Surreal Afghanistan boardwalk fading into memory as U.S. troops withdraw

 

McClatchy Foreign Staff

There is nothing quite like coming off a patrol, your body-armor-shaped sweat stains still drying and ears ringing from grenades, only to have the hostess at T.G.I. Friday’s tell you to wait a few. Sorry, sergeant, we’ve got to clear a table.

Or hovering over the desert for hours in a throttled-down Apache helicopter on an oh-dark-30 stakeout, disassembling half a dozen Taliban fighters with your chain gun as they plant a roadside bomb, only to get back to base and discover that the Canadian-themed donut shop is selling just coffee because insurgents blew up the latest inbound shipment of donut mix.

What’s a man gotta do to get a maple-glazed in this war?

Soon enough, he won’t be able to. The Kandahar Airfield boardwalk, for a decade the surreal yet comfortingly familiar heart of the biggest NATO base in Afghanistan, is closing down.

The festive, elevated rectangle of shops and fast-food vendors built around a small soccer field and running track will inevitably live on in the war stories of tens of thousands of U.S. and NATO troops and contractors who’ve lived at Kandahar Airfield or passed through it on the way to smaller combat outposts.

The businesses will shut down in phases, beginning next month, with the final one closing before the end of 2014, base officials said in an emailed statement. Most of the buildings will be torn down, though the walkway and the sports facilities will remain awhile.

The closure plan mirrors the withdrawal of U.S. troops as the NATO coalition here shrinks in advance of ending its combat mission next year. The 62,000 or so U.S. troops still in Afghanistan are expected to begin leaving in significant numbers after this year’s summer fighting season tapers.

“This is a natural evolution as we draw down forces across the country,” U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. John Dolan, the base commander, wrote in the statement. “As our personnel numbers decrease, so will the amenities at our installations.”

Every large base here has amenities to make long tours of duty more bearable, including “local national” markets, with cheap rugs and jewelry, bootleg DVDs, counterfeit watches and other goods and souvenirs. But they are all lowly five-and-dimes to the boardwalk’s Mall-of-America-like grandness, street-corner buskers to Liberace.

Soldiers slurping tea and fruit smoothies browse locally owned shops that offer alterations, patches for uniforms, shoes, flat-screen TVs, cellphones, jewelry and carpets. They line up for American, Mexican, Asian or Middle Eastern fast food, or opt for dine-in at the T.G.I. Friday’s.

Once there was a franchise of the famous-in-Canada Tim Hortons donut shop, though now it’s run by a local owner under the name Coffee Time. The French exchange store also changed hands and names, though it still offers perhaps the only chocolate croissants in southern Afghanistan.

Soon, though, the croissants will be gone, and with them the hotdogs at Nathan’s Famous, the rugs with AK-47 designs, the $700 jackets just like SEAL team operators wear at the German exchange and, heaven forbid, even Gyros for Heroes.

The boardwalk. Famous and infamous. If the war in Afghanistan ever gets its own “Apocalypse Now” film treatment, the movie crew will have to rebuild it for that symbolism-freighted scene about the dizzying gulf between the two cultures fighting the war. KFC vs. whatever the Taliban outside the base are eating.

Retired Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the former U.S. commander in Afghanistan who ate just one meal a day, ran eight miles daily and slept only four hours a night, hated the boardwalk, especially the fast food. It made troops soft. His command sergeant major, Michael T. Hall, once wrote a blog post denouncing it. “This is a war zone – not an amusement park,” he said.

But even McChrystal couldn’t kill it, and he was in charge of the whole war then.

The end of the American combat presence will, however, leaving behind only memories of the oddest little corner of a war, a place replete with donkey-borne bombs and elementary schools landscaped with marijuana plants.

“It’s a fantasy,” said Spec. Michael Renfro of Crestview, Fla. “People are walking around like they’re on vacation, but while I was there, there was a suicide car bomb right outside that killed three soldiers, and there were rocket attacks all the time.”

Renfro, 27, passed through the base early this year on his way east to tackle one of the most dangerous remaining jobs for U.S. troops here, clearing the roads of improvised bombs. During his stay in Kandahar, he tried to stay away from the boardwalk.

“Me, I don’t like it,” he said. “It’s a money trap.”

Dolan, the base commander, has a different take. The boardwalk, he says has played a crucial role in maintaining morale since its beginnings in 2003 at a different location on base.

“I am proud of the rich history and the wonderful services that many nations have provided coalition forces over the years,” Dolan said. “The boardwalk is a part of (Kandahar Airfield’s) identity and exists as a cornerstone in the collective memory of the men and women who have served here since it was built.”

They’ll all remember the boardwalk differently, but they’ll remember.

Email: jayprice@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @jayinkabul

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