- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Before becoming a best-selling spy novelist, Alex Berenson was an “A list” reporter. Here, in the first of two installments from a recent embed, he brings the eye of the novelist but the hand of a reporter to the big U.S. base in Kandahar.
By Alex Berenson
Best Defense guest reporter
The word airfield makes war sound romantic. It conjures up a tropical runway where a mustachioed customs agent sits behind a rusted desk, pistol in one hand, cigar in the other. Or a narrow landing strip high in the mountains, where a lonely controller talks down the boys whose planes are too flak-damaged to get back to base. Lighten up on the throttle and raise those flaps, loo-tenant. I’ll bring you in.
Then there’s the reality of modern war. Then there’s Kandahar.
The soldiers and contractors who work at Kandahar Air Field call this giant base KAF, pronounced “calf.” As in fatted. Kabul is the nerve center, the brain, for the war in Afghanistan. But KAF is the mouth and the stomach, the communications and supply center for the 70,000 American soldiers and Marines fighting in southern Afghanistan.
Of course, fighting is a relative term. If they wear uniforms, the ladies and gents at KAF are counted in that total, though they’re about as likely to be in a firefight as the average Parisian. The kaf-firs are required to wear strips of yellow reflective tape if they walk outside after dark. The rule is a concession to the fact that, despite the occasional rocket attack, they’re as likely to die in a traffic accident as from hostile fire. Frontline soldiers refer to the folks at KAF as POGs, pronounced pogues. POG may or may not stand for “people other than grunts.” Either way, the phrase isn’t a compliment.
I came to KAF on my way to a forward base, a place where actual soldiers actually fight. I planned to patrol with an infantry company from the 101st Airborne Division, a unit near the end of its tour, ask the guys what they’d seen, what they thought of the war. Because of the vagaries of military transport, I found myself stuck in Kandahar for three days. I set out exploring the base’s muddy streets, dodging Land Rovers and Toyota 4Runners with USA and CON plates. I trudged past giant lots filled with the tall armored trucks that are the military’s preferred transport here because they survive bomb blasts that turn Humvees into four-man ovens. Past double-height stacks of shipping containers, their colors dulled by the sun. Past endless rows of barracks hidden behind concrete blast walls. Past a tin-and-wooden church put up by the Romanians, and a mosque for the soldiers from the United Arab Emirates.
I walked, and walked, and walked some more. The base seemed endless. KAF is roughly three miles wide and two miles long, one-fourth the size of Manhattan. I wondered just how many people lived here. The consensus figure was north of 30,000, though no one really knew. Besides the Marines and Army, the Navy and Air Force had 5,000 people here, the British and Canadians thousands more. The French had offered a detachment of Mirage jets. Belgium, Italy, and a dozen other nations were here too, supporting the war one cappuccino at a time. KBR and Dyncorp and scores of other private companies fielded their own armies: contractors who cleaned the toilets, ran the chow halls, built the gyms, trained the bomb-sniffing dogs, and serviced the phones. The private workers were even more diverse than the soldiers. KAF is a real United Nations, the world coming together to make war. Only one country is missing: Afghanistan itself. Aside from a few guys selling carpets, the locals are generally not welcome.
After some false starts, I finally reached the perimeter. I expected to see Kandahar itself, but the city was invisible. It lies miles north of the airfield, hidden behind a low mountain, a brown fin that overlooks the base. The only Afghans I spotted were farmers grazing goats hundreds of yards away from the razor wire and high-security fence.
For all the contact KAF has with its host nation, it might as well stand on a 1,000-foot cliff. It might as well be the Death Star, spinning through space, launching TIE fighters against planets that the people inside its walls will never see. Its primary export to the country outside its edges is shit. Literally. The inhabitants of KAF generate tons of waste every day, and all that feces has to go somewhere. After being partly treated in the “poo pond,” a lagoon on the western side of the airfield, it is piped into the nearby fields.
The big source of entertainment at KAF is the Boardwalk. The Boardwalk is, yes, a boardwalk, a covered wooden walkway the size of a city block. It surrounds a basketball court and hockey rink, with restaurants and shops to the outside. There’s a TGI Friday’s, a Nathan’s, a KFC, an ice-cream stand, pizza by the slice and pie-everything a homesick POG could want. The stores sell phones and computers and jackets with “Operation Enduring Freedom” logos and maps of Afghanistan. The folks at Kandahar love proving that they’ve served in a war zone. The guys on the front lines, not so much.
The Boardwalk is always crowded. So are the mess halls, which the military now calls DFACs. Nothing moves too fast, and no one minds. Kandahar is a little like college. Everybody talks about how hard they’re working, but everyone seems to have plenty of time-aside from the contract workers who cook and clean.
The folks I met at KAF were pleasant enough. Still, three days there was about two-and-a-half too many. I felt my cynicism approaching catch-22 levels. At KAF the war seemed like nothing so much as a giant and profitable machine paid for by the Chinese and greased with just enough American, British, and Canadian blood to keep it running. But not so much that the folks back home wake up and notice. I began to feel that, if the Taliban didn’t exist, the contractors would have to make them up to keep the dollars coming. Not exactly the attitude I wanted to have when I was about to put my fingers and toes on the line for a foot patrol.
So I was more than happy to board a helicopter-run by a private company, of course-for the 20-minute ride to Forward Operating Base Wilson, the home of Task Force Strike.
In February 2011, novelist and former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson embedded with the 1st Battalion, 502nd Regiment, of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. He spent much of his time with Alpha Company, nicknamed the “Hard Rocks,” at Combat Outpost Senjaray in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province. This is an excerpt from Lost in Kandahar, his reflections on the embed, which is available from Amazon as a Kindle Single.