BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan – Seen from a tiny village on a recent moonless night, the sprawling U.S. base three miles to the north looks more like a medium-size city than a military facility in a war zone.
Bagram Air Field, as the base is formally known, is the largest U.S. military hub of the war in Afghanistan and is home to some 24,000 military personnel and civilian contractors. Yet it is continuing to grow to keep up with the requirements of an escalating war and troop increases.
With tens of millions of dollars pouring into expanding and upgrading facilities, Bagram is turning into something of a military "boom town." Large swathes of the 5,000-acre base look like a construction site, with the rumble of building machinery and the scream of fighter-jets overhead providing the soundtrack.
The rapid growth here is taking place at a time when the Obama administration is debating the future direction of the increasingly unpopular war, now in its ninth year. Among the options under discussion is a recommendation by U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the overall commander of foreign forces in Afghanistan, to bring in additional U.S. troops, perhaps as many as 80,000.
But even with current troop levels — 65,000 U.S. troops and about 40,000 from allied countries — Bagram already is bursting at the seams.
Plans are under way to build a new, $22 million passenger terminal and a new cargo yard costing $9 million. To increase cargo capacity, a new parking ramp supporting the world's largest aircraft is to be completed this spring.
Elsewhere at Bagram, construction has begun on permanent brick-and mortar housing for troops and headquarters for military units, according to Lt. Col. Troy Joslin, chief of Bagram's operations.
Hundreds of Afghan builders in traditional tunics, loose pants and hard hats arrive by bus every morning. Dozens of trucks laden with dirt and other building materials come into the base daily.
The water and electricity systems and the waste management facility are being upgraded. The Army Corps of Engineers is increasing the capacity of the base's roads as well as building new ones on the east side of the airfield, said Joslin.
The base command is acquiring more land next year on the east side to expand the base, according to Joslin. No figure was given.
When the U.S. military took over Bagram in December 2001, the base was 1,616 hectares (3,993 acres), according to Capt. Jennifer Bocanegra, a military spokeswoman at Bagram.
It is now 2,104 hectares (5,198 acres), she said.
Bocanegra said the lease of additional land to expand Bagram was needed to protect personnel and accomplish missions. "The acquisitions have been made with the express knowledge and consent of the Afghan Government," she said.
The base's main road, a tree-lined thoroughfare called "Disney drive," is so congested at times it looks like a downtown street at rush hour. Kicking up dust on that road are Humvees, mine-resistant vehicles, SUVs, buses, trucks and sedans.
A pedestrian path running alongside that road is as busy as a shopping street on a Saturday afternoon, with hundreds of soldiers, Marines, airmen, navy officers and civilian contractors almost rubbing shoulders. Similarly, the lines are long at the overcrowded food halls, the American fast food outlets, cafes, PX stores and ATM machines.
Signs on bathroom walls warn of a water shortage.
"If you think you are maybe wasting water, YOU PROBABLY ARE," warns one sign.
Clients must wait, sometimes for up to an hour, for a haircut. For the luxury of a back massage, an appointment is recommended.
The air field is already handling 400 short tons of cargo and 1,000 passengers daily, according to Air Force spokesman Capt. David Faggard. A new 3.5-kilometer (2.17-mile runway) was completed in 2006, to accommodate large aircraft, he added.
Bagram was a major Soviet base during Moscow's 1979-89 occupation of Afghanistan, providing air support to Soviet and Afghan forces fighting the mujahedeen. It also was fought over by rival factions during the country's civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal.
The view from the old Soviet-built air traffic tower, replaced last year by a new, $50 million tower, reveals a picture more akin to a busy commercial hub than a military facility in a war zone. So frantic is the pace at the air field that giant C-17 transport aircraft fill up with soldiers almost as soon as their cargo is emptied.
"The current expansion supports thousands of additional Coalition troops, either assigned to or supported from Bagram Air Field," said Bocanegra.
With Bagram's rapid growth and increase in importance to the war effort, the need to protect it was never greater. The responsibility for that primarily falls on Air Force personnel and paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division.
Bagram lies in Parwan, a relatively quiet province. The Taliban-led insurgency, while growing in numbers and strength elsewhere, is not known to have a significant presence in the province.
Still, the base is susceptible to rocket and mortar attacks.
This year insurgents have launched more than a dozen attacks on Bagram, killing four and wounding at least 12, according to military spokesman Lt. Col. Mike Brady.