We drove for what seemed like an eternity along a winding road past mud brick houses on a bleak landscape, British Indian Army regimental insignias on roadside cliffs, hillside forts and dusty Pakistani Army outposts. At many a hairpin turn, Khyber levies with their ominous Kalashnikovs stood watch. Positioned there to provide security for travelers on the pass, they evoked a completely opposite feeling among our group of mixed nationalities. Finally we were there – at the highest point of the Khyber Pass on the edge of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province overlooking the descent to Afghanistan and the first villages past the border of that country.
(Note: top photo by James Mollison – James Mollison, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=424359)
I first encountered the Khyber Pass when, as a kid, I was handed a Classics Illustrated comic book version of the King of the Khyber Rifles, a novel by British writer Talbot Mundy. Its storyline that wove military and political adventure with the culture of the native Pashtun or Pathan intrigued me and I was soon pouring over historical articles about the place.
A history buff, I would later learn about the exploits of Cyrus the Great, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Babur and other Mughal emperors who used the pass to cross over into the Indian subcontinent. Turks, Persians, Punjabis, Afghans and the British have also used the Khyber Pass to invade South Asia or Afghanistan. So heavily fought over is this strategic gateway that a British soldier once said that “every stone in the Khyber is soaked in blood.”
Visiting the Khyber Pass in my lifetime seemed a little too far-fetched before. While I had visited the city of Peshawar in the NWFP (Northwest Frontier Province, now the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province) several times as part of my work, I had never ventured into this area. Even before 9-11 the area where the pass runs through was already considered a sensitive zone.
But in the year 2000 I was tasked to join a group of representatives of non-government organizations (NGOs) from various countries to visit several Afghan refugee camps inside Pakistan and in the area close to the Afghan border. This was the time when the Taliban still controlled most of Afghanistan. In one of the refugee camps that we visited we even observed a few of them (the Taliban originated in refugee camps inside Pakistan during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan).
Towards the end of our visit we were given a tour of the Khyber Pass starting at its summit 5 kilometers inside Pakistan at the town of Landi Kotal. For protection we had two members of the modern-day Khyber Rifles to escort us. Our trip ended almost at the border with Afghanistan, on that bare, rocky summit that offered a panoramic view of the pass threading its way into the first village inside that country. I would learn later that the Khyber Pass used to be an essential part of the ancient Silk Road and therefore an important trade route between Central and South Asia. Its military value is just as great. The pass is the best route for armies invading South Asia from Central Asia and vice versa ensuring its place as one of the most fought-over pieces of real estate in history.
The native Pashtuns of this region are no strangers to conflict, having fiercely resisted foreign armies for hundreds of years. We met several of them cradling AK-47s like it was part of their everyday routine, and indeed it was. They are however known to be among the most hospitable people on the planet – a seemingly ironic characteristic. Pashtuns have no second thoughts about slaughtering their last remaining lamb to treat a visitor to a meal. And here at the Khyber Pass they were quite friendly to us. A New Zealander in our group even borrowed an assault rifle from one of them to pose for a picture.
As one would expect, the Khyber Pass is a heavily militarized zone with several Pakistani Army forts and observation posts located throughout its length. Memories of past conflicts abound with ruined Buddhist stupas, remnants of the old British railway and insignias of various British Indian army regiments adorning roadside cliffs. During the time we were there, the Pakistani government pretty much left the natives to their own since the province was an autonomous region, with tribal chiefs in control. This has changed in recent years with the war in Afghanistan, as the Pakistani Army sought to establish control in parts of the region where militants were known to wield considerable influence. NATO has also been using the pass to transport supplies to its units inside Afghanistan and American drones are active in the province with attacks on suspected militant hideouts. I am not sure if our group would have been able to make the same trip today just as easily as we’ve had back in 2000.
Back at Landi Kotal I was watching the last of a convoy of colorful, decorated trucks head in the opposite direction towards Afghanistan. As the convoy slowly disappeared from view I thought about the more than 2000 years of history and violent conflict that the Khyber Pass represented and wondered if the people here would ever enjoy even a brief period of peace. As I looked around me it seemed that the barren, rocky ground that dominated the geography of this place mirrored the harsh way of life that the people living in these parts had come to accept. Would it remain that way for the next hundred years?