Top-secret US military intelligence documents which could compromise Hamid Karzai's government have turned up for sale in an Afghan bazaar, after apparently being stolen from a nearby US military base.
The security lapse will embarrass the US military, and the Afghan and Pakistani governments. The files are stored on computer memory sticks and among those to come to light so far are lists of top Afghan officials, including cabinet members, suspected of involvement in the drugs trade or of supporting the Taliban insurgency.
One of the most potentially damaging files, which was bought unwittingly by an Afghan journalist, names senior Afghan ministers whom US intelligence agencies believe to be drug smugglers. Described as "Tier One Warlords", they include Marshal Mohammad Fahim, former defence minister and now a member of the upper house of the Afghan parliament; General Rashid Dostum, Chief of Staff of the army; and General Mohammad Daoud,presently the Interior Minister for Counter-Narcotics. The Interior Ministry has refused to comment.
All three have denied past speculation that they were involved in Afghanistan's £1.5bn drugs trade.
Another file includes a list of 12 senior provincial officials the US wants removed from office. These include provincial governors and police chiefs believed to be involved with the drugs trade or supporters of the Taliban.
One of those on the list is Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, until recently governor of Helmand province where the first of 3,500 British troops are currently deploying.
Mr Akhundzada was given a seat in Afghanistan's new upper house of parliament by President Karzai in December, shortly after 10 tons of opium were found stored in his offices. The "promotion" followed intense pressure from British and US officials to remove him. The current police chief of Helmand, Abdul Rahman Jan, is accused on the list of providing security for heroin shipments through the desert borders with Pakistan.
Other files implicate members of the Pakistani security forces in "assisting cross-border insurgent activities" and accuse the Pakistan government of "false and inaccurate reports of border incidents".
One memory stick obtained by The Independent contained files marked "SECRET//REL GTCF" on which was stored an intelligence assessment of the Taliban in the run-up to last year's parliamentary elections. This included lists of prominent Taliban commanders who were interested in joining a government reconciliation programme, as well as such intelligence titbits as the fact that one of the most senior Taliban commanders based in Pakistan, Mullah Obaidullah, misappropriated Taliban funds to finance a relative's wedding, angering Taliban rank and file.
Most of the documents appear to originate from late 2004 and the first half of 2005.
The computer memory sticks, which are about the size of a small Swiss army knife, were bought in the shabby bazaar which lines the road just 50 metres from the huge US airbase at Bagram, north of Kabul.
US authorities have not denied the security lapse. A US Army spokesman Lieutenant Mike Cody said the US forces "take operational security seriously. We will not comment in detail on these reports but the circumstances are being reviewed."
Despite checks on all workers coming on or off the base, the bazaar is well known as a repository for equipment and goods stolen by Afghan workers or sold on the black market by US servicemen or contractors.