EDITORIAL: Destroying morale in Afghanistan

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The coalition commander has declared war on comfort. Nonessential morale, welfare and recreation facilities in Afghanistan are being shuttered. The list of casualties will include Orange Julius, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Subway, TGI Fridays, Popeye’s and Dairy Queen. The popular Harley-Davidson dealership is being closed. The number of canned and bottled goods coming in-country will be reduced, as will first-run movies and non-USO live shows. In other words, troops can be in the Hurt Locker; they just can’t watch it.

This austerity drive is being justified as necessary to create the supply and transport space necessary to fight a larger war. “Supplying nonessential luxuries to big bases like Bagram and Kandahar makes it harder to get essential items to combat outposts and forward operating bases,” explained Command Sgt. Maj. Michael T. Hall in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) blog. “Troops who are in the fight each day need [to be] resupplied with ammunition, food and water.” But there is also a sense of getting back to basics. “This is a war zone - not an amusement park,” Sgt. Maj. Hall noted. One story making the rounds is that ISAF commanding Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, well-known for his ascetic habits, is seeking to impose a more Spartan lifestyle on the troops. When rank doesn’t want its privileges, no one else will, either.

These diversions were introduced as a means of improving morale and making the troops more effective at their jobs. A news report in the Manchester Guardian from 2004, when the surge in amenities began, noted that in Kabul, off-duty troops could enjoy fast food, Internet cafes, shop at a variety of gift shops or visit a spa for a haircut and a full body massage. Said one soldier, “It keeps you ready. Sore muscles can really inhibit if you have to fight.” There is no clear evidence that fast food interferes with mission effectiveness, unless it creates fatter Fobbits.

Most fighters are out in the field and do not have ready access to these amenities, which are centered at Bagram near Kabul and to a lesser extent in Kandahar, where the Burger King is just a big blue trailer. Having a pizza is not an everyday thing, but it’s a treat to look forward to when they had a chance. Troops closer to the food courts get a morale boost even if they do not partake. According to one war fighter, “I rarely went to the Burger King, but I really liked knowing it was there.”

The symbolism of the crackdown on comfort is negative on several levels. Imposing mean austerity on our fighting forces stands in sad contrast to the orgy of entitlement programs and government giveaways going on stateside. Also, an important aspect of the mission in Afghanistan is to bring the country into modernity and show the Afghan people the benefits of Western culture. Fast food may not strike some Americans as the best incentive for people in the developing world to keep developing, but in fact a functioning American-style fast-food restaurant is not only a status symbol in most underdeveloped countries, it is a metric of success in promoting peace and stability.

America should not be undertaking a food-court drawdown. Instead, the United States should be finding ways to surge fast food beyond the perimeter of military bases and into Afghanistan proper. Nothing would say “mission accomplished” more starkly and effectively than a KFC in downtown Kabul.

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