A Trip Through Time on the Deadly Khyber Pass

By Sadie Bass

Aug 28, 2009 1:51pm

ABC's Richard Coolidge reports: Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent Martha Raddatz, cameraman Bartley Price and I came to Pakistan to take a look at the current situation – with violence wracking the major cities and the military battling the Taliban in Swat. When we arrived, the major cities of Pakistan – including Islamabad where we were staying – were on high alert. Checkpoints had been set up throughout the city and vehicles were being stopped and searched. Trucks could enter the city only during certain hours. Still, the Taliban were able to slip through. The day after we arrived, there was a suicide bombing at a police station in Islamabad, killing two police officials. We arrived shortly after the blast occurred – we saw parts of the building that had crumpled due to the blast and investigators picking up pieces of glass and other evidence. There were numerous versions of how it happened – the bomber slipped in through a construction hole in a wall; he had climbed up and over a wall and jumped down; he came in through a back gate. In Pakistan, it is difficult to knowwhere the truth actually lies. A couple of days later, we had plans to go to Peshawar, the main city in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). It was unclear what time our appointment the following day was, and we had made contingency plans to drive up and spend the night in case we had an early morning start. The only “safe” place to stay in Peshawar was the Pearl Continental hotel. Later the same evening, two vehicles sped past the gate of the hotel, with gunmen firing from one, and a truck following. The truck made it around to the side of the hotel and exploded, killing 18 people and wounding more than 15. Fortunately, we had learned our appointment wasn’t until the late morning, so we had decided to spend the night in Islamabad and drive up to Peshawar the following morning. We stopped by the hotel to look at the damage. Much of the west wing side of the hotel had disintegrated and there was a huge 15-foot crater in the ground. Burned out cars were scattered across the parking lot. Mattresses, sheets and towels were hanging from room balconies. The odor of charred destruction was nauseous. A damaged clock on the ground still marked the time of the bombing — 9:25pm. THE NEW WAR General Tariq Khan is fighting the war that Pakistan did not want to fight. He is head of the Frontier Corps – the army that is responsible for the seven tribal agencies – the Pakistani “provinces” along the border with Afghanistan, where it is believed top al Qaeda leaders – including Osama bin Laden – are living. The Frontier Corps have traditionally been second-fiddle in the Pakistani Army. The main army – which is composed mostly of Punjabis – has been concerned about the threat posed by India (which, not surprisingly, borders the Pakistani province of Punjab – the most populous province). Until recently, there has been little support for their Pashtun brethren in the Frontier Corps – which have been undermanned, insufficiently trained and ill-equipped. However, this appears to be changing. Gen Khan is trying to get the army to focus on the threat from the Taliban, on the country’s western border. Hundreds of miles away on the eastern border lies India, which has been the traditional threat against which the Army has trained to fight, and many consider would be a conventional war. India may still be a long term threat, but it is the militant extremists that are posing a greater, nearer-term threat, requiring Pakistan to respond with a different military strategy and tactics. Khan says the causes of the unrest in the tribal areas spring from several factors. First, the Frontier Corps, once it had cleared an area of militants, would leave. Now – as in Swat – once they clear are area, they stay, maintaining an army presence. Second, the rise of militants came from outsiders who moved into the area, bringing money and guns – and lots of both. “In the tribal area, if you want to respect, you’ve got to have a bigger wallet,” Khan says, “if you really want more respect, you’ve got to have a bigger caliber, and if you have both, you are God.” Today, the Pakistani military is pushing into South Waziristan, perhaps the most remote tribal agency, and where the Pakistani Taliban leadership is thought to reside. The US has publicly supported the Pakistani’s military campaign, and even some of the drone attacks – not supported publicly by the Pakistani government and very unpopular among the population due to civilian casualties they cause — have brought little government condemnation. A TRIP THROUGH TIME 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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