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Viagra and military secrets at the Bagram bazaar

In this picture taken on June 9, 2008, An Afghan young shopkeeper sits in his shop at Bagram, some 50 kilometres north of Kabul on June 9, 2008. The bazar a few hundred metres from the country's biggest US military base, is stocked with risque Asian and American products that arrive via Pakistan. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Staff Writers
Bagram, Afghanistan (AFP) June 15, 2008
"I don't really know what it is for," says a salesman with some embarrassment, despite the explicit illustrations on the bottle of "Long Love Spray".

Alongside it on the shelf of a tiny shop in the bazaar at Bagram is a "special sex" gel as well as distinctive blue Viagra pills that are almost impossible to find in the regular pharmacies of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

The bazaar at Bagram, 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of Kabul and a few hundred metres (feet) from the country's biggest US military base, is stocked with a range of similarly risque Asian and American products that arrive via Pakistan.

It is a regular Ali Baba's cave -- and the 40 thieves are probably not far away for among the goods on sale, which include routine items such as food, hygiene products and clothes, are some "from inside" that have somehow made it off the base through layers of security.

"We get them from inside the base and we sell them more cheaply, both to Afghans and to the international soldiers, but we make the foreigners pay more," says Obaid, who has been working here for eight months.

He offers some apparently authentic Oakley brand sunglasses at a tenth of the real price. He is not interested in making a profit, he says, because he is not the owner of the shop.

"I earn about 100 dollars a month. What I would like is to work inside the base because even as a housekeeper I would get at least 300 dollars," he said.

Some of the items are innocent enough, such as toothpaste and razor blades. Others are more unusual considering the context and include food supplements for bodybuilding, walking sticks and a Christmas tree with lights.

There are new sports shoes, though they are fakes, and used ones that are genuine and probably sold by or stolen from their owners, along with folding camp beds for just 15 dollars each.

Prices, already low, are always negotiable especially if one is accompanied by an Afghan.

Another shopkeeper, Ali Mohammad, smiles and offers soft drinks popular with US soldiers. In a corner is a palette of non-alcoholic beer, the only kind the soldiers are allowed to drink and which also comes "from inside".

Not everything comes from the base, however, with some of the stuff on sale, including military equipment, said to have been intercepted on the road to Bagram from the Pakistan port where they are offloaded in containers.

Either in the tribal zones on the Pakistan side, or in the famous Khyber Pass in Afghanistan, truck drivers are regularly held up by Pashtun tribesmen who sometimes steal entire loads.

Most of the shops around the Bagram base display similar products -- such as Leatherman Crunch tools for 20 dollars each (normal price 65-90 dollars) -- leaving little doubt that they are from the same source.

The presence of some items causes concern, however, such as articles of US military uniforms, including sand-coloured hiking books that still bear the name of their former owners.

If you need a different size, the salesman takes just five minutes to come up with another pair that he offers to sell for less than 30 dollars.

"Sometimes the Afghan authorities create problems for us, like asking where the shoes came from. That's why I keep a lot of the merchandise with me," said one shopkeeper as a convoy of US Humvees churned up dust on a road nearby oblivious to the questionable trade being conducted on the doorstep of the base.

Further along are US Army-issue camouflage trousers for 20 dollars, although the next shopkeeper is more cautious, saying: "Some people from television came and did a report and after that the police started putting their noses in our business.

"They confiscated some of our things which are they keeping for themselves," he says in anger, holding in his hand a desert-coloured US Army hat.

Nawed, who offers second-hand USB flash drives, said: "The Afghans who work inside the base take things out on the quiet. Sometimes they carry them on their bodies, sometimes they hide them in boxes."

On his laptop, he flicks through the contents of some of the flash discs and it clear that whoever took them from their owners did not even bother to erase the contents.

One, bought for just a handful of dollars, contains US military documents marked "not to be made public" that advise soldiers working in Afghanistan against using terms like "islamo-fascism" or "clash of civilisations".

Another file lists the names and numbers of officers in charge of military-led construction teams across the country.

A Word document lists the tasks one soldier wants to complete during his mission, including "getting all my team home safe and sound," "training to improve my physical condition" and "reading the Bible every day".

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US urges allies to match Afghan 'rhetoric' with troop action
Brussels (AFP) June 13, 2008
The United States urged its allies Friday to live up to past pledges of troops and equipment to Afghanistan, as the NATO-led security force there struggles to cope with a Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgency.

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