According to the US State Department, “Afghanistan is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children trafficked for the purposes of forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation.” Now it appears yet again that the American-led NATO military force stationed there is not just part of the solution, but is also part of the problem.
Accusations of abuse at the hands of NATO troops and their contractors are nothing new in Afghanistan: Back in 2010, a Texas-based contractor called DynCorp, which received millions of dollars from the State Department for police training, was busted by WikiLeaks for contracting the services of a 17-year-old so-called “dancing boy” at a company farewell party in Kunduz, thus violating national and international child abuse and trafficking laws (thanks, Bradley Manning and Julian Assange, for uncovering the story!). But now, over the past weekend a Swedish newspaper reported that the 530-strong Swedish contingent in Afghanistan has been unknowingly employing Indian and Nepalese contract workers on its base under what amount to slave conditions, displacing locally hired employees whom the Swedes had hired directly. A Swiss contracting firm called Supreme hired the new workers through an Indian subcontractor under the condition that they yield their first eight monthly paychecks to the company. This indenture system, familiar to students of early US history and still commonplace throughout much of the developing world, is now regarded as another name for human trafficking.
Thanks to the new contracting firm, the Swedish army was able to lower the wages it paid to its cooks and cleaning personnel from $460 to $200 per month, all of which, it seems, lined the pockets of the Indian recruiting firm.
Colonel Anders Löfberg, the commander of the Swedish "Provincial Reconstruction Team" in Mazar-e-Sharif, is livid. “As Swedes, we are outraged at all cases of injustice and we take it very seriously when people are taken advantage of in this way. Our assignment is to support, develop, and assist. When someone in our vicinity, in our camp, has low morale in regard to these issues, that doesn’t feel good, to put it mildly.”
Are other contracting firms committing similar violations at US and NATO bases around the world, and in American installations in Iraq, which employ over 10,000 contractors? (In fact, the vast US embassy in Baghdad was partially built by slave laborers smuggled into the country from across Asia at American taxpayers' expense). No one seems to know just how large the problem is.
For now, the Swedish government is cancelling the arrangement and suing Supreme for breach of contract, but it is unsure what will happen to the workers. Supreme is in turn filing suit against the Indian subcontractor and promises to report the firm to “the responsible authorities” in order to help the workers get their lost wages back and return to their home countries in safety. But just who is "responsible" when it comes to human trafficking? Whoever it is, it clearly isn’t NATO. It's having a hard time establishing justice and the rule of law on its own bases, let alone in entire countries.