Just off one of Kabul’s main thoroughfares and a short walk down a muddy alley sits a tiny, open-air market known as the “Bush Bazaar.” At the height of the US presence in Afghanistan, the bazaar became the go-to shopping destination for Afghans and expatriates looking to buy authentic American goods, from military boots and clothing to Cheez-It crackers.
Now also dubbed the “Obama Market,” the place stands as a footprint left by US and coalition military forces in Afghanistan, but one now quickly fading as international troops exit the country – and as cheap Chinese knockoffs flood the market.
A visitor negotiates stalls of freshly slaughtered livestock at the entrance, and then soon encounters merchants hawking fleeces, boots, and pants usually only seen here when worn by US and coalition troops. Food stores sell Pop-Tarts, specialty American-made cleaning products, and all varieties of American junk food.
Unlike most foreign imports that sell for a considerable mark-up, these products sell for less than one would pay in the US. And they arrive from US and coalition bases through routes both unclear and dubious.
Afghans working at base exchanges or in military cafeterias would collect food that was recently expired or about to expire and then sell it to merchants in the Bush Bazaar. The US Army’s standard combat ration – the MRE, or Meal Ready to Eat – was a staple, sold either by the crate, or as one meal, or sometimes even with the items in one meal sold separately.
Clothing products such as fleeces, headlamps, and boots allegedly came via surplus supplies or as “gifts” given to Afghan employees. All merchants deny that any of their products may have arrived in their shops through illicit or otherwise unsavory supply channels.
“At the peak of the foreign presence, everything was an original,” says Parwiz, who has a stall in the Bush Bazaar selling mostly boots and jackets.
Yet as international troops levels dwindle from a high of 140,000 to about 10,000, the quality, choice, and availability of authentic American goods have taken a heavy blow, say merchants here.
If you're going to make a knockoff...
Standing in his shop, Sayeed Jawed points to a counter lined with combat boots and North Face hiking boots. All of them are knockoffs and, he admits, not very good knockoffs at that.
“There are not enough original products and people aren’t buying what we have,” he says. “For two years now, both the supply and demand for original products has dried up.”
Although Mr. Jawed still makes a modest profit, he estimates that his sales have fallen by about 70 percent.
Outside the Bush Bazaar, the entire Afghan economy has taken a hit over the last few years, with growth falling to its worst levels in years. Continued insecurity and a loss of faith in the government following a protracted election dispute have done little to boost consumer confidence, and many Afghans are hanging on to whatever disposable income they have.
Jameel, an Afghan who works for a foreign NGO, used to frequent the market – a practice he maintained even as supplies and choice began to shrink. He felt he could spot knockoffs and still find a good deal. However, after buying his son a pair of shoes that began to fall apart after a couple of weeks, he’s given up on the Bush Bazaar.
“We all know that the foreigners are gone, so there won’t be any more supplies from the bases. Why would we go there expecting to get original stuff?” he says. “The quality of Chinese products they’re selling now is bad. If you want to buy the Chinese products, you don’t need to go all the way to the Bush Bazzar. I can get Chinese goods even in the small town [where I live].”
Vendors have noted the absence of customers like Jameel. In his tiny grocery store, Ahmad Fahim laments that about 90 percent of his products now come from China or elsewhere, and he says most of them don’t taste very good.
“This Bush Bazzar was famous for American products. Now that we have Chinese products, people have stopped coming,” he says.
Mr. Fahim has little hope of ever seeing business return to its previous levels. In his dreams, someone buys his entire inventory so he can close his shop and do something else. “But this will never happen,” he sighs.