PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Throughout the ages, this ancient Silk Road town near the border of Afghanistan has been the place where the black market thrives and the military spoils of empires are hawked openly.
Here in the storefronts you can still buy antique field rifles left over from the British presence of the 19th century and find uniforms and revolvers from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Now the shops in this industrial rim of Peshawar are filling with military equipment and computers looted from the most recent empire to bog down in this hostile and impenetrable terrain: the United States of America.
In the age of computerized high-tech warfare, it is not just American hardware available on the black market. Now there is also vital technology and information up for grabs and — as military officials here and in the U.S. fear — leaking into the wrong hands in this region where the Taliban and elements of Al Qaeda have a known presence.
I was recently able to purchase a U.S. military laptop for $650 from a small kiosk, which is known as the “Sitara Market,” on the western edge of the sprawling open-air markets on the edge of Peshawar.
The laptop, which has clear U.S. military markings and serial numbers, contained restricted U.S. military information, as well as software for military platforms, the identities of numerous military personnel and information about weaknesses and flaws in American military vehicles being employed in the war in Afghanistan.
Longtime observers of the region and military experts say the open market on U.S. military hardware and technology is increasingly compromising the American military supply route that runs from the Pakistani seaport in Karachi through the Khyber Pass and into neighboring Afghanistan.
"This kind of trade has been happening in the past, but not so openly," said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a Peshawar-based journalist who has reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan for several decades.
"In the past few months this has started in a big way," he added.
Lt. Col. Mark Wright, a Pentagon spokesman, told GlobalPost, “There has been a fairly constant amount of pilferage or losses” as trucks operated by civilian contractors have been attacked or looted along the supply routes from Karachi to the Khyber Pass.
“We are concerned about securing the free flow of supplies,” he added, “and we are working with other countries in the region to support a logistics network to support our supply routes.“
Wright said that typically computers holding sensitive information are not trucked into Afghanistan and that the military would be investigating how the laptop — and the shelves lined with more military equipment and computers — ended up on the black market in Peshawar.
Watch an interview with Shahan Mufti on WorldFocus
Smugglers and secrets
The leaking of the U.S. military’s electronic information on hard disks has happened in the past. In April, 2006, the Los Angeles Times uncovered the story of confidential military information being smuggled off Bagram air base in Afghanistan on miniature hard drives and sold in markets no more than two hundred yards away.
Embarrassed U.S. military officials cracked down on the brazen black marketers in Afghanistan, but now it appears the market has shifted to the Pakistani side of the border, and the trade is getting bolder.
NATO supply convoys have been repeatedly attacked in the last six months and looted periodically inside Pakistan en route to military bases in Afghanistan. These attacks are a major source for the military equipment that ends up in Sitara market, according to Pakistani and U.S. officials.
But there are other avenues as well. The shopkeeper selling the laptop, who did not reveal his name, said the laptop offered to GlobalPost was brought in by one of his “suppliers” who specialize in smuggling across the Afghan border.
"I've had two or three like this come in the past few months," he said about the laptop glistening on a glass counter under the sun.
It was displayed in the shop amid racks of combat fatigues and Kevlar vests and tool kits. A few shops down, U.S. military issue stabilized binoculars are on sale for about $100 and a night vision mount for an automatic weapon went for approximately $300. Gore-Tex boots and Oakley sunglasses line the displays of several nearby shops.
In markets like this one and the hundreds of others like it along a one-mile stretch of road, items from chewing gum to machine guns are brought in illegally over land from China, the former Soviet republics in Central Asia and Afghanistan.
There are also stacks of large, locked fiberglass containers that appear to be cases for weapons, military vehicle parts or larger computers. (When attempting to open one case the shopkeeper interjected, saying that the reporter had “no business seeing what’s inside” unless he owned a helicopter.)
"They get a good price so I like them," said the shop owner, referring to the laptops with accompanying U.S. military documentation and markings as well as serial numbers.
A good price means $800, he says. This would be a steep price in the secondhand market for a regular Intel Pentium M laptop manufactured in 2004.
But this is not ordinary equipment.
What's inside a U.S. military laptop?
The rugged laptop, which weighs approximately 15 pounds, is manufactured by Miltope Corporation of Hope Hull, Alabama. It is a Maintenance Support Device (MSD), the kind that has been used by the U.S. military since 2001.
