval station at Guantánamo Bay largely switched over from a Cuban work force to Filipinos and Jamaicans, who today comprise some 40 percent of the base’s population. [3]

The restructuring of the US military at the end of the Cold War helped drive the shift to a migrant labor work force. While the military was affected by the broader push to privatize government functions that had started decades earlier, how and where privatization occurred also mattered. By shifting to a new center of gravity in the Persian Gulf, the US military restructured in ways that meshed with that region’s political economy.

Over the past two decades, the US military has privatized many of its functions, especially those related to logistics and base support services. A major development was the rise of the Army’s Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP), which enabled the military to delegate wide-ranging authority for logistics to private contractors. Instead of hiring private companies to provide specific goods or services, the Pentagon awards LOGCAP contracts to large companies (“prime contractors”) to supply logistical needs for entire missions on an open-ended basis. In order to accomplish specific goals, prime contractors then issue task orders to subcontractors, which may be US or non-US companies.

Contracts have been widely criticized for reimbursement structures that guarantee a fixed percentage of profit, thus encouraging cost inflation, fraud and waste by prime contractors and subcontractors alike. The 2003-2011 war in Iraq was mostly supported through the LOGCAP III contract, managed by KBR. The current LOGCAP IV contract relies on a handful of prime contractors rather than a single one: Operations in Afghanistan are divided between Fluor (northern and eastern regions) and DynCorp (west and south).

The first significant military operation to run on a LOGCAP contract was in Somalia in 1992, where prime contractor Brown and Root (now KBR) arrived less than 24 hours after US forces. Privatization created a stronger incentive to reduce labor costs, providing an economic rationale for relying on non-US workers, although not necessarily for importing migrant workers from third countries. In Kosovo, 90 percent of Brown and Root’s workers were local, making it the biggest employer in the area. [4]

Military privatization, however, is not simply an abstract process that unfolds in the same way across space and time. Crucial to understanding the rise of TCN labor in particular was the post-Cold War military’s shift to a new center of gravity—the Persian Gulf. The 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait cemented a major shift in the global US military posture that began after the Iranian revolution, with the deployment of large ground forces to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait as a counterbalance to both Iraq and Iran. The military that fought the 1991 Gulf war was still largely a Cold War-era one, with relatively limited contractor use. But since then, US bases in the Gulf have been key staging areas for operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, engendering a broader shift in labor procurement patterns.

In comparison to the major overseas hubs of the Cold War military in Western Europe and East Asia, the Gulf economies make overwhelming use of foreign migrant labor. The Gulf states’ migrant-driven economies converged with changes in US military logistics. As early as the 1960s, the US Army Corps of Engineers in Saudi Arabia, which built some of the country’s early television network infrastructure as well as many of its major military installations, employed migrants for much of its construction and maintenance work, and only a few locals. [5] In the decades that followed, the use of migrant labor grew even more dramatically. Gulf regimes crushed budding labor movements that emerged around the petrochemical industry and replaced them with large numbers of migrants, all while extending state largesse to pacify and coopt the citizenry. In contrast, contractors at the major US airbase at Incirlik, Turkey, were forced into arbitration with local unions after major strikes in the late 1980s and early 1990s. One US military contractor complained of the Turkish workers having a “home-field advantage.” [6] In countries like Kuwait, such issues were no longer a major concern.

By the late 1990s, companies specializing in recruiting migrant labor for construction, logistics and security in the petroleum and related industries were poised to lend their services to the US military. As a result, large US military contractors such as KBR, DynCorp and Fluor can draw from a variety of smaller multinational companies to recruit and transfer workers through the Gulf. One Dubai-based company operating on bases in Afghanistan, Ecolog, was founded by an ethnic Albanian entrepreneur who started out providing services to NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo. One of the leading recruiters of Ugandan security guards for the US military, Dreshak Group, is also based in Dubai but was founded in Pakistan.

The Shape of the Force in Iraq

In order to grasp a sense of the magnitude of the US military’s reliance on foreign contract labor, it is necessary to compare official troop levels—the numbers that are often the fixation of policy debates in Washington—with the size and composition of the contract work force. The following figures are a preliminary attempt at such an analysis in the CENTCOM area of responsibility. [7] Unfortunately, there are no readily available statistics for use of TCNs by the US military worldwide, nor is there publicly available data on the breakdown of nationalities among TCNs. Nevertheless, even this limited data makes apparent the major role of TCN workers, including in armed security work.

The Iraq war presents perhaps the starkest example of the contemporary, multinational, public/private nature of the US military. Figure 1 compiles data on uniformed personnel and contractors in Iraq (unfortunately, this graph does not include recent deployments in the campaign against the self-declared Islamic State or ISIS). [8] This graph illustrates the privatization revolution in action, with total contractor figures rivaling those of uniformed personnel and even exceeding them on average in 2008, 2010 and 2011. In terms of raw numbers, the total contractor work force peaked at 163,591 in December 2007, just shy of the 165,700 uniformed personnel in the country at that time; by 2011, contractors outnumbered service members by a ratio of 1.7 to 1. This trend is consistent with increased reliance on contractors during the withdrawal phase: Contractors allowed the US to maintain operations while reducing the politically sensitive number of uniformed personnel. Indeed, thousands of contractors continued to work for the Pentagon even after the end of US combat operations in December 2011.

