No more Burger King on Afghanistan base? Soldiers grumble.

The US military may shut down ‘nonessential’ fast food joints like Burger King at their largest air base in Afghanistan. Soldiers lament the loss: 'Do they think we have it easy in this war zone?’

Ben Arnoldy/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Soldiers line up to buy food at Burger King at Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan on Dec. 15, 2009. The US military may shut down ‘nonessential’ fast food joints like Burger King at their largest air base.

The lines outside the burger and pizza joints dotting the “Boardwalk” at Kandahar Air Base remain defiantly long, despite recent reports that it may be shut down.

The air base in southern Afghanistan is NATO’s largest in the country and the main landing spot of the US troop surge. Its entertainment district – a square kilometer of fast food franchises, cafes, electronic stories, basketball courts, the occasional live rock concert, and a Thai massage parlor until it was shut down by authorities – serves some 25,000 military personnel and contractors on the outskirts of Kandahar.

“I think it’ll bring down morale,” says Sgt. Michael Masterton, a US soldier on leave from one of the frontline bases in Kandahar’s hinterland as he bites into a cheeseburger and fries at the Mamma Mia Pizzeria, an outpost of Italiana and red-and-white-checked tablecloths.

“For those of us who come down from the FOBs [forward operating bases] it gives us something to do.”

“Are people back home really upset over us being able to have a burger?” asks Col. Don Groves, head of operations at Kandahar Airport, shaking his head in disbelief. “Do they really consider that we have it easy in this war zone?

Essential goods?

The Boardwalk came under scrutiny last year, when the top US commander in Afghanistan, the famously spartan Gen. Stanley McChrystal, dispatched a team here to investigate if it was essential for maintaining troop morale or if it was hampering shipments of fighting supplies such as Humvees and M-4 rifles.

The need for war materiel is set to grow in coming months, with some 5,000 additional troops and support staff due to arrive this summer to help carry out a major military campaign in Kandahar Province.

“This is a warzone, not an amusement park,” wrote Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Hall on a NATO blog posting in February.

“Supplying nonessential luxuries to big bases like Bagram and Kandahar makes it harder to get essential items to combat outposts and forward operating bases, where troops who are in the fight each day need resupply with ammunition, food and water.”

Fast food joints at risk include Burger King, Pizza Hut, and Dairy Queen, although burgers and such will still be available at military canteens.

Not just burgers

The Boardwalk’s nightly patrons and workers, however, see additional benefits of the entertainment center.

With troops from so many countries, the Boardwalk is “a gathering place where you get to meet people from other nationalities,” says Donna Perry, a Canadian contractor who enjoys watching hockey games in the evening as she munches on pizza.

When it comes to food, though, she admits, there’s little cross-cultural experimentation. At the Canadian doughnut franchise where she works, Tim Horton’s, British soldiers overwhelmingly opt for the Toffee Coffee while the French flock to the French Vanilla flavorings, she says.

The Boardwalk offers a taste of local culture, too. Small shops, which will not be closed, sell Afghan memorabilia such as “war carpets” woven with fighter-jet and Kalashnikov patterns. “Business is good. The Boardwalk’s a very nice place,” says Wali Jan, a salesman at the Afghan Toys and Gift Shop.

An Indian employee at the metal container doubling as a Burger King temporarily stops taking orders when told the place might shut down. “I came all the way from India for this job,” he says, disconsolate. “I have no idea what I would do if the order came to shut us down.”

With its scent of greasy fries and burger meat, the Boardwalk may serve another vital purpose: covering up, when the winds are right, the smell of the nearby “Poo Pond” half a mile away where the base’s human waste is disposed.

“The smell, you become used to it quite quickly,” says one British soldier who did not want to give his name.

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