PESHAWAR: In this picture taken on July 14, 2021, people visit the Sitara market in the Karkhano area. - AFP

PESHAWAR: Once brimming with combat boots, flak jackets and other war paraphernalia, the smugglers' markets in Pakistan are being forced to rethink their business model as foreign troops exit Afghanistan and contraband dries up. The United States is set to wrap up its military presence in Afghanistan by the end of this month, the end of a campaign that saw hundreds of billions spent - often with little accounting.

Along the Afghan border after 2001, smugglers' markets mushroomed in Pakistan, offering military gadgets, clothing and luxury goods meant for American bases and compounds. It was the latest chapter in a long history of smuggling - and foreign invasions - in the area. For centuries, the mountain passes along the present-day Pakistan-Afghanistan border were a lifeline for armies, traders and smugglers moving between central Asia and the Indian subcontinent.

But in recent years, vendors at the bazaars say they have suffered successive blows that have severed the pipeline of smuggled goods that flowed freely into Pakistan for years. "This market was famous for American and NATO goods and was crowded with customers," said Mehboob Khan, a shopkeeper at Sitara market in the northwestern frontier city of Peshawar. "Now the border is strictly closed and those goods can't reach here, which has badly affected business."

Pakistan's fencing and sealing of hundreds of kilometers of the border in recent years, and the rapid departure of foreign troops has led to dwindling supplies. Instead of night-vision goggles and high-quality ammo vests, the markets are now stuffed with cheap goods from China and Southeast Asia. "Those were good days, extremely good days," said Khan as he reminisced about the post-9/11 bonanza for smugglers after US-led forces invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taleban. "This market used to be crowded... Now it's empty. No public and no customers."

War on the border

For years, Pakistan served as one of the logistical nerve centers for the war in Afghanistan. Countless containers filled with supplies arrived at the Arabian Sea port of Karachi to be trucked across the country to Afghanistan. Along the way, it was common for the occasional shipment to go missing or arrive in Afghanistan a bit lighter. On the other side of the border, goods were similarly looted or lifted from the battlefield and taken across to Pakistan.

Thanks to the porous border with Afghanistan, Pakistan has long been a magnet for smuggled products - from luxury vehicles to household goods. They have helped black market businesses thrive in a country with some of the lowest tax collection rates in the world. With little interference from Pakistani law enforcement, the border markets flourished, but not all were happy.

In the fiercely conservative northwest - where most women wear burqas and hardline Islamist groups have long held sway over society - the markets gained notoriety for also selling pornography and knock-off Viagra, drawing fire from groups such as the Taleban. But that did little to discourage shoppers - including those who drove for hours to peruse the selection in the bazaars.

"Last time, we found NATO stuff here... US Army bags and shoes were available here. But now that stuff is not here, just local stuff," said Muhammad Afan, who travelled six hours by road to visit Sitara market. He complained that prices had increased tenfold at most shops.

The Taleban's sweeping offensives across Afghanistan in recent months have also not helped, leading to frequent border closures that choked off what little products were still able to make it to Pakistan. "(Customers) aren't visiting us anymore," said Zabihullah, an Afghan shopkeeper born in Peshawar. "Earlier, NATO supply lines were ongoing... container after container. Now, all that has stopped." - AFP