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Business in discarded US military goods is booming as Kandahar base empties out

A child sits in a mop bucket hidden in the shade of shelving on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, at the ''Bush Bazaar'' in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where items thrown out by U.S. and NATO troops and contractors are available for purchase.

J.P. LAWRENCE / STARS AND STRIPES

By J.P. LAWRENCE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 1, 2020

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Nearly every day, trucks bring 20-foot-long shipping containers from Kandahar Airfield to vendors at the Kandahar Bush Bazaar, a market named after the U.S. president who launched the invasion of Afghanistan almost 20 years ago.

Most of the shipping containers contain junk, but some 1,000 workers sort through everything in hopes of finding refrigerators, beds, stretchers — anything that U.S. and NATO troops withdrawing from Afghanistan don’t want that Afghans can sell.

The troop drawdown means uncertainty and insecurity, as the Taliban threatens Kandahar’s periphery even while it negotiates peace terms. But it also means that business is booming for now. Scrap metal and plastic earn profits, and even the empty containers sell for about $800 for use as shops or offices, vendors said. Some sell exercise machines still in their original wrappers.

The bustling scene at Kandahar’s Bush Bazaar is a result of NATO troops and contractors’ throwing out tons of material, vendors said.

Bazaar vendor Ehsan Mohammed has purchased 864 containers this year, up by almost a third from last year’s haul.

“The American people are going out, and because of this, there are more goods,” he said. “Right now, we are so busy.”

Vendors at Kabul’s Bush Bazaar, who receive goods from Bagram Airfield and other bases, also said more items have been thrown out from U.S. bases during the past two months.

“From everywhere there is a base, there has been an increase in goods,” said Homayun, a shopkeeper in Kabul who goes by one name.

The U.S. has been pulling troops out of Afghanistan and shutting down bases as part of a Feb. 29 deal struck with the Taliban. While President Donald Trump has said he wants U.S. troops to be home from Afghanistan by Christmas, U.S. commanders say the plan is to reduce the American presence to 4,500 personnel by sometime in November.

The U.S. military issued a June 18 memo to contractor DynCorp International to plan on shutting down base services at Kandahar Airfield as part of the drawdown. The airfield where an estimated 30,000 troops and contractors once operated is now unrecognizable, several Afghan officials said.

“Everything has changed on the KAF,” said Massoud Pashtoon, director of civil aviation at Kandahar Airfield. Pashtoon recently visited the base to see which buildings and vehicles would be turned over to him once U.S. troops leave. The smattering of people, empty hangars and closed-down shops reminded him of a “desert.”

“Nothing was there,” Pashtoon said.

Each week, Pashtoon said, trucks from the base bring shipping containers out to one of the gates to sell to locals. Vendors at Kandahar’s Bush Bazaar said subcontractors working on the base pick up and sell the best items from the U.S. and NATO shipping containers, and auction the rest to them.

But even if business is good, the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Kandahar left some vendors worried about their future.

“The U.S. Army is leaving; all this is from them,” said one vendor, Nasirullah, who sells U.S. gasoline and diesel. “But if the Americans are gone, this is not good for the country.”

Security has diminished in the province since the Feb. 29 U.S.-Taliban deal, said Hayatullah Hayat, governor of Kandahar province.

The Taliban are now launching attacks on the city’s outskirts, Hayat said, and hundreds of families fleeing fighting throughout the province and in nearby Helmand are now living in threadbare tents with winter approaching.

The shrinking of the U.S. and coalition presence in Kandahar has demoralized Afghan security forces, Hayat said.

Most troops are on “active defense” status and must wait for the militants to attack before fighting, Hayat said, and many also are dispirited by concessions to the Taliban, such as the release of 5,000 militant prisoners.

He said he used to fly out of Kandahar Airfield toward Kabul and look at the sprawling base beneath him, at the hundreds of airplanes and helicopters waiting on the runway to assist in the fight against the Taliban. But now, the hangars and runways are empty, he said.

“It gives you some sort of thought that, ‘Hey, we don’t have much support now,’ ” he said.

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.
lawrence.jp@stripes.com
Twitter: @jplawrence3

Goods thrown away by U.S. and NATO troops and contractors at Kandahar Airfield have surged as part of a troop drawdown in recent months, said Ehsan Mohammed, a vendor at a local bazaar where more than 1,000 workers scavenge discarded shipping containers from the base.
J.P. LAWRENCE / STARS AND STRIPES