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Exclusive: In the wrong hands

The U.S. struggle to keep the Taliban from stealing what's inside this box.

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