KABUL With feathered masks, glitter, cakes and even guns, America's most raucous holiday was feted by NATO troops and colleagues in Kabul late on Tuesday behind the towering concrete walls surrounding headquarters in the Afghan capital.
Decorated in the tri-color green, yellow and purple scheme of Mardi Gras, the sprawling military base's gym was transformed for the carnival marked over much of the Christian world as the last day before Lent.
"We did it for the troops as a way to boost morale," said event co-organizer Korteney Nelthorpe from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), donning bead necklaces over her camouflage in the style of those doled out to revelers in New Orleans in Louisiana, where Mardi Gras is celebrated on February 21.
"We wanted to do a carnival party so all NATO countries can participate," Nelthorpe said, referring to the French term Americans and others use for Fat Tuesday, which is the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.
But while the carnival can invite excessive, unbridled behavior elsewhere such as Rio de Janeiro or Venice in preparation for the somber season of sacrifice to follow, Afghanistan's Mardi Gras was a stone cold sober affair, adhering to the no-alcohol policy of the base.
"It's not Brazil. But for Afghanistan, it'll do. I can't take the snow anymore," said Fabrizio Scalici from the Italian National Intelligence Cell, referring to the worst winter the Afghan capital has suffered in 30 years.
Around 150 troops and support staff saw the celebrations as a brief respite from usually tight restrictions behind blast walls at the base, where troops face daily monotony despite an array of cafes and shops selling goods from home.
The whistle-blowing and dancing contrasted sharply with realities outside the bubble.
For the last two days, thousands of Afghans have been protesting over the burning of copies of the Koran at NATO's main base at Bagram just north of the capital. The U.S. apologized for the incident and said it was investigating.
Four people were shot dead and dozens wounded in the demonstrations in several cities on Wednesday.
But for Australian Kim Bath, the petite master chef at the ISAF canteen, which feeds more than 2,000 soldiers each day, Afghanistan's turmoils were remote. "It's as close as to a party as we'll get," she said of Mardi Gras.
Wearing a purple feathered mask over a black version of the head-to-toe blue Muslim garment worn by many Afghan women, Bath said it was "the only clothes I could get hold of" to make a costume.
Behind her, Macedonian soldiers with automatic rifles slung over their backs lined up to watch jello and chocolate pies being thrown at comrades, while French soldiers in fatigues traded green and purple jesters' hats and Spanish troops danced to pounding R&B tunes.
NATO is racing against the clock to train a 350,000-strong Afghan army and police force which will take over all security responsibilities amid skepticism the target can be met before all foreign combat troops leave by end-2014.
(Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Ron Popeski)