KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S. military has lifted a seven-month ban on fast-food restaurants and retail stores at American bases in Afghanistan.
The shops, ranging from Burger Kings to Oakley sunglasses stores and Military Car Sales outlets, were ordered closed in February by former U.S. commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who cited space issues. At the time, McChrystal’s senior enlisted adviser said the profusion of such shops was contributing to an “amusement park” atmosphere at some of the largest U.S. bases.
But Army Command Sgt. Maj. Marvin Hill — who took over as the senior noncommissioned officer in Afghanistan this month — decided to reverse the ban after consulting with other top noncommissioned officers, he said in an interview Thursday.
“For troops to be able to go and grab a burger or a piece of chicken or whatever, I don’t really think it’s that bad,” he said.
In part, Hill said, the change in policy reflects an easing of the logistical challenges posed by the arrival of some 30,000 additional U.S. troops and their equipment. When the ban was announced, those troops were still on their way, straining tenuous NATO supply routes and filling bases beyond capacity.
But the change may also reflect something of a less ascetic attitude within the new command: Both McChrystal and his top enlisted adviser, Army Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Hall, came from Special Forces backgrounds and led a charge against what they viewed as distractions from the war.
McChrystal also banned the sale of alcohol at NATO bases under his command. Though most U.S. troops have always been barred from drinking while deployed in Afghanistan, other NATO nations do not have similar rules, and U.S. personnel assigned to the International Security Assistance Force headquarters in Kabul had been allowed to consume alcohol. The alcohol ban remains in effect.
Hill said he would leave it to individual base commanders to decide what to bring back, but cautioned that the food courts and shopping areas should be kept within reason.
“It needs to be right-sized,” he said. “We need to keep in mind that everything we bring into the country has to come through the same supply chain, whether it’s fast food or ammunition.”
Hill said he had cracked down on an over-abundance of amenities in Iraq while serving as the top enlisted official there during 2007 and 2008, banning the sale of such items as big-screen televisions.
The ban on shops and fast-food restaurants mainly affected a handful of the largest U.S. bases in Afghanistan such as Bagram Air Field that are primarily home to headquarters and support troops.
Most combat troops remain at smaller bases, often with only the most basic amenities, contributing to something of a quality-of-life dichotomy in Afghanistan, typified by a faux motivational poster that has made the rounds among U.S. troops. The poster shows a picture of two smiling servicemembers holding trays of fast food next to a group of dust-covered troops on patrol. Beneath, it reads: “Afghanistan: individual experiences may vary.”
Spokesman Judd Anstey said Thursday that AAFES had yet to receive official word of the policy change.
“If we receive an official request, AAFES is ready to support fast food concessions in Afghanistan,” he said.
Gen. David Petraeus, who took over command in Afghanistan in July, said he had left the decision about base amenities to Hill but said he believed the shops contributed to morale without creating resentment.
“The feedback I’ve received from the squad and platoon level, if you will, is that they don’t begrudge the occupants of big bases having Burger Kings because they actually like to go to them when they get the chance to go to the big bases,” he said.
Many base amenities were not affected by the ban, such as post exchanges, Internet and telephone centers, Afghan-run bazaar and Green Bean coffee shops.