Christoph Bangert for The New York Times The view of Kandahar Air Field, one of the largest NATO military bases in Afghanistan. The round-shaped lake in the middle of the base is where raw sewage is treated.Visiting a city like Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, the subject of human excrement is not something that ordinarily occupies much of your thinking. After all, unlike much of the rest of the country, Kandahar has toilets, even if most of them are just holes in the floor made of porcelain. As a pedestrian, the only issue that would probably prompt any thinking on this subject are the sewers that line Kandahar’s dusty streets; they are the open-air type. You’ve got to take care to avoid them, or you’ll fall in.
But avoiding the lake-sized pool of human excrement that fills a section of the sprawling American and NATO base known as Kandahar Air Field is something else. Avoid it you cannot. This I discovered recently while visiting the base itself, which occupies a chunk of chaparral just south of the city itself.
I had flown from Kabul to interview a senior officer about some things the military has in the works. Wandering through the base at sunset, I suddenly found myself enveloped by a terrible smell. What on earth? I thought. Did a sewage truck hit an I.E.D.?
Then I saw it.
“The Poo Pond,” as the servicemen affectionately call the place, is an enormous liquid pit for all the human waste at the airfield. That’s not a small amount: The airfield is a small city, with at least 20,000 men and woman at the moment, many of them having only recently just arrived as part of President Obama’s escalation. The pond is perhaps a hundred yards across. Its contents form a kind of brownish bog — a swamp, if you will. The swamp is cordoned off by a single rope and an array of warning signs: “Biohazard: Do Not Enter.” It’s not as if I was planning to!
I stared at the bog for a few moments. Not a trace of life stirred on the surface, not even a mosquito. Out there in the middle sat a decorative fountain, happily spewing and bubbling.
From this smelly sea wafts a never-ending cloud of stench, which sometimes sweeps far and wide across the base. What gives the pond its piquancy is its location. It has not been shunted to some far corner of the airfield — which is miles across, with plenty of open spaces — but rather sits squarely in the middle of the base, among the multitudes. Just across the road are several rows of barracks.
“Wow, who has to live next to that?” I said to two American service members as we drove near the pond in their S.U.V.
The two Americans — one man, one woman — smiled at each other like an old couple.
“We do,” they said in unison.
I looked out toward the pond, breathing through my mouth.
“Do you get used to it after awhile?” I continued naïvely. “Do you get used to the smell?”
“Never,” said the man, who was driving. “Not for a second.”
It should be said that the pond does, apparently, serve as some functions useful beyond the absorption of sewage. Taliban fighters often bombard the place with rockets, which sometimes explode and injure people. During one recent attack, an officer told me, a Taliban rocket struck the pond and disappeared inside.
It hasn’t been heard from since.