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Fire Sale At Kabul's Famous 'Obama Bazaar'

U.S. military boots being sold outside the "Obama Bazaar" in Kabul.
U.S. military boots being sold outside the "Obama Bazaar" in Kabul.

KABUL -- Kabul's once thriving market for American military gear and foodstuffs has fallen on hard times.

In its heyday the "Obama Bazaar," unofficially named after the U.S. president, was the go-to place for everything from used electronics to combat boots, sleeping bags, and camouflage uniforms to American food items like Welch's grape juice, Kraft cheeses, and Heinz 57 marinade.

Now the bazaar's dusty alleyways -- flanked by endless rows of tiny shops and stalls -- are eerily empty. Buyers can still find the odd American product in the market, but supplies are dwindling and so are the customers.

Business at the market, located in central Kabul, has fallen sharply in the past year as foreign military bases -- the source of many of the products sold at the bazaar -- have closed amid a rapid drawdown of international combat troops.

"We're selling only 10 percent of what we used to sell. Most days we cannot even earn enough to pay for the rent,” says Shuaib, a young shopkeeper who has worked at the bazaar for around three years. "Business has dropped amid the drawdown this year. We work from morning to night, but we chat all day because there is no business."

Shuaib earned up to 2,000 afghanis ($35) a day last year. Now he only makes a few hundred afghanis. He says he will have to close down in a few months' time if business does not pick up.

PHOTO GALLERY: Scraping Out A Living In Afghanistan

Shopkeepers say that, with fewer American products available, most shelves are now full of cheap knockoffs and products from neighboring China, Iran, and Pakistan.

At the height of the foreign presence here in 2011, NATO had 130,000 soldiers and around 800 military bases in Afghanistan. By the end of last year, the number of bases fell to just 80. More have since closed, and by the end of this year only a handful will remain.

The closure of the bases has had a detrimental effect of the state of the economy. Unemployment is surging and businessmen are pulling out in droves and taking their cash with them.

Shahghasi, a bearded, elderly man, has worked at the bazaar for six years. He says the uncertainty created by the international withdrawal and the disputed presidential election has instilled fear in people. Rather than spend, people are saving their money for a rainy day.

"When the security and economic situation was better there was investment and spending," says Shahghasi. "If there's spending then there are jobs. We are feeling the effects of that chain reaction."

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Shahghasi's fortunes have similarly tumbled. A native of the eastern province of Laghman, he arrived in Kabul almost a decade ago to carve out a better life for his family of eight. All was going according to plan until last year. Now, he says he does not know what to do or where to go to earn a living.

The Obama Bazaar, which goes by several names, has changed tags over three decades of war. It was originally called the "Brezhnev Bazaar” after former Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev, who invaded Afghanistan in 1979. It was later named the "Bush Bazaar” after former U.S. President George W. Bush who sent troops to Afghanistan in 2001.

The shopkeepers joke about what the bazaar should be named next. One suggests "Abdullah Abdullah," referring to the possible future president. Another shouts "Ashraf Ghani," Abdullah's rival who is seen as being likely to take over as the country's next leader. One of the older shopkeepers even proposes the unpopular "Hamid Karzai," the outgoing president who has overseen the country for the past decade.

Jamal Khan points out that the bazaar should keep its current moniker. "Americans invaded this country, but they also brought economic development," says Ahmad, "We shouldn't forget that."

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.