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Watson’s Costs of War Project finds contracted workers in Afghanistan not properly compensated after injury, death

Report focuses on potential violations of DBA, failure to hold contractors accountable

<p>The report found that many third-party nationals did not receive the benefits that the Defense Base Act promises them. “These third-country nationals are invisible to a lot of Americans,” said Peter Gill, one of the report&#x27;s authors.</p>

The report found that many third-party nationals did not receive the benefits that the Defense Base Act promises them. “These third-country nationals are invisible to a lot of Americans,” said Peter Gill, one of the report's authors.

The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs’ Costs of War Project released a report Dec. 22 which found that third-country nationals were not properly compensated after being injured or killed while working for the U.S. military in Afghanistan. The report, entitled “Uncompensated Allies: How Contracting Companies and U.S. Government Agencies Failed Third-Country Nationals in Afghanistan,” was authored by Noah Coburn, a political anthropologist at Bennington College, and Peter Gill, a journalist for The Columbus Dispatch, both of whom are contributors to the project.

In an interview with The Herald, Gill explained that “third-country nationals are people from poor countries … who are neither American nor (from) Afghanistan.” According to the report, third-country nationals were hired to work in Afghanistan for wages that “were sometimes only marginally better than those in their home countries.” The report highlighted the stories of Nepali workers but noted that third-country nationals came from “Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and beyond.”

Of the approximately 3,900 contractors killed during U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, about half of them were third-country nationals, the report states.

“These third-country nationals are invisible to a lot of Americans,” Gill said, “and are not part of our national narrative about how the war in Afghanistan was fought. Yet they were integral to it.” 


“I interviewed one former Marine who then went to work for a security contractor guarding the U.S. Embassy in Kabul,” Gill added, “and he said that people would refer to the Nepalis who worked in the outer perimeter as ‘bait’ for terrorists.”

The Costs of War Project was founded within the Watson Institute in 2010 and seeks to deepen understanding about the impacts of conflict and war, The Herald previously reported. This new report’s findings contribute to the project’s larger aim to “shed light on the hidden, unacknowledged and deeper costs of the post-9/11 wars,” said Stephanie Savell, a co-director of the Costs of War Project.

“This fits with our broader mission because it’s something that, especially in the U.S., many Americans aren’t aware of,” Savell said. “This kind of report is really important because it allows … groups (and) civil society organizations to be able to advocate for these people” whose stories have not been previously told.

Savell also explained that the report uncovered possible violations of the Defense Base Act, which requires that third-country nationals “be compensated for injuries and (ensures) their next of kin can be compensated in case of their death,” she added. “It’s basically one of the only legal protections to which (third-country nationals) have access.”

Yet many contractors who came from other countries did not receive the benefits that the DBA  promises them, the report found.

Gill described his experiences living in Nepal and interviewing the families of Nepali workers working on U.S. military bases following a Taliban attack outside of Kabul. “I went and I followed up with the families of the guards who lost their husbands and their fathers,” Gill said. “And I quickly realized that they were not necessarily compensated according to the Defense Base Act.”

“The paper shows that a lot of the contracting companies that are hiring these people are just not following through on this legal requirement,” Savell said. “There’s contractors and subcontractors who are hiring workers” and then evading the “regulations that the Defense Department has put into place.”

Between 2009 and 2021, the U.S. Department of Labor only fined contractors a total of six times — amounting to $3,250 in fines — for failing to report their employees’ claims, the report found. According to Savell, this demonstrates how the “U.S. government is rarely punishing these companies for the failure to compensate (workers).”

The Department of Defense did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement to NBC News, a D.O.D. spokesperson said that “the Department of Defense is not aware of the cited study nor any specific cases of Defense Base Act noncompliance.” The statement added that the law is “very clear when overseas workers’ compensation and war-hazard insurance is required.”

Savell emphasized that, though the U.S. formally ended its operations in Afghanistan in 2021, the report still has important implications regarding the aftermath of the American withdrawal.


“It’s all too tempting to think the U.S. war in Afghanistan is over because U.S. soldiers have withdrawn, but there are so many ripple effects,” Savell said. “These people are still working in Afghanistan for some of these contracting companies, which still haven’t left the war zone.”

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