It's another hot day on the boardwalk. The long line of customers who are waiting for iced cappuccinos, many in shorts and sunglasses, runs out the café door and around the corner, a stone's throw from the outdoor hockey rink and volleyball courts.
The merchants who hawk everything from iPods to silk-screened T-shirts are doing brisk business. So is T.G.I. Friday's, the restaurant whose familiar red-and-white sign flanks the stage where rock concerts are occasionally held. "Feels like I'm back in Jersey," says a young man, taking in the scene. "Right back home on the Jersey shore."
Far from it — more than 6,800 miles, in fact. Back in New Jersey, he would be arrested for strolling in public with a semiautomatic rifle slung over his shoulder. But this is the Kandahar air base, an alternate universe that is, some say, more and more out of touch with the violence at its walls. You see, the air base is also the gateway to southern Afghanistan's fiercest combat zone, one that keeps getting bigger and deadlier.
After the Taliban's ouster, the air base was upgraded to support 8,000 people; in the past two years, it has swollen to more than three times that size, with still more soldiers and contractors in-bound ever since President Obama ordered up a troop surge to change the tide in the nearly nine-year-old war. Meanwhile, in nearby Kandahar City, suicide bombers and assassins on motorbikes continue to impose their reign of terrorism on civilians.
Surreal as the contrast is, having what amounts to a small Western city in the Taliban heartland involves logistics that are sobering. Every month, more than 3 million pounds of food and 30 million gallons of water are consumed by base personnel. To keep people fed and thousands of electrical generators running around the clock, a parade of truck convoys ply four overland supply lines that frequently come under attack. The rest is handled by the airstrip, which sees an average of 5,000-plus military and commercial takeoffs and landings a week, making it perhaps the busiest military base in the world today. "We're really maxed out here," says British Air Commodore Gordon Moulds, head of the NATO organization that manages the base from a crumbling former air terminal where the Taliban made its last stand in late 2001.
Perhaps nowhere is that strain more obvious than waste management. First-time visitors can't help but notice the rotten-egg-like stench that tinges the desert air. A half mile away from the boardwalk lies the culprit: the so-called poo pond, where everyone's waste is disposed. Originally dug out to accommodate 10,000 people, it is — like much of the infrastructure on the base — overworked. To help clear the air, a second pond will likely be completed by the fall. It is part of a new extension that planners say is designed to free up extra space for vehicle parking, a second electrical plant and housing barracks as thousands more troops join the fight.
Of course, such sprawl means there's more to look after. The security perimeter of NATO's largest base is already some 10 miles long and counting, ringed by a buffer zone that is regularly patrolled. But that safeguard still hasn't prevented militants from launching rocket, mortar and even ground attacks, as they have against other major bases across the country in recent weeks. Although no one has been killed on the Kandahar air base this year, insurgents occasionally burst the bubble. A coordinated May 22 nighttime assault wounded four people, bringing the total number of injured in the past six months to at least 30, according to squadron leader Simon Openshaw, deputy chief of base security. Nevertheless, for many of the troops and support staff who live on site, the fighter jets that streak overhead are their closest glimpse of the war.
This detachment from the grim reality on the ground has troubled some officers. Last year, General Stanley McChrystal, then commander of international forces in Afghanistan, ordered an investigation into whether nonessential supplies were a morale boost or stalling the flow of supplies to troops downrange. This past spring, he forced several American fast-food chains to shut down, a move that disappointed plenty of soldiers who were hungry for a taste of home. "You just come back craving that American hamburger," says Army Lieutenant Hassan Kagoni, who visits the Kandahar air base about once a month from a frontline base in western Afghanistan's Herat province. Since the general's crackdown, he adds, "some people here are going through withdrawal." Predictably, the anonymous graffiti scrawled inside one of the boardwalk's portable toilets is less measured: "I want my Whopper. McChrystal sucks."
While the Burger King, Pizza Hut and Thai massage parlor are now gone, so too is McChrystal, whose spartan authority did not apply to non-American-owned businesses. Now an Afghan-owned Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise is about to open on the boardwalk, and a Nathan's hot dog stand, of Coney Island fame, is said to be on the way. Construction is also due to start soon on an artificial-turf soccer field and running track, amenities that Commodore Moulds says foster a sense of community among the base's multinational personnel. The upgrade should be complete later this year, when a major military offensive around Kandahar is expected to be in full gear. Should Taliban attacks on the base increase, caffeine die-hards need not worry: a sign posted outside Tim Horton's, the wildly popular Canadian coffee and doughnut chain, reminds patrons that it will reopen "approx[imately] 15 minutes after the all clear."