- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 2, 2002

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan They sleep in air-conditioned comfort, have their hair cut by female stylists flown in from Kyrgyzstan and will soon have a 24-hour cinema to catch the latest films.

The main task for the 4,500 soldiers here in this southern Afghan base is tracking down and capturing al Qaeda and Taliban stragglers in the country's dusty south. But while not at work, troops are relaxing in ever-increasing style.

The range of the facilities on the base could also be a sign that Washington is not planning on withdrawing or cutting back its forces in the country anytime soon, despite the increasingly slow pace of the war.

Less than a year after U.S. troops first arrived in this former Taliban stronghold, the still-growing base at an American-built airfield outside Kandahar has taken on a routine feel.

Soldiers say the detention center for captured fighters, which was once full of prisoners awaiting transport to mission headquarters at Baghram in the north of the country, has not seen an inmate for six weeks or more. Contact with the enemy in the surrounding area has all but petered out, they say.

On Saturday, soldiers stood in line at the PX, or base store, in the heart of the camp. Some struggled out with large bags of charcoal for cookouts planned for sundown. Others wandered the aisles, choosing between a large selection of candy bars, TV sets, Playstation consoles and CDs.

Signs call for chess players to join a Sunday-evening meet and volleyball players to compete in an interunit tournament. Elsewhere, soldiers cycle the miles of dusty paths on imported mountain bikes, passing their colleagues reading newspapers in front of rows of white tents used for living quarters.

Unlike last summer, when soldiers returning from night patrols had to sleep under sweaty tents that trapped the daytime desert sun, sleeping quarters for many troops stationed in Afghanistan have been air conditioned. The units also double as a heater, essential for the upcoming winter when icy temperatures make for uncomfortable nights on the desert plain.

"If wasn't for the AC, we would be hurtin,'" said Sgt. Paul Meyer from Biddeford, Maine. "When the boys get some time, it's nice to be able to come back and relax."

Soldiers here generally agree that life is better than at Baghram, which was a former Soviet air base. There, one hangar doubles as a barracks, gym, mess hall and office area.

Most of the troops at Kandahar are from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. They regularly patrol the areas surrounding the camp and supply isolated bases with food, water and ammunition. Kandahar city remains off limits for most soldiers

Business at the Kandahar Barber Shop, located across the way from the base's two 24-hour gyms, is nonstop, says its Kyrgyz manager, Kadyraly Ainura.

Five barbers on contract from Kyrgyzstan trim, shave and style the troops' hair in the air-conditioned chill. In one corner, a radio blasts out rock songs.

"Most of our customers ask for a short back and sides, but we can do anything," said Miss Ainura, who also serves as a translator for her staff.

Food is mass-catered chow-hall fare, and a source of complaint for most soldiers. But there is hope for the occasional feast, at least for some.

One recent evening, a group of soldiers were seen tucking into grilled T-bone steak, lobster, fresh salad and baked potatoes.

"It's who you know," said one secretive soldier when asked how his unit managed to get permission to hold the cookout.

Soon, soldiers will have a 24-hour movie tent to relieve the boredom of life on the base, said Staff Sgt. Jorge Osorio, from Raeford, N.C.

Sgt. Osorio, who is in charge of morale, welfare and relaxation activities on the site, said staff were also redesigning the current games tent. It will have an outdoor seating area and more pool tables.

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