Dispatches

Asel, Queen of the Desert

BAGRAM, AFGHANISTAN—In spring 2002, visitors to Bagram Airfield arrived to find an apocalyptic scene: a wind-swept tent city littered with the wreckage of war.

Just months before, Bagram had been the scene of heavy fighting between Taliban and Northern Alliance forces. The few buildings left standing were pocked with bullet holes, and concussions rocked the ground as ordnance-disposal teams worked to clear the area of mines and unexploded shells. Chinook helicopters blasted the camp with dust as they ferried more soldiers downrange; a few Afghans poked around the scrap heap inside the camp’s perimeter.

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Now there’s a day spa, a beauty salon, a sports apparel store, and a uniform alterations shop. A coffee house near the food court plays easy-listening music. At the base exchange (military-ese for a shopping center), you can buy a car or a motorcycle for delivery in the States.

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No more MREs or powdered eggs—soldiers dine in a glistening cafeteria, courtesy of Halliburton subsidiary KBR. Or, if they prefer, they can order Thai food.

You can even find a contingent of Polish soldiers sunbathing in their Speedos next to a wading pool. (“Please,” says their commander as I raise my camera. “No photos.”)

The Bagram Burger King
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It’s hard to say what’s more strange: finding a Burger King in a combat zone or the fact that it’s across the way from an authentic Kyrgyz yurt.

This nomadic tent is one of several gift shops staffed by guest workers from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Asel Kalieva, a young woman from Kyrgyzstan with a fetching smile, works inside, selling an array of felt hats, furs, and kitschy national costumes.

Fifteen years after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, it’s hard to believe that speaking Russian would come in handy here.

“How did you get here?” I ask Kalieva.

“I was working at Manas airport [in Kyrgyzstan] three years as a salesgirl,” she says. “I sold souvenirs. And after that, the boss lady sent me here. For four months.”

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You came voluntarily?

“Of course, voluntarily!” she laughs, as if it’s a stupid question.

Asel Kalieva models a fur hat
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Kalieva explains that she makes good money in Afghanistan—especially by comparison with Kyrgyzstan, where the average official wage is 1,000 to 1,500 soms ($35-$40) per month. That’s probably better than many Afghans make, and it’s enough to send Kyrgyz abroad for work. Asel says, however, that she is forbidden to discuss how much she makes here.

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Kyrgyzstan, like Afghanistan, is a Muslim country, albeit a very secular one. Asked what her impressions of Afghanistan are, Kalieva says, “I like it here. But the Afghan people I don’t like—they behave aggressively. They give you these looks. Sometimes they yell something in their language. … Maybe they don’t like it that I’m a Muslim woman and I walk around in pants. It’s not very nice.”

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Lots of Kyrgyz want to come here. I meet another group of young men from Bishkek, the capital. They run an embroidery business and a print shop.

“We came here to see the world!” says one of the Kyrgyz men, who says his name is Zhenish.

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Fair enough, but what about the risk? This heavily fortified base is probably one of the safest places in Afghanistan, but insurgents still launch occasional rocket attacks on the base. On the night I visit, a rocket lands inside the perimeter, lightly wounding one soldier.

“Here, you feel protected,” Kalieva says. “I don’t feel threatened at all. It feels safer than Kyrgyzstan!”

Part of the sense of security at Bagram comes from the permanence of the place. In March 2002, it seemed that Bagram was little more than a launching pad for combat operations, a temporary base for landing C-17 cargo planes and off-loading supplies.

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Lt. Col. Krzysztof Klupa, commander of the Polish contingent at Bagram

Military officials did little to discourage the impression. No American flag flew over the control tower, so as not to create the impression that the United States was here as an occupying power.

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After the presidential elections on Oct. 9, things may change. Bagram is becoming a more permanent installation. And that means it could become as familiar to a generation of soldiers and airmen as Kaiserslautern in Germany was to soldiers during the Cold War.

And where the Army goes, so go companies like KBR.

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What a difference two years makes. In 2002, the Army lieutenant colonel in charge of the construction team here—called Task Force Bagram—said his engineers were trying to keep a low profile. KBR had not yet arrived, and the Army hired teams of Afghan laborers to help with the task of refurbishing the base.

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“You have to remember, if you study the history of this country, that’s what caused the demise of some of these other nations that tried to come in here and help,” he said. “You come in here like a big brother to take over everything, there’s a natural resentment.”

But as he spoke, a KBR advance team was already scouting the facility. Inviting in the big companies to do the work—as was done, for instance, in Bosnia and has now been done extensively in Afghanistan and Iraq—is not a sign that you want to keep a small footprint. And if presidential elections go as planned—i.e., if Interim President Hamid Karzai wins—more expansion may be in the works.

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