BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan – For those, like myself, who’ve never before been to Afghanistan, the sprawling Bagram Air Field is known for two things: transit and torture.
Naturally I saw no evidence of torture during my brief in-processing, after which I went on to Forward Operating Base Salerno in Khost Province, near the Pakistan border. I did see a lot of transit, however.
Bagram is enormous. A public-affairs officer told me that it houses 12,000 U.S. and allied troops, along with another 6,000 or so contractors. In contrast to the surrounding areas under Afghan government control, Bagram is clean, well-paved, bustling and attentive to its residents’ needs. There’s a small mall called a PX, familiar to any denizen of U.S. military bases, where crummy Afghan or Afghan-esque trinkets are available for purchase, right next to a Dairy Queen, a Burger King, a Pizza Hut and a Green Beans coffee shops.
If you’ll permit me a digression, the only places I’ve ever seen Green Beans cafes have been military bases in Kuwait, Baghdad, Tikrit, Mosul, and now Bagram. If they exist in civilian life I’ve never seen them. Neither had the public-affairs officer. There’s also an Orange Julius smoothie stand — which I haven’t seen since the Kings Plaza Mall in Brooklyn shuttered its franchise when I was eight years old. Odd that I should find one halfway around the world, 20 years later.
Indeed, it’s alarmingly easy to walk Bagram’s Disney Drive – named for an Army Specialist killed in action – and forget this is Afghanistan. It takes a glance over to the silhouette of the jagged mountains cradling the base to remember where you are.
The traveling press is lodged in an air-conditioned bunk called Hotel California, where the placards detailing the hotel rules have references to Eagles lyrics. (“There is no alcohol on base. ‘No pink champagne on ice.’”) The bunk beds have wood frames and spring-coiled mattresses — a significant upgrade from the cots at Baghdad’s Forward Operating Base Liberty or Mosul’s Forward Operating Base Marez.
Around the base is evidence of an actual coalition. That’s not just because battle uniforms contain the ISAF patch indicating the NATO command here. It’s because there are actual foreign troops. Much of the chatter I heard on the way to the chow hall was in Polish, and I ate dinner next to a Polish helicopter pilot. A wrong turn as I tried to get back to Hotel California bumped me into a detachment of hungry Egyptian soldiers.
In Baghdad last year, most of the foreigners I encountered worked for contractors like KBR, and at Mosul Airport I met a bunch of surly Albanian troops. And they were leaving.
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