KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — It was a broiling fall evening in this southern Afghan battlezone, and U.S. Army Sgt. Charles Reed wanted to celebrate his birthday in style – at T.G.I. Friday's on the boardwalk.
So the military intelligence soldier ducked inside the Western diner with a dozen friends, climbed atop a chair, and began a slow, solo groove as smiling Asian waiters in baseball caps clapped a carefully practiced birthday cheer.
Two nonalcoholic Dutch beers and a $30 steak and shrimp dinner later, Reed stepped out of the air-conditioned cool of the wood-floored eatery – whose walls are plastered with guitars, surfboards and Elvis posters – and back into reality: the sweltering desert heat of a giant NATO military base ensconced in a rocky Afghan moonscape crawling with insurgents.
"It was kind of unreal," the Steamboat Springs, Colorado native said, describing his recent 34th birthday fete at Kandahar Airfield, better known as KAF. "At least for a few minutes, you could pretend you were somewhere else. It was like going back home."
The only difference, perhaps: most of the people ordering cheeseburgers and milkshakes were decked out in combat fatigues, and heavily armed.
T.G.I. Friday's is the apex of war-zone escapism on KAF's famed boardwalk, a Wild West-like quadrangle boasting three dozen glass-door shops and coffee bars that form a surreal counterpoint to the daily fighting going on just outside the base's walls.
Coalition forces arriving here this year as part of the U.S. surge to curb the mushrooming insurgency have been shocked to discover such elaborate dining and entertainment options.
Flashing neon signs beckon customers to the red and white tablecloths inside Mamma Mia's Pizzeria. The Green Bean cafe ("Honor First, Coffee Second") offers frozen iced latte and cinnamon buns. There is a barber shop, an AT&T call center, multiple Wifi networks, and a cyber cafe in which soldiers can video-chat with family and friends back home.
Around half a square mile (1 square kilometer) long, the covered walkway surrounds a dirt pitch hosting the occasional rock concert. Troops from NATO nations gather nightly in shorts and tennis shoes to watch basketball, flag-football and volleyball games. There is even a Canadian-dominated field hockey rink. And one night last week, an acoustic guitar jam.
There are ATM bank machines, too, and plenty to shop for: Cuban cigars, condoms, suits. The German military store sells a "Terror Chess" set pitting American forces against Taliban guerrillas on a map of Afghanistan (the American queen is the Statue of Liberty, while George W. Bush and a newly added Barack Obama are kings; their counterparts: a woman clad in a blue burqa and Osama bin Laden).
U.S. Capt. Braden Coleman, a 30-year-old pilot from North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, remembered sitting down on the boardwalk shortly after being deployed here in May.
"I couldn't believe I was in Kandahar eating a double-dipped chocolate ice cream at sunset on a Saturday afternoon," said Coleman, who was downing a strawberry smoothie from the French bakery behind him, where an Eiffel Tower climbs a wall above picnic tables with fake potted plants.
"It was a surreal experience," he said, as a jet fighter roared across the sky, letting loose a stream of defensive white flares. "I remember thinking, 'We're in the heart of the war-zone. The bad guys are 10 miles away. And here we are eating soft-serve ice cream.'"
Since a small American Marine contingent first landed here in late November 2001, KAF has expanded into a small city housing 30,000 multinational troops and support contractors. The population consumes nearly 37,000 gallons (140,000 liters) of water and 50,000 meals daily at seven free dining facilities known as D-FACs, according to U.S. Maj. Steven A. Williams, a senior acquisition officer.
Though far from the front lines, KAF residents endure frequent rocket attacks which rarely cause casualties but force everyone – including patrons of T.G.I. Friday's – to hit the ground whenever the alarm sounds.
In May, militants tried to storm the base's northern perimeter in a coordinated assault. One rocket hit about 50 yards (meters) outside a boardwalk coffee shop.
For the most part though, base life is monotonous. The walkway offers a welcome diversion, a place to kick back and relax. It's "a good morale booster," Williams said. The troops "see it as a slice of home."
The fast food outlets became controversial under former commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who questioned the utility of using vital supply lines transiting ambush-prone highways for nonessentials that could make troops too fat to fight. A Thai massage parlor was closed down (yes, a Thai massage parlor), and this spring, the U.S. military shut three American takeaways: Burger King, Pizza Hut and Subway.
T.G.I.'s, which opened in January and features the company's huge bright red and white sign outside and a dry bar with dangling wine glasses inside, appears to have escaped the austerity measures because the franchise is not American-owned.
McChrystal's replacement, Gen. David Petraeus, has hinted he may be kinder to the fast-food cause, saying through a spokesman in June that "all options are on the table."
Last month, a foreign-owned Kentucky Fried Chicken opened. And a new sign advertises a Coney Island specialty: "Nathan's Famous" hot-dogs, "Coming Soon."