This graph also makes clear that the privatization revolution has been an outsourcing revolution as well, with US citizens constituting a minority of the contractor work force. Indeed, from 2009 onward, TCNs were the single largest category; in 2010 and 2011, TCNs outnumbered US and Iraqi contractors combined. They also outnumbered the total British military contingent. Notably, the increased reliance on TCNs has come largely at the expense of Iraqi workers, whose share of the contractor population fell dramatically from 2007 to 2011. The percentage of US workers also increased, albeit more modestly. This confluence strongly suggests that TCNs are especially important to cover the withdrawal of US forces.

While contractors are normally thought of as performing support work for the military, it is striking that many TCNs in Iraq were armed guards. Contractors are officially prohibited from engaging in offensive combat operations, but frequently work in personal security details and also guard bases and convoys. In August 2008, employees of private security companies constituted 7.15 percent of the TCN population in Iraq, a figure that steadily climbed over the next three years. By January 2012, shortly after the withdrawal, 85.6 percent of the nearly 9,500 TCNs were employed in the security sector. Needless to say, these numbers translated into an overwhelming dominance of TCNs in the private security sector of the military work force overall. TCNs comprised between 70 and 88 percent of total private security personnel in the military labor force after 2008, dwarfing the combined numbers of US citizens and Iraqis. The number of armed TCN security contractors appears to have peaked at 11,580—the equivalent of 11 percent of US troops in the country around that time.

Ugandans in particular have been prominent in maintaining perimeter security on US bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. At one point there were nearly 10,000 Ugandans in Iraq. Indeed, while armed US security contractors such as those fighting for the company then known as Blackwater have attracted the lion’s share of attention, US citizens have never exceeded 11 percent of the total security contractor force in this period. Figure 2 illustrates the breakdown.

This pattern appears to hold for non-military US government operations in Iraq as well. According to the latest available data, from fiscal year 2010, TCNs comprised 49 percent of the about 11,000 contractors supporting the State Department in the country—and nearly 66 percent of private security personnel. [9]

The Shape of the Force in Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, there are striking similarities and differences in the use of contractors compared to Iraq. Figure 3 compiles data on both service members and contractors deployed to that country. In Afghanistan, the overall extent of contractor reliance has been even greater than in Iraq. Contractors have consistently outnumbered service members in Afghanistan, except at the peak of the troop surge in 2011. In January 2015, the total ratio of contractors to service members reached nearly 4 to 1.

The composition of the contractor work force, however, differs significantly from that in Iraq. In Afghanistan, the US has relied far more on local workers, who made up the overwhelming majority of the labor pool until 2011. Since then, the US has recalibrated, moving to a rough balance between Afghans, Americans and TCNs. As in Iraq, promises of eventual withdrawal have justified shifting to a more internationalized and “flexible” work force.

The contrast between the US military labor force in Iraq and Afghanistan is even more apparent in the security sector. Unlike in Iraq, security firms in Afghanistan have mostly employed locals. Over time, there has nevertheless been a steady increase in the use of TCN contractors by private security companies, and by 2015 TCNs comprised around half of the Pentagon’s total private security contractor force there.

The greater emphasis on TCN use in Iraq compared to Afghanistan can be explained by several factors: First, US forces disbanded the Iraqi army and faced an aggressive insurgency from the first year of the occupation, which strongly discouraged employment of Iraqis. In Afghanistan, US forces had a much lower profile and began their mission with strong local militia partners. Yet as the Afghan mission has expanded along with the scale of the insurgency, US forces have increasingly turned to TCNs. Second, Afghanistan’s relative distance from the Gulf and its land-locked location likely made the importation of TCNs more expensive and difficult than in Iraq. But in both instances, TCNs have played a major role, especially during periods of rapid increase or decrease in the number of troops.

The Shape of the Force in the Gulf

Finally, figures for contractors in the CENTCOM area of responsibility outside Iraq and Afghanistan confirm that extensive use of TCNs is not limited to combat areas. The US military presence in the region includes major bases in Kuwait, Bahrain (home of the US Fifth Fleet) and Qatar (which hosts a forward headquarters for CENTCOM at Al Udeid Air Base). These facilities are crucial staging areas for US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in the projection of US military power throughout the greater Indian Ocean.

Although there are no publicly available overall figures for service member deployments in the CENTCOM area to enable comparison with contract worker statistics, the raw numbers themselves are impressive, as depicted in Figure 4. TCNs reached a peak of 35,000 in 2009 and outnumbered local and US contractors combined in 2008, 2010, 2011, 2014 and into 2015. Locals were the least numerous category; in January 2015, their share dipped to less than 1 percent of the contractor work force. This figure is especially striking in light of the long-standing US military presence in many of these countries, but is consistent given the composition of local labor markets.

