"Nothing to Jalalabad today," a young sergeant tells me across the counter. "Check back in the evening." I'm at Bagram Air Base, about an hour north of Kabul, the largest allied base in Afghanistan and the first stop in country for most GIs. I've been here two nights—already longer than scheduled—waiting for a flight to a forward operating base where I'm supposed to embed with forces patrolling near the Pakistan border. A megabase with three rings of security, Bagram serves as a kind of clearinghouse where troops are processed and then airlifted to their frontline positions. It's also the headquarters for the International Security Assistance Force, the 37-nation Coalition conducting the war here. Along Disney Street, the main access road named for a soldier killed in Afghanistan, signs point to the Polish compound, the Romanian barracks, the field hospital run by Egyptian troops. But the flights out are irregular. The joke is schedulers aspire for Jet Blue efficiency. In large open hangars, troops lounge on their rucksacks waiting for the announcement that their ride out, fixed-wing or rotary (plane or helicopter in civilian speak), has arrived.
For the troops who stay behind, life at Bagram is probably more comfortable than anywhere else in Afghanistan. The living quarters are mostly two-story buildings built in the Soviet era and many are air-conditioned, a relief in 100-degree heat. The food, supplied by contractor KBR, is diner quality. Most meals include a salad bar, a selection of meat, fish or vegetarian entrees, fresh fruit and baked desserts. To encourage troops to watch their weight, calorie figures are posted on each dish. "At Bagram, you're only about halfway between civilization and the front line," a private first class who works with the public affairs office here tells me. There are several fully stocked gyms on base and halls where movies are screened. On successive nights, I lounged with soldiers watching “Norbit” and “Reno 911!” The latter was screened at the Pat Tillman recreation center, named for the Army Ranger and former NFL star shot dead in Afghanistan by members of his own unit in 2003. Tillman's family has clashed so fiercely with the military over the successive investigations that it's surprising to see his football jersey hanging in a framed glass casing on the wall of the center.
The Post Exchange, about the size of a small supermarket at home, stocks everything from shaving cream to Weber grills. "We sell wants and needs," says Jose Gonzales, who runs the store. "People come in and they need shaving cream, they need soap. But they're also buying a lot of luxury items." IPODs and chewing tobacco are the hottest sellers. Doritos fly off the shelf because most salty snacks at the chow hall are locally produced. The in-demand magazines are Maxim and Muscle and Fitness (NEWSWEEK does OK, General Manager Rick Lein tells me). And troops are also buying up laptops to circumvent the Pentagon's ban on using military terminals to visit popular Web sites MySpace and YouTube. The shopping area also includes a beauty salon, a Burger King and a succession of "haji stores," where Afghan merchants hock the standard Mideast bazaar items: carpets, gems, perfumes and jewelry.
On my first night here, I took my own laptop to the Tillman center, the one wireless Internet spot on the base. Hundreds of GIs crowded in and around the center to access the signal. Next to me, a soldier instant-messaged with his wife while scrolling through hard-drive photos of their year-old son. But with so many users sharing one line, the surfing was painfully slow.
The few embedded reporters here roam freely, save for two no-go zones: the fenced-off camp of the Special Operations forces and the Bagram detention center, a compound surrounded by an eight-foot wall and razor wire just across from the PX. Nicknamed "the other Gitmo", the prison has spawned its own stories of abuse. But even with the guard towers and concertina, and the periodic roar of flights taking off and landing, it's almost possible at Bagram to forget the war going on outside the wire. Air Force Senior M/Sgt. Pete Klein, now on his fifth tour, says Bagram came under daily rocket attack during his first posting in 2002. Now, attacks occur no more than once in a few months. A suicide bombing at Bagram's outer gate during Vice President Dick Cheney's visit here in February killed several people. But it was the first suicide attack on the base in years.