Taliban tactics: Stealing the enemy's uniform

Military uniforms on sale in a Kabul market
Image caption It has proved difficult to control the sale of these uniforms

At a Kabul market a row of shiny new Afghan military uniforms are on sale.

It could have been uniforms such as these that were used in a string of brazen attacks this year, including one near the presidential palace in June, when militants dressed as soldiers penetrated the securest part of the city centre.

Such violence has intensified pressure on the authorities to clamp down on the trade in illicit uniforms.

June's attack was a sign that they may be losing this battle.

For years insurgents have had access to and used the uniforms of Afghan army and police as well as Western forces to evade security checks or to get bombers close to their targets. In the June attack, they even had fake ID cards.

This tactic appears to be on the increase as the Taliban focus their attacks on fellow Afghans serving in the security forces and high-profile targets in the capital.

This is a countrywide problem: earlier this year militants in uniform also killed 12 policemen in the southern province of Uruzgan and attacked the governor's compound in Panjshir province.

Image caption Afghan militants' fake ID cards were used in the June presidential palace attack

And in the latest attack in September, two men dressed as Afghan policemen attacked a Shia mosque armed with AK-47 assault rifles, knives and explosives.

Off the shelf

But in the Afghan capital you don't have to look far to find a ready source for army outfits.

The Pul-e-Kheshti area, the busiest and noisiest part of the city, is home to Kabul's old bazaar, famous for its black-market traders.

I quickly found different types of military clothing, ranging from Afghan police uniforms to those of Nato forces.

But when the traders saw my camera and reporting equipment, they stuffed their wares away hastily.

In the blink of an eye, any trace of the black market trade had disappeared.

In one specialist tailor shop for military clothing, an Afghan policeman told me that he bought his uniform from a trader in the area.

"He didn't ask for anything, no ID card, no military documents, nothing, he just asked for money," Abdul Rahman says while waiting for his trousers to be mended.

Mr Rahman says that on the black market, a military uniform costs about 500 Afghanis ($10; £6.50). A policeman's salary starts at about $200 a month.

Image caption Badges are freely for sale in a Kabul market

A piece of military insignia, such as the symbol of an Afghan police or army rank, sells for less than $1.

Uniforms are usually issued by the interior and defence ministries. But if stocks are low, they issue documentation allowing soldiers and police to have their clothes made at licensed tailors' workshops directly.

There are about 50 tailors in Kabul's old bazaar who produce and mend uniforms.

The head of the tailor's union, M Hakim, told me that he had full control of the workshops, but that he did need to keep an eye on things.

"I don't let them do any illegal business," Mr Hakim said. "If I didn't control them, they'd even prepare guns for sale."

Licensed to sell

The authorities are trying to keep a lid on the trade by licensing specific tailors and sewing workshops to manufacture and carry out repairs for the interior and defence ministries.

Licensed workshops are supposed to accept orders only from the military or the police.

Ibrahim, a tailor on the market who has such a licence, says the system works to some extent - but that the black market is difficult to control:

"Licensed tailor shops usually ask for ID cards, a specific address and military documents from their customers," he says, "but on the black market there is no law."

And there are a number of sewing workshops where the controls are much more lax.

Mohammad Zarif, who runs a small outlet, says he prefers not to request ID cards from people already in uniform.

"If we don't know the customers then we ask for ID cards, but when we know them and if they are already in military uniforms then we can't ask," he says.

When pressed on how he can tell whether a man in uniform is really a member of the military, he told me he didn't think it was any of his business to inquire into that.

"The government should prevent it - if the government can't prevent it, how can we?"

Uphill struggle

The authorities say they are doing their best to prevent illegal sales, but it is a difficult problem to tackle.

Apart from illegal production and sales, there are reports that security force personnel and deserters add to the problem by selling their uniforms on the markets.

"We increased our intelligence and detection activities after the use of military uniforms increased among insurgents," Siddiq Siddiqi, a spokesman for the Afghan interior ministry, told the BBC.

"But we have [had] problems so far and will try our best to undermine their access to uniforms."

Police and traders say that it is over two years since the last systematic raid on the Kabul black market took place and hundreds of uniforms were confiscated.

The interior ministry says it conducts regular check-ups.

But with no police on show during the two hours I spent at the market, chances are that some traders will continue to view the illegal trade as a risk worth taking.