Some of the foreign contractors who powered the logistics of the United States’ long war in Afghanistan have found themselves stranded on an unending layover in Dubai without a way to get home.
After nearly two decades, the rapid US withdrawal from Afghanistan has upended the lives of thousands of private security contractors from some of the world’s poorest countries – not the hired guns, but the hired hands who serviced the US war effort. For years, they toiled in the shadows as cleaners, cooks, construction workers, servers and technicians on sprawling US bases.
In the rushed evacuation, many of these foreign workers have become stuck in limbo at hotels across Dubai while trying to get home to the Philippines and other countries that restricted international travel because of the coronavirus pandemic.
As the US brings home its remaining troops and abandons its bases, experts have said the chaotic departure of the Pentagon’s logistics army lays bare an uncomfortable truth about a privatised system long susceptible to mismanagement – one largely funded by US taxpayers but outside the purview of US law.
“It’s the same situation that affects foreign contractors all over the world, people who have little understanding of where they’re going and very uncertain relationships once they arrive determining their legal status and movements,” Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told The Associated Press news agency.
“The terms of contracts in war can really absolve the employer of major responsibility … even the right of return can be uncertain.”
Stuck at Movenpick
While it is unclear just how many remain stuck abroad after the evacuation, an AP journalist saw at least a dozen Filipino contractors for engineering and construction company Fluor stranded at the Movenpick Hotel in Bur Dubai, an older neighbourhood of the city-state along the Dubai Creek.
The hotel management declined to comment, saying it “has no authority to disclose presence and information of any hotel guests nor hotel corporate partners details due to privacy reasons”.
The US military’s Central Command declined to comment on private security contractors, referring all questions to their companies. The US military’s contracting office and the Philippine Consulate in Dubai did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the stranded Filipino contractors.
As of early June, 2,491 foreign contract workers remained on US bases across Afghanistan, down from 6,399 in April, according to the latest figures from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
With the US set to formally end its military mission at the month’s end, most of these workers have since made it home on flights arranged by their employers – the private military behemoths that won Pentagon logistics contracts worth billions of dollars during years of war in Afghanistan.
However, other employees, brought first to Dubai on their way home after an abrupt departure on June 15, were not so lucky. The Philippines, along with Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, halted flights to the United Arab Emirates in mid-May due to fears of the fast-spreading Delta variant of the coronavirus and repeatedly renewed the travel ban.
Thus began a seemingly interminable layover that some Filipino workers described to the AP as one of anxiety and unrelenting boredom. The contractors spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the precariousness of their situation.
Drawn to Afghanistan by the promise of steady employment and wages far higher than those in the Philippines, several of the stranded Fluor contractors spent years working in construction, equipment transport, visa processing and other military logistics.
Some worked at Bagram airbase, the largest military compound in the country, and at Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan. They had nothing to do with combat operations, but described nonetheless facing rocket attacks and other risks of war on base.
Those who spoke to the AP said they knew of many more contractors from the Philippines and other countries including Nepal stuck in Dubai, but could not provide more specific information.
With their cash dwindling over the two-month layover, most said they could not afford to do anything but wait. They while away their time watching TV and video-calling with family in the Philippines from the hotel, where Fluor provides daily meals.
Texas-based construction giant Fluor Corporation, which was the biggest defence contractor in Afghanistan, did not respond to repeated requests for comment from AP. The US Department of Defense has spent $3.8bn for Fluor’s work in Afghanistan since 2015, federal records show, most of it for logistics services.
With little publicly known about the evacuation process for the war’s contractors, it has become increasingly apparent that the Pentagon’s long-invisible foreign fleet may remain so.
“Everyone has been so focused on the US troops, and also the Afghans, interpreters and others” who could face revenge killings by a resurgent Taliban, said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.
“About the stranded foreign workers, the Biden administration can say, well, their companies and their governments should have moved heaven and earth to get them home.”