KABUL, Afghanistan — Haider Abdullah leaned back in his makeshift market stall and pointed to the red television set beneath his arm. "This?" he said with a toothy grin. "It was free."
Business is booming at the Thieves' Market in Kabul these days thanks to lawlessness in the streets. Widespread looting and car theft have accompanied the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
Armed gangs of men have ransacked hundreds, perhaps thousands, of businesses, shops and private homes following the collapse of the Soviet-installed regime and the creation of the new government.
Authorities, locked in a power struggle, have yet to establish a police force. Gangs, sometimes controlled by rival guerrilla groups and sometimes by no one at all, have carved up Afghanistan's capital into little fiefdoms.
Abdul Haq, a key rebel commander appointed minister in charge of security in Kabul, said earlier last month that he believes participants in the new government don't want order to be restored in the city, just yet.
"If you muddy the waters, you catch fish," he said. "They are making a lot of money stealing from the people."
The guerrilla commander, who lost a foot during Afghanistan's 13-year civil war, has so far refused to take his post. He says the government has not given him enough power.
And he has also been the victim of looters. Thieves have cleared out all of Kabul's 600 police vehicles.
Many of the pilfered goods--from boomboxes to Chinese-made bicycles, from TVs to electrical transformers--have made their way to the Thieves' Market, a bustling two-block bazaar near the banks of the Kabul River.
Abdullah and a band of 49 others have sold at least 200 stolen televisions in the weeks since the new government was formed, according to Khoja Mohammed, a 26-year-old unemployed drifter who runs the ring.
"It's the best business I've ever done," said Mohammed, as buyers and sellers milled around him. "I don't want another job."
Running another stall was Sahib Khan, a 43-year-old former soldier, hawking cassette decks, two General Electric blenders, a National toaster oven and several Barbie dolls.
"A man sold these to me the other day," he said. "They might be stolen but then again they might not. It's none of my business."
Down the street, there's the bicycle section, packed with Phoenix and Flying Pigeon cycles from China.
"These are fast sellers," said Nair Suraya, a wizened 60-year-old with a wad of local currency in his hands. All of the cycles had recently been painted. "That's for our customers. A new paint job always improves business."
Kabul's common folk have not been the only ones affected by crime.
Recently, a band of crooks broke into the Saudi Arabian Embassy and pushed two broken-down Mercedes-Benzes out of the compound.
They also stole 20 carpets.
The office responsible for protecting embassies acknowledges that there is a problem but says the government has yet to assign it a car to investigate such incidents.
Gangs also looted the German Club, the house of a French diplomat and--six times--the apartments of two National Geographic journalists.
At the German Club, the thieves cleared out the restaurant's large stock of alcohol--wine, whiskey, Campari and beer. They broke into the library but didn't take any books.
The interim government recently banned alcohol, sparking a price rise.
When robbers invaded the Cuban Embassy, diplomatic personnel opened fire, scaring the looters away.
Over one weekend, a second French diplomat was met in his front yard by a man carrying an AK-47 automatic rifle.
"Peace to you," the man said before scampering out the door.