Based on documents and photographs inside the computer, the assigned user of the laptop likely belonged to the U.S. Army’s 864th Engineer Combat Battalion, which has had several deployments in Afghanistan and worked on road projects around Kandahar.
The U.S. Army uses these computers for diagnostics and maintenance of its weapons systems (aviation and missile), as well as generators and wheeled and tracked vehicles. The laptop was being sold with the original fiberglass casing and power pack and included cables that can connect the machine to a network or other military hardware.
The computer also contained dozens of manuals on how to operate, assemble and trouble shoot U.S. Army equipment — everything from "space heaters" to "up-armored humvees."
Some of the manuals contain restricted information and warn that "distribution is limited to U.S. government agencies," with instructions to "destroy by any methods that must prevent disclosure of contents or reconstruction of the document."
But the machine — and all the information inside — was available for a price in the open market in Peshawar. And it makes an attractive investment for anyone who has in their possession any form of serious U.S. military hardware.
One such person is Hakimullah Mehsud. The young and important commander from the new generation of the Taliban Movement of Pakistan held his first press conference in the Orakzai Agency of the tribal areas in November and arrived in his personal armored U.S. military humvee.
After vowing to increase attacks on NATO convoys he showed off his new vehicle to a group of 20 reporters and told them he had captured it during a recent raid on a NATO supply convoy bound for Afghanistan.
Similarly, local print media reported in June that the Pakistani officials confirmed that a militant group in the tribal areas captured parts for three U.S. helicopters — Chinook, Black Hawk and Cobra — while they were being shipped in large cargo containers from Peshawar to Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, a several hundred-page technical operational manual for the UH-60 and the EH-60 Black Hawk helicopters can be bought out of a bargain bin in Sitara Market for less than $10. A warning on the cover page of the photocopied helicopter manual from 2003 reads: "This document contains technical data whose export is restricted … . Distribution authorized to the DOD and DOD contractors only due to Critical Technology."
That such sensitive technology and information is being traded in the open market is a bad sign for U.S. forces battling the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"The Taliban have always had access to technology," said Ahmed Rashid, author of "Taliban." The militant groups in Pakistan, he said, have been very well trained in the past while fighting in Kashmir and against the Soviets in Afghanistan. "This stuff has been available in Afghanistan, but they can use it in Pakistan now and probably do a lot more with it," he said.
The laptop also had pre-installed software that gives the owner of the machine access to American military construction, repair and maintenance databases.
One software package, the Interactive Authoring and Display System, was developed by the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command and is used by all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. Another piece of software, FED LOG, gives its user access to logistical information for the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and the Federal Logistics Information System.
The computer also contained hundreds of email addresses of military personnel and names and phone numbers with locations and communication between groups in the U.S. Army.
"We are aware of this problem"
I informed Mark Boyd, the military attache at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, of my discovery of the market and purchase of the laptop, and described its contents to him. He declined to make any public comment.
One senior U.S. Army official said, “We’re aware of this problem.”
He said that all sensitive information and important military equipment is destroyed when a convoy is attacked and left vulnerable to looting “for exactly this reason.”
The only way this material could fall into the black market, he said, is if all of the military personnel were killed in the attack or if there was someone like a rogue contractor on the inside who was selling it.
“That’s information and equipment that obviously we don’t want in their hands,” the official added, referring to the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
“The question is how do you put a stop to it?” he asked.
Answering that is not easy, and military officials in Pakistan and the U.S. concede they are struggling with the problem.
"There's now a deep culture of moving contraband in the tribal belt and across the border from Afghanistan," said Major General Athar Abbas, the head of public affairs for the Pakistan military forces.
While acknowledging that it also makes the Pakistan military's fight difficult, he said it’s "accepted that contraband will end up in the market."
Meanwhile, the leak is not only empowering the militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan technologically and logistically, but also financially.
"I've heard Taliban commanders talk about how much one U.S. soldier is worth," said Yusufzai, whose deep reporting in the region has provided him unique access to Taliban leaders. They estimate that the basic apparel of one American soldier in combat is worth over a thousand dollars in Sitara market.
And as for the equipment that ends up in the open market, Yusufzai says it is alarming — but not because it's available.
"If it ends up out there it has to be surplus," he said. "They must be keeping the really good stuff for themselves."
More by Shahan Mufti:
Cut off at the Khyber Pass
A cricket-lover's lament
A portrait of a president, and a troubled U.S.-Pakistan relationship