BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Thousands of American troops celebrated their 4th of July independence holiday in Afghanistan on Wednesday, far from home but treated to a feast of hotdogs, burgers, corn on the cob and ice cream.
“This is a special day for us and we will be celebrating across the country, wherever we are,” army captain Meredith Noll said at Bagram Air Base, the vast and sprawling headquarters of the U.S-led, 50,000-strong international force in Afghanistan.
Since helping to topple the Taliban in 2001 in pursuit of Osama bin Laden after the September 11 attacks, the U.S. military has turned the Soviet-built base into something resembling a middle American military town — complete with a mini shopping mall, fast food franchises and even a local radio station.
In a reminder of the violence still gripping the country nearly six years after the war began, six Canadian soldiers died when a roadside bomb hit their vehicle in southern Afghanistan, the deadliest attack on NATO forces in the country this month.
On Wednesday, senior commanders of the U.S. force hosted a 4th of July barbeque for fellow officers from other coalition partners as well as the Afghan National Army.
The Army’s 82nd Airborne Division band played music based on the military role in U.S. history, starting with “The Battle Cry of the Republic,” the rallying call of union soldiers during the civil war, and ending with “American Soldier,” the hit country song by Toby Keith, composed in 2004 after the invasion of Iraq.
It was an unashamedly patriotic occasion, but even the Muslim Afghan guests did not begrudge the Americans their celebration — although a few looked slightly bemused when an army chaplain led a brief dedication that was decidedly Christian in nature.
“The Americans are here helping us and for that we are grateful,” said Abdul Jabbar Taqwa, governor of Parawan. “They are our guests and we must give them respect.”
Lt. General David Rodriquez, Afghanistan East Regional Commander, said in an address that the U.S. was proud to be helping Afghanistan emerge from decades of conflict.
“Not surprisingly, we see a reflection of ourselves in Afghanistan’s struggle,” he said.
U.S. troops have had a far easier time in Afghanistan than they have had in Iraq, although 407 Americans have been killed since 2001.
The U.S. military is heavily involved in reforming the Afghan National Army and its engineers are involved in many major road and bridge projects across the country.
But opposition to the U.S. presence is growing, particularly with the rising civilian death toll from fighting between foreign forces and the Taliban.
Over 300 have died this year alone — most in airstrikes — and protests calling for foreign troops to leave have taken place across the country.
For one marine forming part of an honor guard for Wednesday’s Bagram festivities, his 4th of July celebration would take place next month when he returns home after a six month tour of duty.
“It’s gonna be 10 years (in the Marines) next month and I’m outta here,” said Sgt. Jimmy Jackson. “It’s gonna be a real big party.”