KAIA is the abbreviated name of the NATO ISAF compound located on the north side of Kabul International Airport. It is home to roughly four thousand military and civilian residents from dozens of nations. It is a hub for ISAF operations in the region, particularly in terms of air transportation, medical support and mentorship of the Afghan Air Force.
Sights. Kabul resides in a river valley corralled by mountains that dominate the horizon in virtually every direction. To the north and west lie the magnificent peaks of the Hindu Kush range that are blanketed with snow during the winter. These mountains form a basin that contains not only Kabul, but some of the worst air quality in the world. A persistent haze plagues the city – a mix of dust, industrial pollution, vehicle emissions, smoke from whatever Afghans can burn to stay warm, and who knows what else. On the rare clear days, the views are stunning and the neighborhoods of Kabul that creep up into the foothills can be seen from the airport.
While the KAIA compound in many ways resembles a typical military installation, it also possesses some unique features. Due to the dozens of member nations that support the ISAF mission here, a parade of military uniforms exists that sport every variation of desert camouflage you can imagine. Some nations defy local fashion and instead flaunt their native woodland camo of greens and browns – the French and the Czechs come to mind. Then there are the guns. So many guns. Virtually every military member and many civilian contractors are armed 24/7 with either assault rifles, side arms or both. They walk with their weapons. They eat with their weapons. They go shopping with their weapons. This is not only necessary but mandatory, as the compound must be prepared at all times to defend itself from both external and internal threats.
Another unique and welcome feature is the miles of strategically placed T-walls throughout the compound. A T-wall is basically a Jersey barrier on steroids and is used to protect assets and personnel from a variety of ground-based threats, like small arms fire and small explosive devices. They also serve to hinder if not prevent external observation of said personnel and assets, which is critical to operational security.
There is a considerable amount of pedestrian traffic on the compound. Most residents don’t have access to vehicles and parking space is scarce for those who do. KAIA’s current population well exceeds its designed capacity and all those people are constantly moving, whether going to work, the gym, shopping and dining facilities, or whatever else.
Sounds. KAIA is a surprisingly peaceful place. The loudest area is the flight line, but thanks to the dense arrangement of buildings and T-walls, the propeller and jet noise can barely be heard in many areas on the compound. Other common sounds include helicopters patrolling nearby, trash trucks and construction vehicles going about their business, air conditioning units laboring to keep buildings cool, and the music of conversations being held in several dozen different languages.
Thankfully, gunshots and explosions are rare. Force Protection personnel do a stellar job here, enabling KAIA’s residents to live and work in an exceedingly safe environment, considering the circumstances. Indeed, the biggest hazard on KAIA is likely the air quality.
Tastes. Life on the compound is monotonous, but hardly unbearable. A major advantage to being on KAIA is the smorgasbord of available dining options – a luxury many other posts in Afghanistan don’t enjoy. In addition to the two main cafeteria-style dining facilities (DFACs), there is a Turkish dining facility that is provisioned by a local contractor in Kabul. These three options are free to partake of and the quality of the fare ranges from satisfactory to quite good.
If you get bored with the DFACs and are willing to spend your own cash, a variety of commercially-operated eateries exists for your dining enjoyment. These include Thai, Lebanese, Italian and Turkish restaurants, a couple coffee shops and a collection of international retail food stuffs offered by the handful of vendors on the compound. A modest assortment of sweets, canned and boxed items, meats and cheeses, salty snacks and sugary drinks are all within a ten-minute walk from nearly anywhere on KAIA. If you’re willing (and able) to go into the community, you can explore local offerings including Afghan bread (nan), local produce, tea, or anything else you wish to seek out.
Smells. The predominant aromas on KAIA include sewage, cigarette smoke, diesel fumes and jet exhaust, and the smoke from various things Afghans burn for warmth during the winter months. A bouquet of delights, to be sure. Let’s take them in turn.
The sewage aroma is a matter of simple math. Thousands of people eating thousands of meals each day equals a lot of pooh. I don’t know anything about the sewage handling system here, but I do know pooh vapors emanate regularly from manhole covers and sewer grates. When the breeze is just right, a bitter wind wafts across the entire compound.
Cigarette smoking is a national pastime on KAIA. Not only is smoking pervasive in military culture, it’s also quite prevalent among the cultures of the participant nations here. Smoking is prohibited indoors on the compound, so entrances to buildings are typical congregation spots for lighting up.
Diesel powers just about everything on KAIA. Generators, cars and trucks, construction vehicles, Humvees and other tactical vehicles leave wakes of fragrant exhaust everywhere they go. Likewise, if you’re anywhere near the flight line, you’ll enjoy more than a nose full of JP-8 fumes depending on how busy things are.
Lastly, Afghans resort to burning many types of materials to keep warm when the temperature drops – literally whatever they can get their hands on. This practice contributes significantly to the horrible air quality in Kabul. It also creates a pungent odor that tickles your throat and begs more than a few coughs.
As far as gigs go in Afghanistan, you can do much worse than KAIA. For me, the assortment of creature comforts and relative safety easily outweigh the few drawbacks. Of course, I’m new here. Let’s see what I think in about six months.