From our continuing series, "Snapshots of a Fading War"
By Neil Shea
February 18, 2013
“How many donuts do we sell again?”
The clerk with the bright smile and the camouflage Tim Hortons baseball cap turned to a coworker.
“Twenty-thousand a week.”
“See?” she said, turning back to me. “Our plan is to get you Americans hooked!”
We already are.
Proof is in the size of the line outside the Tim Hortons donut and coffee shop on Kandahar Air Field (KAF), the largest NATO base in southern Afghanistan. The line doesn’t seem ever to ebb. Instead, it changes color with the clothing of the customers. Tan as Canadian Air Force crews arrive, then green with uniforms of American infantrymen. Behind them, the line is flecked red with the berets of certain British troops. Now black as a knot of civilians in matching t-shirts shows up. The size of their guts suggests they’re regulars.
More proof is in the signs at the door politely asking for restraint: “Only four iced cappuccinos per customer, please.” “Only two Boston Cremes or Canadian Maples.”
“Oh, they’re our most popular kinds,” the clerk said, laughing. “We just couldn’t keep up with the demand. I remember, before they did that, you’d see people come in here and order 12, 14 at a time. I remember you could hear the baker out back just cursing.”
Yesterday I walked over to the Canadian compound on KAF, home of the Hortons, for the first time. All around this massive base you see the donut boxes, the coffee cups. Soldiers from every corner of the NATO alliance with Hortons in hand. There is another donut shop, on the famous Kandahar boardwalk, but it’s never as busy.
“I think it’s that Tim Hortons just tastes real,” a major said. “A lot of the other stuff here—the KFC, the TGI Friday’s, it’s almost real. But those donuts are as good as at home.”
The amenities at KAF astound. The boardwalk itself—a covered wooden walkway surrounding a large open quad—has at least a dozen food shops, serving burgers and pizza, smoothies and baguettes. Mixed in are shops selling scarves, boots, paintings, DVDs, sunglasses. Almost anything a bored Westerner could want.
For troops based at KAF, the boardwalk is part of the daily routine. But for troops passing through on their way to some cloistered outpost, it is exotic as a bazaar, offering relief from dining-hall dullness, a place to wander, spend a little money. Watch people.
Anyone who’s spent time in Afghanistan has heard of this boardwalk; many stories have been written about it. No doubt romances have bloomed along it as armed crowds stroll the only path for miles that leads to anywhere but war or work or dust.
“It’s the closest thing we got to Las Vegas,” a soldier said.
It is nowhere near Las Vegas, except maybe in the color of the earth, in the hardness of the mountains at the horizon.
On the enormous quad inside the boardwalk is a street hockey rink, also built by the Canadians. Games are played nightly. Nearby are volleyball courts, exercise areas, and a large flat spot where, a sign announces, artificial turf will soon be installed to accommodate soccer and flag football. Fake green coming to the sun-stroked brownness. For now, in October, the first rainfall in months has simply filled the quad with mud.
Few would deprive troops of these small luxuries. Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, when he was in command of NATO forces, tried removing some of them. He was a hard man, said to eat only one meal a day. Junk food appalled him. He ordered a few shops closed.
But his tenure was brief, and business is booming again. At one corner you can close your eyes and imagine Coney Island. The Nathan’s Famous hot dog stand smells just the same. Make sure you’ve got a reflective belt after dark, though, the kind a crossing guard might wear, or the MPs will eject you from the walk like bouncers at a nightclub. I was once stopped three times for failing to wear one; I didn’t know it was required. Eventually the MPs kicked me off the boardwalk.
“Yes! That’s the reality of this whole thing,” an Air Force lieutenant colonel told me. “You can go die outside the wire, but in here it’s make sure you’re shiny! Wear your little belt! Stupid.”
Base officials would say the belts are for safety, and there is, after all, a lot of traffic. Buses, trucks, armored vehicles, golf carts. Pedestrians, bicyclists, joggers. KAF is a city, with a city’s rhythms. Life for many here is something approaching normal, which is to say there is a predictable monotony.
Almost daily the base is rocketed, as if to remind everyone of the point. But even that becomes part of the routine, part of the white noise, like the hum of generators, or the scorched rip of ascending fighter planes.
One night I slept through six incoming rockets. Apparently they exploded near my bunk room. I woke only after the announcement on the base loudspeaker—a calm warning given too late and by a British woman—“Rocket attack … rocket attack … rocket attack.” She was exceedingly polite, a voice from a dream echoing through the desert.
I pulled on my pants and stumbled to the bunker. It was raining. A couple female soldiers were already inside. They said it was the first time they’d seen rain in Afghanistan. Rain more impressive than rockets. Later, one of them gave me directions to Tim Hortons.
The next morning I chose the glazed sour cream donut and sat outside by a dust-covered tree, writing and reading for almost two hours. The line waiting to enter the shop remained steady, constantly refreshed.
“We’re closing soon,” one of the clerks told me at the walk-up window. “Yeah, you know. We’re here with the Canadian soldiers. When they leave, we go, too.”
The shop would shut down sometime around Thanksgiving. On the base, everyone talked about it. Probably it will be like the loss of a beloved neighborhood store, or a bar. People will wish for the old days, the old donuts. Part of city life is nostalgia.
Occasionally, on trips through KAF, I met someone who could speak of times past, earlier in the war, before the boardwalk. Already that is considered ancient history. I have yet to meet any Russians who can tell how it was decades ago, when they occupied this same ground. That is the era of myth.
Someone suggested Tim Hortons’ departure was a metaphor for the war winding down, the allies departing nation by nation. Still, it is impossible to imagine KAF ever closing. Most coalition combat troops may leave Afghanistan in 2014, but many new structures here are built of brick and cement, and that is not the architecture of transience.
“Maybe we’ll get a Dunkin’ Donuts,” a American contractor said as he waited in line. “That would be nice.”
Neil Shea is a Scholar contributing editor. He is also a regular contributor to National Geographic, where he has written about conflict and cultural change in East Africa. His Afghanistan reports for the Scholar include “So This Is Paktya” (Summer 2010) and “A Gathering Menace” (Spring 2012). Follow him on Instagram at @neilshea13.