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In Kabul, vendors of stolen US goods fret about future

KABUL — If a case of soap is pilfered from a US military base here or pinched from a NATO shipping container, it will probably, sooner or later, end up for sale in the Bush Market, a sort of thieves’ outlet mall in central Kabul.

Named after George W. Bush, the president who launched the war in Afghanistan, the bazaar has flourished for more than eight years, thanks to the long presence of foreign troops that provided war booty aplenty.

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But in the Obama era, with its steady withdrawal of US forces, the good times are ending in the hive of vendors who hawk mountains of Pop-Tarts and enough Head and Shoulders shampoo to combat the dandruff of untold Army divisions.

In a way, the market serves as a microeconomic barometer of the concerns of Afghans across class lines about what will happen when 2014 ends — and with it, the combat mission of the US-led coalition.

President Obama’s announcement in his State of the Union address of the accelerated pullout of 34,000 troops in the coming year has only heightened many merchants’ worries about their future after Western forces finally block their source of cash and material support.

‘‘My business once was good,’’ lamented a shop owner named Sabor. ‘‘But it has become a depression.’’

Several vendors said sales have already fallen by 50 percent since last year as the ‘‘surge’’ troops that began arriving in 2009 have departed. The amount of military goods available to be pilfered has dropped, they said, and prices have gone up. Also, fewer foreign development workers come to shop for familiar Western brands.

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‘‘If Obama had announced, ‘I don’t want to withdraw the soldiers,’ business would grow,’’ said Sabor, 47, who goes by one name and is among the Afghans who oppose a pullout, despite President Hamid Karzai’s fervid argument that it is long overdue.

Sabor credited the 11-year US presence with bringing his war-ravaged country increased security, opportunities for girls and women, and a functional government.

‘‘Some people say that Americans should leave this country, but it is a loss for us,’’ he said.

Others in the bazaar, like 20-year-old Samiullah, clad in a T-shirt sporting a fake US Army logo, said they trust their fates to a power higher than the American greenback.

‘‘God is kind, and if Obama doesn’t give us bread, God will give us bread,’’ he said.

A warren of some 600 shops and stalls, Bush Market also exemplifies the massive corruption that has flourished with the flow of hundreds of billions of dollars in military and development aid to Afghanistan, where skimming Yankee dollars is common from the very top social rungs on down.

The market is rarely subject to raids by Afghan authorities, unless US forces suspect that something sensitive has ended up there. Vendors said the last time they remember seeing US troops accompanying Afghan forces was about two years ago.

Most shopkeepers expressed ignorance about the origin of their goods.

But as longtime merchants explained, Afghans who get military-base jobs are ingenious when it comes to obtaining five-finger discounts on bulk items.

‘‘People bring supplies — we don’t know from where,’’ said Sahli Mohammad, 59, whose shop had an ample stock of Clif energy bars meant for delivery to US base exchanges. ‘‘Afghanistan has 30 million thieves,’’ said Mohammad with a wry smile, alluding to his country’s population, ‘‘and 200,000 international outsiders who are also corrupt.’’

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