A deployment to Afghanistan might be a treatment for anyone who suffers from insomnia. I usually sleep pretty well myself, no matter what my location or state of mind, but my slumber in Kabul challenges that of a medicated ICU patient. I could have napped for an hour that afternoon or quaffed a Coca Cola immediately before turning down the sheets, but I will still sleep through the night. Yesterday is exemplary: I had a headache and so went under the covers at 8 pm, thinking if I woke up very early the next morning I would simply role out of bed and meander to my office to watch the major league baseball games that the Armed Forces Network was televising live. The early morning line-up was the Padres-Dodgers game followed by the Yankees-Red Sox. But instead of watching baseball, I struggled to make breakfast after logging eleven hours unconscious.
Afghanistan is a major producer of opium, and I theorized soon after arriving here (and discovering that I could easily spend half of this deployment face down on a pillow) that perhaps a narcotic dust lingers in the Kabul air, providing me a gentle, constant sedation. The opium is grown in the southern part of the country, however, the area from which the Taliban emerged and currently the region with the most fighting between the Taliban and NATO forces. So instead of producing a population of listless Lotus eaters, the opium region here has bred just the opposite. The likelihood is that something other than a ubiquitous narcotic cloud explains my fatigue.
Boredom, I think, is the etiologic factor that best explains my impressive slumber. Although my base is one of the most developed American facilities in Afghanistan, there isn’t much to do here. The compound is a walled, heavily fortified and guarded three-square-block area in the Wazir Ahkbar Khan neighborhood of Kabul (famous as the setting for the novel The Kite Runner), but I am restricted from leaving the base unless I am on official business and part of an armored vehicle convoy. I do have several sites that I must visit regularly for projects, including the National Military Hospital and the Ministry of Public Health, but both of those buildings are a very short drive and the trips don’t allow me to see much of the city. Most of the day I spend on the base, which does offer a gym, a small coffee house, a pizza restaurant and a few shops. I have internet access in my room (although I pay myself for the service). Meals are provided for me, as is a laundry service. The “library” is an overheated basement room with shelves of Louis L’Amour and detective novels. (I spent an entire afternoon searching for a history of Afghanistan, which is how I discovered the library. I’ve yet to find the history tome.) So I have pretty much everything I need, but I don’t have much to truly enjoy. And when I don't have much to enjoy, I feel bored. And when I feel bored, I get tired. And when I get tired...
A few blocks away sits the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) base, the headquarters for NATO troops in the country. Many different European countries have forces stationed there, and they play by different rules when they go to war. First, many Americans think that the Europeans avoid combat roles. I’m not sure if that is really true, but more than a few people have told me that the acronym ISAF is short for “I Sit, Americans Fight.” Also, the Euros are somehow are able to afford a superior food service. The only complaint I have with the American food contractor, Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), is that the food KBR provided in Kuwait was better than what’s served here. For example, KBR Afghanistan forgot to import the endless dessert bar featured in Kuwait. But the NATO force food comes from a company called Supreme, and supreme it is with a cheese bar, hearty bread selection, butter and espresso machine at every meal. I can eat at either base, and at least one day a week my colleagues and I make business for ourselves at the ISAF base somewhere near lunchtime so that we can enjoy the European fare.
The Euros also allow their soldiers alcohol (it’s a dry deployment for us Americans), and their base has a bar and beer garden that has faux field stone walls and a wooden fence that simulates Bavaria, I assume. Shops on the ISAF base sell Cuban cigars (which are contraband in the US) and nice European chocolates and candies. The PX on my base has Kit Kat bars and stale Pop Tarts.
Again, compared to the quarters of many if not most Americans currently stationed in Afghanistan, I am living in luxury. Recently I visited a small base just outside of Kabul and literally threw a stone the length of the compound. At the regional hospitals in some of the smaller Afghan cities, my colleagues live on the medical complex grounds and wander virtually nowhere else the entire 6-12 months they work there. Kabul itself is relatively quiet and no mortar or artillery fire disturbs the night. So I will continue to sleep long and peaceful hours, inshallah.