NATO on the boardwalk: allies chill out at Afghan base

KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Down on the boardwalk, a knot of Romanian soldiers are sitting under the umbrellas at the French patisserie, sipping non-alcoholic Becks beer in the shade.

At Tim Hortons, the Canadian doughnut place, U.S. airmen are drinking coffee, surfing on the wireless internet on their laptops and listening to Beyonce on British Forces Radio.

The only people sitting in the scorching sun are the bright pink British officers, a dazzling glare shining off one sweaty bald pate.

Super-secret special forces guys stroll by, glowering coolly in baggy shorts, T-shirts and floppy sun hats, “under cover” in their tell-tale woolly beards.

Welcome to Kandahar Air Field, or KAF, the most cosmopolitan NATO base ever assembled inside a combat zone, where troops from a host of countries relax after missions on a boardwalk that feels like a multi-national beachside resort.

The United States and many of its allies have been fighting shoulder-to-shoulder in Afghanistan and, to a lesser degree Iraq, for almost eight years.

In both war zones, large bases are usually run by a single country, bringing restaurants, shops and amenities to make the troops feel like home.

But the headquarters for NATO forces in southern Afghanistan is a bona fide alliance mish-mash.

Command rotates every nine months between generals from the Netherlands, Britain and Canada. Troops from more than a dozen countries work here full time.

The United States is represented of course -- not just by the Army, Air Force and the Marines, but also by Subway, Pizza Hut and Burger King.

But Americans are far from the majority on the boardwalk, built in the centre of the base in a square about 90 metres (100 yards) on each side.

It is covered by a wooden awning that provides shade.

In the sandy centre are two volleyball nets, a beach-style soccer field and the large wooden hockey rink, with bold red Canadian maple leaf emblems, in case anyone might wonder who plays hockey in Afghanistan.

Like any good boardwalk, it’s cool even in the hot part of the day.

The smells of its various fast food shops waft pleasantly -- except for a few times a day when the wind blows from the direction of the camp’s giant septic pit, known as “poo pond”.

Afghan shops sell rugs and bootleg DVDs, and rent bikes for pedalling around the base. The Kyrgyz shop selling fur hats has few takers in June.

Most of the shopping is at the PXs -- the military shops each country maintains separately and which have a not-so-subtle competition for hearts and minds.

The American PX is the biggest, with the longest lines and cheapest underwear.

The French one is neat and clean, with much trendier clothes and a cafe serving espresso and croissants.

The Germans are coming soon. Posters on the boardwalk announce that “Deutscher PX” is opening this month. “The first real military store in KAF!” the signs boast.

Allies: you have been warned.