KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — At $7, it may well be the most expensive kebab in Afghanistan, but “Gyros for Heroes” has definitely hit its mark as the slogan for the Kebab Shop, found inside NATO’s largest military base in Afghanistan.
American, British, Dutch and Canadian troops line up around the block to buy gyros at the shop, one of a dozen or so businesses run by locals and foreign contractors occupying a dusty piece of real estate dubbed the "Boardwalk" near the heavily guarded Kandahar Airfield.
“Life here is good,” said an Afghan laborer who declined to give his name as he lugged merchandise from his car to a store on the Boardwalk. “The prices we sell at are different to those out in the city.”
That’s quite an understatement, judging from some of the prices being asked: $40 for a box featuring intertwined Afghan and American flags on its cover; $50 for a carved wooden camel; $110 for a carpet with Kalashnikov and fighter jet patters woven in. And all this in a country where a civil servant’s average monthly salary is $60.
And even more lucrative days lie ahead for the select group of well-connected Afghan salesmen overcharging the captive audience of 25,000 soldiers and contractors who occupy this sprawling base, fast becoming the nerve center of President Barack Obama’s Afghan surge. The 5,000 extra soldiers and support staff scheduled to inhabit 90 acres of newly built, semi-permanent buildings this summer will find similar pleasures awaiting them at Kandahar.
While America’s top general in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, has reportedly ordered the closure of several American franchises — suggesting that a focus on fast food and entertainment was a “distraction” from military duties — the remaining ones will be run by Afghans rather than the Pentagon’s Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES).
It is all part of an “Afghan-first” policy that seeks to turn over Western management to Afghan businessmen, even as it retains well-known brand names such as Burger King and Pizza Hut — the familiarity of which the troops find comforting. Controversy has flared over whether the outlets are morale boosters for the troops or simply the ugly face of Western culture.
At the source of the controversy lies Kandahar Airfield’s famous Boardwalk, a square kilometer of fast-food franchises, cafes, electronics stores, basketball and volleyball courts and — courtesy of the Canadians — a hockey rink. The Boardwalk acts as a magnet for the 25,000 personnel on base who every evening head there to sip coffees, play basketball or hockey and watch rock concerts. For some, the ambience is more beach than bunker.
No Afghans — other than those with special security clearance — can access the entertainment. Even if any local could just walk in off the street, they would balk at the $5 lattes and scantily clad servicewomen and female contractors crowding the Boardwalk or diving into the sand during volleyball games.
“I was expecting to arrive in a warzone but instead here I am wearing sunglasses in the sun and eating a baguette,” said Dimitra Kokkali, a NATO contractor newly arrived from Brussels. “On my first night I surprised my family by calling them from an outdoor rock concert.”
Last year, the famously Spartan McChrystal sent a team to Kandahar to investigate whether the Boardwalk was essential for maintaining troop morale. McChrystal is a former Special Forces commander who still runs eight miles a day, sleeps four hours and gets by on just one meal, a regimen seemingly at odds with the type of unbridled consumerism — and consumption — encouraged back home and transplanted to the Boardwalk.
“Soldiers will still be able to eat pizzas and burgers — but served up in military canteens rather than in commercial outlets,” an ISAF spokesman recently told the BBC.
But one Marine colonel is not holding his breath.
“That ain’t gonna happen,” said Don Groves, a reservist colonel in charge of operations at Kandahar Airfield. “They’ve been saying it for over a year and not one thing has shut down.”
When McChrystal’s delegation asked Groves to estimate how much of a logistical burden the products destined for the Boardwalk represented, he quickly concluded that they took up about 1 percent of total weight airlifted. Not quite the case of pizza dough supplanting Humvees.
“If you shut things down, does that mean that people won’t congregate there at night and play volleyball?” Groves said. “You don’t want people gathering in tents, both because of different sleeping schedules and because in the Boardwalk they’re visible and you have a sense of what’s not going on.”
Back at the Boardwalk, the eagerly anticipated, high-ceilinged TGI Friday’s restaurant has just opened a few doors down from Mamma Mia Pizza and a German Market. Decorated with kitsch Americana and stabs at gallows humor, it serves up a bust of Bill Clinton, a dry bar and traffic signs emblazoned with the legends Dead Man’s Curve and No Waterboarding Allowed. A curvaceous South Asian hostess leads punters to their tables.
“The food sucks and it’s too expensive,” said one female soldier of the restaurant as she waited in line on the Boardwalk to have her picture taken with a hockey championship cup. “But the atmosphere’s great and it really feels like you’re back home.”
“Are you telling me we can’t have a McDonald’s in Kandahar?” asked her friend. “Being able to do that, it’s just democracy, isn’t it?”