Last February, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan has ordered a sharp cutback on troop amenities. That meant the closing of large, mall like, base exchanges, and American fast food outlets. Now, a new commander, improved logistics, and polls of attitudes among the troops, has caused that policy to be reversed.
These luxuries (for a combat zone) were commonplace in Iraq. But in Afghanistan, everything has to be flown in, or trucked long distances, at much greater expense. In practical terms, it's all about logistics. The sparse and primitive road network of Afghanistan can only handle so much traffic. And the military supplies share the few roads with the growing civilian commerce. The Afghan economy is booming, and this is an important aspect of the fight against the Taliban, drug gangs and tribal troublemakers in general. But, despite the scary headlines about Taliban violence, the cargo truck traffic from Pakistan (and Central Asia, and even Iran) keeps coming in ever increasing numbers. Turns out there's enough capacity to maintain a few food courts.
Originally, the policy had been to maintain the same level of amenities for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. There was a method in this madness. When visiting American bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers from other nations were amazed at the range of amenities available for all the troops. Fast food, swimming pools, ample and tasty chow in the dining halls. There are also mini-malls offering the same range of goods found state-side. Most of the troops live in air-conditioned living quarters, and often embellished those with mini-refrigerators and flat screen TVs (for viewing videos or playing games.) It was more like an American college campus, except for the occasional mortar shell going off, and the sound of bombs and gunfire in the distance. Foreigners thought that this must be incredibly expensive, and it is.
Not all American troops live in such comfort. Many of the combat troops move around, and live in temporary bases that lack many of those amenities. But even most of these guys eventually get back to some of those comforts. And why is all of this so important? Simple. Morale. As generals have known for thousands of years, the troops appreciate their comforts while they are facing danger and death in the combat zone. We're not talking "the lap of luxury" here, for the comfort levels in Iraq and Afghanistan often come close to, but usually fall far short of, what the troops are used to back home. Comfort is a relative term, so if you have just spent the last twelve hours dodging bombs, bullets and bad guys, a good meal, a little XBox action, and an air-conditioned room to sleep in, makes all the difference when it comes to how stressed you feel the next day. That's when you probably have to go out and get shot at for another twelve hours.
While it may seem manly to live in a tent, sleep in the heat, eat drab food that is quickly covered in dust, and go without showers, the Internet and video games, this is not good for your head. At least if you are a normal person. Some people really get off on the rough life and constant stress. But there aren't too many of them, which is why the Special Forces and SEALs have such a hard time recruiting. The U.S. Army has found that, if you throw in some battlefield comforts, your average soldier can put up with a lot more combat stress. As G.I.s like to say, "whatever works."
Troops surveys revealed that the combat troops out in the hills, eating dust and sleeping on rocks most of time, did not begrudge the Fobbits (support troops living safely in Forward Operating Bases, or FOBs) their amenities. The reason for this was that the combat troops got to visit these large FOBs (like Bagram or Kandahar) and enjoy some of that fast food and air-conditioned mall atmosphere. A little taste of home is good for morale, after you've spent the last few weeks chasing Taliban through the hills and dodging IEDS on dirt roads.
A year ago it was thought, with troops levels rising, along with the number of troops out in the countryside, this approach to morale building could not be sustained. The American commander who ordered the cutback in base amenities came from the Special Forces, where austere conditions are normal, and morale is maintained by only accepting people who can handle endless months living austere conditions. As a practical matter, many of the combat troops actually thought that the amenities at some of the larger base camps were a little over the top, for a combat zone. It was nice, and there was no movement, aside from some snide remarks, for a more austere environment. But most troops came to the combat zone to, well, serve in a combat zone. In Afghanistan, they get more of that. But, as the opinion surveys indicated, it's nice to have some relief nearby.