KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — It was Christmas in southern Afghanistan, and the country music star walked past the blast barriers to the makeshift stage. She wore camouflage leggings and rhinestone boots. Her audience eased closer, rifles slung across their chests.
Celebrating Christmas here, in the birthplace of the Taliban, is nothing if not surreal. Santa Claus greets inbound Black Hawks. Indian contractors wearing “Merry Christmas” hats serve alcohol-free eggnog. When the Internet connection is fast enough, thousands of deployed parents watch their children tear open presents over Skype.
And there’s Kellie Pickler, one of America’s most popular country music singers. She is a former “American Idol” finalist, a “Dancing With the Stars” winner and a 27-year-old who makes troops stutter and blush, even if they swear they’ve never seen the shows that made her famous.
This is the 13th Christmas that U.S. troops have spent in Afghanistan, and for those in Kandahar this year, it is likely to be their last. An era of relentless wartime deployments will end after the U.S. troop withdrawal — now reaching a fever pitch — concludes late next year.
Pickler was here to thank them, to shake their hands, to assure them that Americans hadn’t forgotten about their sacrifices, even as support for the war sinks to a new low. She was also here to sing twangy love songs.
For one day, she was Dinah Shore in Normandy, Marilyn Monroe in Korea, Raquel Welch in Vietnam. A blond spark that lit the desert.
But Afghanistan has faded from public consciousness more than any of those wars did while they were being fought. In some ways, Christmas in Kandahar has never felt more remote.
Pickler’s audience is now charged with manning bases as they’re being dismantled, fighting a war as the United States plans its withdrawal. It’s unlikely that many more than 10,000 troops will remain after next December — and that small footprint will be approved by the White House only if a bilateral security agreement is soon signed with the Afghan government.
“We came here for the war, but we arrived just in time for it to be over,” said Spec. Jeremy Kortuem — who waited in line as Pickler handed out gifts the previous night, Christmas Eve — as troops fed a bonfire with unused wooden crates.
“I was expecting more bang-bang and less TGI Fridays,” said Spec. James Pegram, referring to the restaurant franchise on Kandahar Airfield, a few yards from Pickler’s stage. It’s part of the base’s famous “boardwalk”— itself a surreal amalgam of fast-food restaurants and Afghan shops lining the circumference of a hockey rink and soccer field.
But like all deployments, for those serving in America’s longest war, this one is quiet until it isn’t. Troops are still dodging roadside bombs and insurgent gunfire, even if the Afghan army is now doing the bulk of the fighting.
Eight Americans have been killed in Afghanistan in the past 10 days. Six died in a helicopter crash in Zabul province, about 100 miles from where Pickler’s band members readied their instruments. A few hours before her concert began, two rockets were fired at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
Pickler had spent the past few days posing for photographs with troops, approaching groups of broad-shouldered soldiers and asking sweetly whether anyone else happened to be from North Carolina, screaming, “Holy heavens!” when a military dog leapt on her at a small Special Forces base.
She visited wounded troops, told the top U.S. commander in southern Afghanistan about her Chihuahua, saw an Afghan boy who had been blinded by a makeshift bomb, spoke emotionally about the importance of the war effort:
“If I were an Afghan woman, I would hope someone would help me provide a better life for me and my children.”
She crisscrossed Kandahar in Black Hawks and Chinooks, the vast monochrome of southern Afghanistan below. She fired a howitzer, a deep boom that alarmed an Afghan general meeting with his U.S. counterpart on an adjacent base.
“What was that?” Gen. Ghulam Murtaza asked in Dari.
“I think that was Kellie,” Col. D.A. Sims said through an interpreter.
Murtaza looked confused.
But mostly, the young Americans and Afghans on base were left smitten.
“She told me I had the most beautiful eyes she had ever seen,” Cpl. Clay Beyersdorfer said. “I’m ready to die now.”
“Who is that? She is a very pretty woman. Will she take a picture with me?” said Edris Searat, an Afghan interpreter working with the U.S. Air Force.
Because the Afghanistan war has been fought by a NATO-led coalition, troops from each country spent the day their own way. The Romanians sang their national anthem. The Australians listened to a radio show that aired messages from military families to their deployed loved ones.
“Have a Merry Christmas, or try to,” one Australian wife said.
The Emiratis, among the few Muslim members of the International Security Assistance Force, smoked cigarettes in a courtyard.
Some of the Americans refreshed their Facebook pages until a new message popped up. Some ate dinner in front of their computers, an attempt at a family meal. Some wore homemade elf costumes over their uniforms. Some went on patrol, because not everyone could have the day off.
By Christmas, almost everyone here had heard of Kellie Pickler. The Kandahar base, one of the largest military installations in Afghanistan, had been plastered with photographs of the singer. A bus had taken her and her band in circles — to the hospital, to the military dog training center, to dining halls decorated with donated Christmas lights.
Some of the troops were already big fans. Some had searched her name on the Internet, watched videos of her singing with Taylor Swift, read that she had already traveled on six USO tours, including previous trips to Afghanistan and Iraq.
“I saw on the Wikipedia that she sings country. I like country,” said Lt. Cmdr. Cristian Hanu of Romania.
The USO has sent performers to American military installations around the world since 1941. As the gap between military and civilian worlds has widened, those events aren’t just about boosting morale, but bridging a divide.
“In some ways, that makes what we do even more important,” said Priya Butler, the USO’s director of operations in southwest Asia.
Pickler might be the perfect conduit. After taking the stage, she joked with troops that she “really wanted to bring y’all some Jack Daniels.” She asked for the cowboys to raise their hands. She told the audience that her husband calls her “his gypsy redneck.” Earlier in the visit, she said she had brought along her license to carry concealed weapons, just in case.
When a brief electrical problem created a loud popping sound, sending a pang of anxiety through the crowd, the troops reeled and then laughed, as if suddenly remembering where they were.
Pickler tried to reassure them.
“There’s no place I’d rather spend Christmas,” she said.