KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — By American standards, the boardwalk at Kandahar Airfield isn't much to write home about.
There's no roller coaster, mirror maze or carousel with unicorns. There's no cotton candy to buy, no candied apples, and no annoying mimes trying to get out of imaginary boxes.
But this little square of Western culture in the Taliban heartland has served for years as a rare oasis for international forces embroiled in the ongoing Afghan war.
The Kandahar boardwalk now has a Burger King, a Subway sandwich shop, three cafes, several general stores, a Cold Mountain Creamery, Oakley sunglasses outlet, a hockey rink (thanks to the Canadians, of course), a basketball court, and a tiny stage where members of Bachman-Turner Overdrive (the '70s Canadian band that brought the world "Takin' Care of Business" and "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet") recently performed on a cool southern Afghanistan evening.
The most recent addition is a TGI Friday's, complete with the Americana kitsch, Rihanna videos playing on the flat screen behind the bar (which serves no alcohol), fried mozzarella sticks, and a life-size Yoda action figure with a light saber looking down on patrons from on high.
"The intent, it seems, is to create a surreal slice of Western material comfort where inhabitants can momentarily forget that they are living in one of the world's most benighted countries," Julius Cavendish recently wrote in The Independent, a British newspaper.
Well, now it's time to say goodbye to all that.
By the order of Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force is shutting down most of these reminders of home.
"This is a war zone — not an amusement park," Command Sgt. Maj. Michael T. Hall recently wrote on the ISAF blog.
The decision is likely to prove unpopular with ISAF forces working and living in southern Afghanistan.
"Some will say the decision to do away with these amenities is meant only to make things harder for deployed service members, but nothing could be farther from the truth," Hall wrote. "Closing these facilities will free up much-needed storage facilities at both Bagram and Kandahar, space which is critical as 30,000 additional American and up to 7,000 international troops flow into Afghanistan over the next several months."
That's all well and good, but where else will soldiers pick up their "Taliban Hunting Club" T-shirts?
Or a $280 Afghanistan U.S. v. Taliban chess sets featuring (for the Americans) Bush as king, the Twin Towers as rooks, and the Statue of Liberty as the queen v. (for the Taliban/insurgents) Osama bin Laden as king, a woman in a burqa as queen and suicide bombers as bishops?
Privately, some ISAF officials say the closure is as much about perception as logistics. Rock concerts, hockey games and Americana kitsch in the Taliban heartland might not create the impression McChrystal is trying to convey that the U.S. has no intentions of transforming Afghanistan into the U.S.
Not all is lost, however. The new order exempts the Green Beans coffee house, AT&T phone stores, fitness centers, some Afghan-run stalls and a few other essentials for ISAF forces.
"We have an important mission here in Afghanistan, and its one the world is watching and paying attention to," Hall wrote. "We have a responsibility to outfit our troops with everything they need to be successful. Efficiently providing troops what they need to accomplish the mission is the right thing to do."
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