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Noah Coburn is a political anthropologist at Bennington College in Vermont and the author of Losing Afghanistan: An Obituary for the Intervention.

This week's attack that killed 12 Nepali and 2 Indian private security contractors hired to guard the Canadian embassy in Kabul is a tragic reminder of the ongoing cost of the war in Afghanistan, but it should also serve as a wake-up. The reliance on private contractors is changing the human cost of war in ways that must be better understood so that governments may be held accountable.

While the use of mercenaries and contractors in place of Western troops has deep historical roots, the practice has increased dramatically in recent years and, more worryingly, has become impossible to monitor.

In fact, we don't even know how many contractors have been in Afghanistan (let alone how many have been killed or injured), since no one keeps track. When the United States had 99,000 troops in Afghanistan, the Department of Defence employed almost 120,000 private contractors. This does not include contractors working for Canada or other countries or even other U.S. departments, such as USAID. During the recent troop drawdown, the numbers have decreased, but contractors have become proportionally even more important to the war effort, and now for everyone soldier in Afghanistan the United States is paying three defence contractors.

Frustrated with how little is known about the experiences of these international workers, I have spent the past 12 months in Nepal, India and Turkey, interviewing more than 200 private security contractors who worked for companies funded by Canada, the United States and other Western donors. Many spoke warmly of their time in Afghanistan, the Canadian colleagues they had and how they were able to send money back home. But many others recounted suffering a range of abuses.

Some are trafficked illegally into Afghanistan. Once in the country, companies force them to take lower wages than promised. The threat of dismissal is particularly severe since the workers, who lack visas, often can end up in Afghan prisons. Without a Nepali embassy in the country and with donor countries, such as Canada and the United States, doing little oversight of the contracting of workers, the contractors have little protection and can spend years in legal limbo in prison.

The situation is worse for those hurt or killed in the line of duty. Families in the recent incident may receive compensation since the case has garnered significant attention–and the Canadian government should commit to ensuring this outcome. Many other cases, particularly those involving smaller companies, have not received the same publicity. For injured Nepalis working for the U.S. or Canadian government, if they can get a lawyer to prosecute their case, they can sue for compensation.

Countries, such as Canada and the U.S. must do more to make sure contracting receiving their funds are also protecting their employees to the full extent of the law.

In many cases I found, however, the company would quickly provide a small amount of cash, send the worker back to Nepal, make sure there was no documentation of the injury and then cut off communication.

There is a moral imperative here and it's important to debate whether Canada and other countries should continue to essentially exchange Nepali lives for Canadian ones by hiring contractors to do work that soldiers used to perform.

At the same time, however, on a political and military level, there is not much evidence that security companies are good at creating long-term stability. In fact, they have little incentive to create security, since then their services will no longer be needed.

Contractors have been involved in numerous incidents killing Afghan civilians and have further alienated the population in part because their mission of "protecting clients" does not necessarily align with the goals of the international presence in the country.

If Canada and other Western countries are going to continue to intervene internationally while relying heavily on security and other contractors, it is necessary to take a long look at the cost, both human and political, of using such approaches.

This week's 14 deaths are a terrible reminder that tens of thousands face similar risks daily so that Canada, the United States and others can avoid the political costs of sending more troops.

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