A Trip Through Time on the Deadly Khyber Pass

ABC's Richard Coolidge reports:

The Khyber Pass is one of the most infamous routes in history. It was an important trade route, connecting the Middle East with China. It has been the scene of scores of invasions -- from Alexander the Great, to Persian army advances which brought Islam to India, to the British which fought several wars against Afghanistan in the 1800’s and early 1900’s.

Today, it is involved in another war – making up the route through which almost all supplies -- military and commercial - pass on their way to US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Therefore, it has also been a target for militants who want Western forces out of Afghanistan. Trucks have been targeted. Bridges and police stations have been blown up.

We were one of a few western journalists to travel the route -- it crosses the Khyber Agency -- one of Pakistan’s seven tribal agencies where foreigners are rarely allowed. We saw hundreds of trucks lumbering up and down the switchbacks through the pass on their way to Torkham -- the town on the Afghan border where they pass through customs and continue on to Jalalabad, Kabul, Bagram Air Base and other US and NATO bases.

We made it to the Michni Post -- the last fort before the border -- where there were incredible views of the Hindu Kush mountains above, Torkham below and Afghanistan beyond. The responsibility for protecting the Khyber Pass is entrusted to the “Khyber Rifles” -- the Frontier Corps army battalion of the Khyber Agency. Founded in the 1880’s, tribesman were recruited and served as auxiliaries to the British Indian Army. Today, the British influence can be seen in the uniforms of the Khyber Rifles.

To help understand the current conflict, it is worth taking a closer look at the Pakistan/Afghanistan border. First, the border -- known as the “Durand Line” -- is to a certain degree, a (relatively) modern, western concept. It was signed in 1893 between the British -- who ruled that part of Pakistan at the time -- and the government of Afghanistan. One photograph we saw at the headquarters of the Khyber Rifles showed two rows of troops snaking across a rugged landscape -- the “Durand Line” marked between them.

Second, the tribes that live in the Pakistan border areas are Pashtun -- and have much more in common with Pashtuns in Afghanistan where Pashtuns make up the majority. Pashtuns in Pakistan comprise only 15-20% of the population, while the majority of Pakistanis are Punjabis. While Westerners call tribesmen who live in Pakistani tribal areas “Pakistanis” and people who live on the Afghan side of the border “Afghanis” -- they are all members of the same ethnic group -- Pashtuns -- whose families have inhabited the area on both sides of the border for generations. They go back and forth freely across the border because it is their homeland, the border being a modern concept that they simply don’t recognize.

Now imagine introducing American troops with all their high-tech equipment -- to detect a border that isn’t well marked and many locals don’t recognize -- and who have little understanding of the history, culture and traditions of the ethnic groups and tribes that inhabit these areas, and, well, that’s where we are today.

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