Kandahar, Afghanistan (AFP) Oct 7, 2009
It could be any Saturday night anywhere in the world as an enthusiastic crowd throws shapes and waves glowsticks to broken rhythms on the dance floor.
But instead of party clothes, everyone is in military fatigues, the beer is non-alcoholic and there's the small matter of a war going on outside. Welcome to NATO's base in Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan.
The vast, high-security base, built around a runway inherited from Afghanistan's Soviet former occupiers, is the second biggest in the country. Only Bagram, near the capital Kabul, is bigger.
Although it was originally built for 12,000 people, the dusty desert complex now houses between 30,000 and 40,000 -- and is growing by the day.
Earth-moving equipment and construction vehicles are everywhere, helping to build concrete buildings by the long lines of khaki-coloured tents. Now that 4,000 extra US soldiers are here, it's a necessary job.
Armoured vehicles stretch out as far as the eye can see. In the sky above, US Black Hawk helicopters, F-16 fighter jets and cargo planes constantly come and go. Six French Mirage jets are also stationed at the base.
"It's one of the busiest single runways in the world," said Captain Max Hanlin, from the 5th Stryker Brigade of the 2nd US Army division.
Apart from a handful of rocket attacks, the base is largely insulated from the war going on outside in Kandahar, spiritual home of the hardline Taliban.
In fact, only a small number of the base's inhabitants are sent to the frontline. Most here are logistics and maintenance personnel, sub-contractors and officers from different armed services.
"It's quiet at the moment," a Belgian soldier said, sipping an energy drink and admitting to never having stepped foot outside the base.
A total of 400 foreign soldiers have died in Afghanistan so far this year, according to independent website icasualties.org -- compared to 294 in all of 2008 -- as the Taliban insurgency spreads across the country.
The upsurge in violence has reportedly prompted US General Stanley McChrystal, commander of the 100,000-strong US and NATO forces here, to ask for 40,000 more US troops.
"They are shaking glowsticks as if they have no concept of the mines and the war outside," said one US officer, watching his colleagues on the dance floor.
Outside, the base's central square, lined with cafes and small shops, looks oddly relaxed.
In a shop selling local curios, a female soldier tries on a belly dancer's costume over her uniform, as a group of soldiers amble by in shorts and flip-flops, machineguns casually slung over their shoulders.
As night falls, a hockey game involving Canadian soldiers provides the square's main entertainment. Others converge on the "Dutch corner," which is reputed for its parties.
When the wind blows, the smell of filth and decay from the over-populated base's septic tank catches the throat.
This evening, though, just a couple of hundred metres from the square, Stryker Brigade has assembled at the runway to pay their final respects to two of their number killed a couple of hours earlier in a suicide bomb attack.
About 20 of their comrades have died in Kandahar since their arrival three months ago.
For the soldiers standing either side of the two coffins before they are sent home by cargo plane, it's a now all-too-familiar ceremony.
"My commander was deployed six times. He told me he has never seen anything like this," one member of the brigade said.
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