Kabul's 'Bush Market': Army Gear to Go

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Jason Motlagh for TIME

An Afghan customer tries on a U.S. Army uniform at a stall in Kabul's black market specializing in American goods

Tucked behind an office building less than a mile from Kabul's police headquarters, the black-market stalls bristle with stolen American-made goods on sale at Afghan-friendly prices. Boxes of blueberry Pop-Tarts and Jack Link's Beef Jerky are stacked alongside deodorant sticks and bodybuilding protein supplements. Looking for a pair of steel-toed tactical boots or a Go Army sweatshirt? Check. Quick-dry synthetic underwear or a Leatherman tool? They have those too. In fact, just about anything available on a U.S. military base in Afghanistan can be found there, so long as one doesn't mind the added hassle of checking expiration dates or sorting through the surfeit of Chinese knockoffs. Or, for the occasional American shopper who stops by, the irony of purchasing items already paid for with U.S. tax dollars.

Popularly known as the "Bush Market" and, increasingly, the "Obama Market," the warren of small shops is the largest of several commercial centers named after U.S. Presidents that have sprung up since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Indeed, the presence of foreign armies in the country has for many years spawned a supply and demand for their homegrown products. Three decades ago, during the Soviet occupation, its forerunner was called the "Brezhnev Market" after the former head of the Communist Party, and its stalls were packed with basic Russian commodities. Now, 10 years into an American-led war, hard-to-find Western items are the top draw. "I come here all the time for new clothes," says Ajmal, 27, as he browses a selection of North Face trekking shoes. "The styles are good, the prices are low. It's great."

A similar market exists outside NATO's sprawling Bagram air base in the plains north of the Afghan capital, where many of the goods are said to originate. And though much of what's available appears to be leftovers that could have been dumped outside the wire by base personnel, picked up and resold by enterprising Afghans, it's obvious that many wholesale shipments intended for U.S. troops never made it to their destination — like the crates of still usable MREs (meals ready to eat) and brand-new all-weather sleeping bags used by troops in the field. In a wartime context, some of the stuff isn't entirely harmless, either.

On a recent visit, a TIME reporter was shown an expensive set of night-vision goggles, the kind U.S. forces depend on for a tactical advantage in the dark over Taliban insurgents better versed with the terrain. Several shops had long-range laser-rifle sights of the variety used by military sharpshooters. At the Bagram market, bulletproof vests and Kevlar helmets are known to turn up. U.S. Army and Marine digital-camouflage fatigues are widely available for about $40 a set. And at another market near the capital's largest mosque, Afghan police, army and even presidential guard uniforms sell for even less. (It's not unheard of for Taliban suicide bombers disguised as Afghan security forces to infiltrate and attack large gatherings.) Yet shopkeeper Khwaja Muhammad, 23, concedes that although many of the customers are state military employees who go to buy a second uniform or have alterations done, "We sell to anybody with cash."

Asked how they came by their caches, the shopkeepers provide vague explanations or step on each other's toes to keep quiet. "We buy from a guy who gets it from a another guy. That's all we know," says one. "A lot of it is gifts from the [American] soldiers," claims another, who was furiously scrubbing the name Parker off a plastic footlocker. But Farhad, 34, a merchant whose stock included authentic Under Armour athletic wear and GPS devices, explained that most of the goods are either lifted from NATO supply convoys or spirited off major bases like Bagram by foreign and Afghan contractors, and then sold to local middlemen who take a cut before distributing them to lower-level vendors like himself. Hearing this admission, his business partner cast him a wary glance.

NATO officials have said they know of the black-market trade and would intervene if there was evidence that sensitive material was being sold that could potentially pose a security threat. "We are aware that some military items do end up in bazaars near [coalition] bases. We are also aware that some items are clearly fakes," says a spokesperson, Major Sunset R. Belinsky, adding, "We do take the situation seriously." According to a senior U.S. officer serving in Afghanistan, there's typically a 3% "pilferage rate" on supplies going overland through hostile territory, a problem he thought could be mitigated with more air shipments. But he was more troubled by the idea of an inside job being perpetrated by support staff on the U.S. payroll who may be profiting on the back of those in harm's way. "Most contractors on base are not [working with the U.S.] out of patriotism or national loyalty," grumbles the officer. "They're just out to make a fast buck."

The Bush Marketeers, for their part, make no apologies for any dodgy dealings. On seeing a foreigner walk into his shop, Hamidullah, 22, reached beneath his shiny glass display case and pulled out a Panasonic Toughbook computer with a slick touch screen. The model, he boasted with a grin, is often issued to U.S. officers in the field, and came complete with extra batteries and a leather travel case. "Two thousand for the package," he says. Never mind where it came from.