Workers’ Rights

The legal status of private military contractors has sparked considerable discussion, albeit with a misleading emphasis on the US citizens: Typically, American war workers do not receive the same political validation that soldiers do, but are paid much higher salaries. Foreign contract workers, however, are treated neither as soldiers to be honored nor as mercenaries who may charge a premium for specialized military skills. They are covered by World War II-era workers’ compensation laws, but numerous practical obstacles prevent them from effectively pursuing claims. The Department of Labor, for example, will not even send mail to Iraq for processing compensation claims. [10]

In recent years, media exposés of the plight of foreign contract workers have highlighted the risks they face. Local workers are tarred with the accusation of collaborating with foreign occupiers and vulnerable to reprisals from local insurgents. As a result, some can apply for special visas to the United States. TCNs, on other hand, are vulnerable by virtue of being in a war zone far from home, often saddled with crushing debts accrued in order to pay recruitment fees to obtain jobs in the first place. This vulnerability has contributed to substandard or unsafe working conditions, housing, summary reductions in pay, and sexual and other forms of harassment.

The US government has enacted some reforms, but their effect appears to be limited and they do not address core labor rights concerns. Most measures have framed the issue as one of “human trafficking,” which revolves around a narrower—and more difficult to prove in court—set of egregious abuses that require government intervention. Instead of empowering workers to organize on their own behalf, trafficking measures tend to posit the US government as savior by rescuing victims and prosecuting wrongdoers. This model, widely assailed within the United States, is even more flawed in overseas war zones where Washington relies on the very corporations that are driving the trafficking. There have been no criminal prosecutions for trafficking on US bases overseas. No contracts have been terminated for abuses against TCNs, although the Pentagon has in a few instances punished corporations for failing to pay local Afghan workers.

Recently enacted federal regulations ban the charging of recruitment fees, [11] but an investigation by Middle East Report editor Anjali Kamat for Al Jazeera found that many TCNs falsely tell the US government that they did not pay such fees in order to avoid losing their jobs. It is unclear how this policy can be implemented given strong incentives to pass responsibility (and plausible deniability) down the contracting chain from the larger corporations to the smaller recruitment agencies.

To the extent the US government has moved to recognize labor rights for foreign contract workers, serious questions remain. The Pentagon has enacted a “bill of rights” of sorts for contractor employees that specifies important basic standards such as receiving agreed-upon wages on time, taking appropriate breaks and possessing written employment contracts in languages workers understand. The rule, however, pegs wages and housing and safety standards to the laws of the host country. [12] These protections mean little in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where the minimum wage is below $1 per hour. And Bahrain, Djibouti and Qatar, for example, all host significant US military forces but have no private-sector minimum wage laws. Moreover, even this bill of rights lacks any clear enforcement mechanism: The rules are imposed by the Pentagon on contractors, but provide no clear basis for workers themselves to assert those rights in any court.

Author’s Note: Thanks to the Social Science Research Council’s InterAsia Program, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, for helping to support the research upon which this article is based.


[1] US Department of Defense, “Contractor Support of US Operations in the USCENTCOM Area of Responsibility,” April 2015.
[2] The website icasualties.org has compiled a list of 259 TCN contractors killed in Iraq, based on media reports. See “Iraq Coalition Casualties: Contractors—A Partial List.” 
[3] Jana Lipman, Guantánamo: A Working-Class History Between Empire and Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).
[4] George Cahlink, “Army of Contractors,” Government Executive 34/2 (February 2002), p. 46.
[5] Robert P. Grathwol and Donita Moorhus, Bricks, Sand and Marble: US Army Corps of Engineers Construction in the Mediterranean and Middle East, 1947-1991 (Washington, DC: Center of Military History and Corps of Engineers, 2009), p. 286.
[6] Pratap Chatterjee, Halliburton’s Army: How a Well-Connected Texas Oil Company Revolutionized the Way America Makes War (New York: Nation Books, 2009), p. 56.
[7] For more on the methodology of calculating these figures, see Darryl Li, “Offshoring the Army: Migrant Workers and the US Military,” UCLA Law Review 62/1 (January 2015), pp. 132-133. Updated troop levels in Afghanistan for 2014 and 2015 are based on media reports.
[8] As of the second quarter of fiscal year 2015, the Pentagon employed some 600 contractors in Iraq, but their nationalities have not been publicly disclosed. See footnote 1.
[9] Department of Defense, “Annual Joint Report on Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan: Report to the Relevant Committees of Congress” (April 2011), p. 9.
[10] Department of Labor, “DBA Procedures.”
[11] Federal Acquisition Regulation 22.1703(a)(6). The relevant federal legislation, however, only bans “unreasonable” recruitment fees, meaning this prohibition can be changed without Congressional action. See 22  U.S.C. § 7104(g)(iv)(IV).
[12] Defense Federal Acquisition Supplement 252.225-7040(d)(8).

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