KABUL — At Camp Eggers, the headquarters of NATO’s training mission in Afghanistan, shelves at the U.S. military store grow ever more bare as Pakistan’s halt on coalition supply shipments drags into its sixth month.
But while most troops here don’t know it, there’s no shortage of coalition supplies in Afghanistan’s capital city. The only problem is, those supplies aren’t on coalition bases.
A few miles from Eggers, at a bazaar behind a gold-windowed office building, Afghan men stroll cramped corridors browsing shelves of Colgate toothpaste, Red Bull energy drink and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, stopping now and then to place a bottle of Heinz ketchup or Cheer detergent in a wheelbarrow pushed by an eager attendant.
This is Kabul’s “Bush Market” — a name bearing an unsubtle hint about the origins of its merchandise — a one-stop shop for everything from hand tools to hair gel, all at discount prices. While it can take some work to sift through off-brands and knockoffs, about half the merchandise is the very same found in coalition chow halls, exchange stores and supply closets. No doubt, that’s just where it was supposed to go.
A labyrinth of some 500 stores, the Bush Market is a virtual mall of commercialized corruption where Afghans and the occasional Westerner come to buy, as shopkeepers boast, “American-quality” merchandise.
A similar black market sprang up during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, doing a “brisk trade in Soviet machinery and spare parts,” the AP reported in 1988.
Here, cases of U.S. military field rations, Army workout shirts and energy drinks in limited-edition military-themed packaging are piled near glass display cases showing off Oakley sunglasses, 5.11-brand watches and Gerber multitools of the sort issued to soldiers and sold at on-base shops.
Scores of footlockers conforming to U.S. Postal Service standards and cartons of American-made paper goods, chemicals and cleaners, some of which still have their military shipping labels affixed, offer more evidence that the merchandise isn’t where it belongs. Never mind the stacks of Pop-Tarts, Cheez-It crackers or six-packs of nonalcoholic St. Pauli Girl beer with its trademark fraulein baring her cleavage to conservative Afghan shoppers.
Some stores are specialized, selling health and beauty products, clothing or groceries with names familiar to American consumers: Irish Spring, North Face and Campbell’s. Alongside those brands are obscure labels like Exchange Select, DSCP and Skilcraft, which are made exclusively for U.S. government organizations and not available on the open market even in the States.
On a recent visit, military equipment was up for grabs as well, including an air compressor marked with a stencil naming its previous owner (Company F, 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry: you can have it back for a few hundred dollars).
While American troops aren’t allowed to shop in the Bush Market, the bazaar and others like it are known to U.S. officials, who believe the trade extends well beyond the capital.
“I suspect it’s just like a pawn shop in the United States,” said Maj. Gen. Richard Longo, head of the Americans’ anti-corruption task force, Task Force 2010. “If there is a military base, there will be a pawn shop.”
Likewise, if there is a coalition base in Afghanistan, it is “very likely” there will be some amount of military supplies available nearby in markets, he said.
What is there to do about it? Not much, it seems.
Coalition forces don’t have jurisdiction to raid the markets, and largely rely on Afghan forces for tips about coalition equipment and supplies showing up in them, Longo said. He wasn’t sure if selling stolen equipment and supplies is illegal in the country; a manual on Afghan law produced by the German government suggests it isn’t so long as the sellers don’t collude in the theft.
Regardless, neither U.S. forces nor the Afghan police have the resources to investigate where the thousands of items in the market came from or how they got there, according to Longo.
Without those resources, U.S. forces can’t say for certain who is supplying the black market with coalition goods.
“I think it’s just people who, their business is stealing from wherever they can steal and selling it to whoever will buy it,” Longo said. “I’m not ready to say that this is an insurgent thing. I think this is just a criminal thing.”
Despite the restrictions and lack of resources, there have been busts in the Bush Market.
