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Afghanistan home to a Starbucks _ sort of

It might come as some surprise to executives in Seattle, but the most remote Starbucks in the world is up and running at this dusty U.S. military outpost, serving up steaming lattes and grasshopper mochas just a few steps from a runway alive with Black Hawk helicopters and Warthog attack jets.

Despite the thick white cardboard cups and distinctive green logo pinned to the wall, this is not a real, corporate-run Starbucks. Rather, it is an ersatz branch created by troops from the California National Guard thirsty for a taste of home.

Housed in an old steel shipping container with a plywood front and hand-stenciled letters announcing to passersby "Starbucks is Open," this is a place without amenities. Customers cram into an unheated space the size of a Humvee. A homemade picnic table sits where most Starbucks patrons would expect to see plush velvet chairs. And the venue is open for only two hours in the morning and one at night.

Inside, volunteers _ two soldiers who worked at a Starbucks in the United States _ operate the espresso machines.

"Sometimes, we have to turn them away from the door," Sgt. Lissette Salinas of Sacramento said as she mixed a latte while a knot of soldiers waited inside.

Why work for no pay? "Just for the morale, just for the soldiers," she said.

Valerie Hwang, a spokeswoman for Starbucks, said the company was aware of the imitation outlet and had no problem with it. The nearest real Starbucks is in Kuwait, the company said.

The soldiers' rogue outpost of caffeine culture, tucked just south of the forbidding snowcapped Hindu Kush mountains, was the brainchild of Scott Matthews, a member of the California Guard.

The 25-year-old sergeant says he got the idea in a fit of desperation. As his unit prepared to deploy last summer, he realized there would be no decent cappuccinos, maybe no decent coffee, in this high desert country.

Matthews discussed the problem with his sister, who works at a Starbucks in Atascadero, Calif., just up the coast from San Luis Obispo. She showed him how to buy coffee machines on the Internet and then talked several co-workers into donating coffee beans to her brother's wannabe franchise.

"We all pooled money to buy the initial machines," Matthews said. It cost about $1,000 to get the unit's Starbucks up and running. And because all the coffee has been donated, the bosses don't charge customers. They take donations from troops.

Still, there are some logistical hurdles for a coffee stand whose supply lines stretch 10,000 miles. It takes so long to get the beans from Matthews' sister that the store often has to close for weeks at a time until new shipments come in.

As Matthews spoke, a line of soldiers formed behind him, all looking for a cup of coffee to ward off the chill of the gray Afghan morning. Overhead, an Air Force C-17 cargo jet roared into the low clouds.

Between the morning and night shifts, Matthews and another member of his Guard unit, Sgt. Richard Grimm, maintain MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. But it is evident their real passion is troop morale, served up in many flavors.

"I come here almost every day," Pvt. Jamel Allen said. "It's nice to have something from home."

"This was the fun part about it: the fact that we pulled it off," said Matthews, who runs a video editing business back home.

Clearly, Matthews has the entrepreneurial bug. Next he would like to bring Krispy Kreme Doughnuts to Afghanistan. The problem that worries him, he says, is how to keep the things fresh. "They die so fast _ it's like they're alive."