In February, acting on tips, intelligence and the urging of U.S. forces, Afghan authorities raided one shop, then obtained a warrant to search the owner’s home. The raid recovered $400,000 worth of stolen U.S. military goods, including replacement parts for military equipment and one “controlled item” costing in the range of $5,000 to $10,000, according to Col. Terry Ivester, Longo’s deputy in Task Force 2010.
Officials wouldn’t go into detail about the controlled item, but said the shopkeeper is in confinement at the U.S.-run detention facility in Parwan, where they are trying to gather intelligence about the criminal network behind the theft.
After a query from Stars and Stripes, Longo paid a visit to the Bush Market early one morning in May to see it for himself. It was not so much the volume of what appeared to be American products that struck him, he said; it was the booming pace of business.
“It was amazing,” he said, putting a positive spin on what he’d seen. “I should get out more, because it was actually quite encouraging.”
But there was, he acknowledged, “American stuff in there.”
“There’s lots of potential sources. Certainly pilferage of our containers is a possibility, there is no doubt.”
It’s also possible, he said, that vendors came across some of their merchandise legitimately. American forces could have left the MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat) at bases they abandoned, though that’s not supposed to happen, and American companies might have exported other items to Afghanistan, he said, adding that he didn’t know if either was the case.
“I’m certainly not going to deny that pilferage is going on, just because, you know, the AAFES bags,” he said, referring to a sheaf of plastic sacks, made exclusively for the U.S. Army and Air Force Exchange Service, hanging from a peg in a shop specializing in American health, beauty and cleaning products.
U.S. forces last year established a policy that forces shipping companies to reimburse U.S. forces — and ultimately U.S. taxpayers — for goods lost in transit, Longo said. It was also hoped the policy would dissuade truckers from diverting their cargoes to black markets.
Still, roughly 1 percent of U.S. military shipments into Afghanistan never make it to their destination, according to Longo. While that might not sound like much, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported last year that more that 79,000 shipments of American equipment and supplies were trucked into the country in 2010. At a loss rate of 1 percent, about 790 truckloads of gear and supplies would have gone missing.
“We are concerned when that 1 percent is sensitive military items,” such as uniforms and optics that could pose a threat to coalition forces if they got into the wrong hands, Longo said. “We are less concerned when that 1 percent is Zest soap.”
It’s the latter that makes up the majority of what’s sold in the Bush Market. Shopkeepers’ explanations as to how they get these goods tend toward the vague and dubious.
Sardar, whose shop was so packed with 60-pound bags of rice bearing U.S. military supply numbers and commercial-sized cans of vegetables and salsa produced by American companies that it was difficult to maneuver, said he got it all either from “traders” who import from China or Dubai or from Afghans working for the U.S. military, who were given the items as gifts.
“Sometimes they gift one or two boxes to their interpreters or Afghan colleagues. So they bring and sell it to us,” Sardar said, standing beside 70 cases of Monster Energy drinks, which retail for about $60 a case at U.S. bases, with U.S. state deposits stamped on their tops.
A T-shirt from an Armed Services Blood Program blood drive hung in another shop bristling with military clothing, knives and watches. When a camera was raised to photograph a U.S. Meritorious Service Medal stored in a glass display case, the shop owner put his hand in front of the lens.
“We are free to have this business,” he said defensively before any questions were asked. “What problem do you have?”
At another shop, Homayon Waziri was cheerful but ambiguous when asked how he’d come across a 2-foot-high stack of sliced ham military rations — banned under Islam — saying he got them “from people.”
“We don’t know where they buy it,” Waziri said, lounging in front of a shelf arranged with more that a dozen bottles of A.1. steak sauce labeled “Special Foodservice Package; Not For Resale” — the type found in American chow halls.
Waziri doesn’t really care where it comes from as long as people keep buying. A year ago, he gave up his faltering Afghan grocery business and moved into the Bush Market, where he pays 7,000 afghani — about $150 — per month in rent. The American products are higher quality and sell much better than the Pakistani and Afghan products he sold before, he said.
“Almighty Allah is merciful,” Waziri beamed. “Business is good.”