This historic passage is again becoming dangerous – though this is nothing new.
In the wee hours of 28 December 2008, the residents of Peshawar awoke to the thundering of artillery fire. It quickly became clear that the Pakistani military had launched an operation in Khyber Agency, which abuts the provincial capital to the west. The aim: to clear the historic Khyber Pass for NATO supplies heading into Afghanistan, through an area that had, over the previous year, come under increasing attacks from Taliban militants. A month later, on 3 February 2009, militants blew up a bridge in the Pass, halting all traffic. Both of these initiatives constitute only the latest in centuries’ of attempts to control this crucial 48 kilometres of winding track.
The Khyber Pass, which connects Afghanistan with Pakistan and the Kabul Valley with the Indus plains, has borne witness to the marches of numerous armies. Indeed, this defile across the Hindukush possesses an almost mythical history; before the British and Afghans themselves, the pass was also used by the Persians, Greeks and Mughals. It is said that Darius the Great marched through the pass during the fifth century BC in order to reach the Indus plains. Some two centuries later, columns of Alexander’s army moved into the Subcontinent through the same route.
The pass is not only strategically important, but has also deeply affected political and cultural life of the Southasian region, playing a pivotal function in the advent of new religions and ideas. Most prominently, Islam made its first inroads into the Subcontinent through the Khyber Pass. Ali Masjid, the narrowest point of the pass, takes its name from the legend that it was built by Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of Prophet Mohammad. As befits a mountain pass, this transmission went both ways, with Buddhism likewise entering Afghanistan and spreading across Central Asia through this area. New ideas and cultural traits also followed the invading armies, and helped in shaping the diverse cultural mosaic of Southasia. It is said that Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s most famous monument, the Taj Mahal, took its inspiration from the structure of Gur-e-Amir, the tomb of Timur in Samarkand.
Despite this cultural significance, the strategic element has remained the predominant importance of the Khyber Pass. Mahmud of Ghazni, Mohammad Ghuri, Zahiruddin Babar, Nadir Shah and Ahmed Shah Abdali are all said to have led attacks on India using this route, though some historians believe that this is a bit of mythmaking. Ahmed Hassan Dani, the renowned archaeologist of the Gandhara civilisation, suggests that though there is a record of Aryan migration through the pass, nothing proves that either the Persians or the Greeks came this way. There is no mention of the pass in the Sanskrit texts, nor in the writings of the Chinese explorers, he says.
According to Dani, it was the founder of the Mughal empire, Babar, who was the first historical figure to use this route to attack India, during the early 16th century. The pass itself came to prominence a bit later on, he says, when Kabul became an important outpost for the attackers in their assault on India. During the mid-16th century, the Pashtun emperor Sher Shah Suri developed the precursor to the Grand Trunk (GT) Road, from Peshawar right across the Subcontinent to Bengal. At that time, the Khyber Pass still lacked a proper route through it. As such, it fell to the Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great to give instructions to his chief engineer, Qasim Khan, to build a road across the pass later that century, thus connecting Kabul and Delhi via what became the GT Road.
Thereafter, in 1739, Nadir Shah, who ruled the Persian empire, attacked India and included Afghanistan and areas west of Indus in his empire. However, after his assassination in 1747 by his own soldiers, Ahmed Shah Abdali, an Afghan general in Nadir’s army, emerged as the new ruler of Afghanistan. By that time, in 1834, the Sikhs had emerged and seized from the Durranis the territory west of the Indus River. It was the Sikhs who subsequently built the grand Fort of Jamrud, at what is regarded as the start of the Khyber Pass.
Playing the game
The Sikhs were followed by the British, who were then emerging as the new masters of the Subcontinent. For the British, initial contact with the Khyber Pass was the 1809 visit by Mountstuart Elphinstone, the Scottish statesman who eventually became governor of Bombay. At that point, Elphinstone was exploring the terrain with an eye to the pass’s importance to trade with Central Asia. But it was only through the British explorer Alexander Burnes’s visit to Kabul in 1832, and eventually the first Anglo-Afghan War of 1839-42, that the Khyber Pass came under firm British control. Thereafter, the British turned Peshawar into an important imperial outpost on the Afghan frontier, and the Khyber inevitably became a crucial route for Raj forces to counter any Tsarist advancement on India, as well as against the growing Russian influence in Kabul.
Beyond trade and commerce, the British understood the importance of the Khyber Pass in terms of its strategic significance. This became of particular importance during the heyday of the Great Game, as the frontiers of the British and Russian empires jostled for position. Rudyard Kipling, in his poem “The Ballad of the King Jest”, described this centrality:
And the camp-fires twinkled by Fort Jumrood;
And there fled on the wings of the gathering dusk
A savour of camels and carpets and musk,
A murmur of voices, a reek of smoke,
To tell us the trade of the Khyber woke.
However, like any other figure of the Great Game days, Kipling too feared a possible Russian advance on India, and wrote:
The Russ is upon us, thy clamour ran?
Surely an hour shall bring their van.
Wait and watch.
When the host is near,
Shout aloud that my men may hear.
This struggle for mastery over trade routes, coupled with the inherent mutual suspicions, was to determine the future of modern Afghanistan. In 1893, the British demarcated the (subsequently much-debated) Durand Line as the border between Afghanistan and British India, and Afghanistan has since been forced to serve as a buffer state between shifting powers on the north and south. In all instances, the Khyber Pass has been the crucial point of contact and vulnerability.
For imperial Britain, the fear of a Russian advance on India was more than a mere threat. This seemed particularly clear after the Russian army overran the Khanates, the political entities ruled by the Central Asian Khans, and began to build railroads across Central Asia. The British Raj realised during its westward expansion that its most vulnerable sites lay in the rocky terrain of the Hindukush. The Khyber Pass in particular was viewed as commanding the line of control between the strategic outposts of Kabul and Peshawar. As noted previously, the pass was crucial during the first Anglo-Afghan War of 1839-42, as well as during the second such battle, of 1878-80, when British forces again used the pass to attack Afghanistan.
It was following the second Anglo-Afghan war that the British government decided to step up its presence in the area, and undertook to do a feasibility survey to lay a railway track through the Khyber Pass. Construction on this railway began in 1905, but the project was abandoned in 1909, as the Great Game had by that time begun to run out of steam. But the Khyber was taken by Afridi tribesmen during the 1897 uprisings, which led the British to fight the tribesmen for control of the pass during the third Anglo-Afghan war, of 1919. As such, it took this third conflict for the British to take another serious look at the possibility of constructing a railway. One Colonel Gordon Hearn was eventually assigned to re-survey the route, and construction resumed in 1920. Five years later, on 4 November 1925, the first train drove past the rocky crags of the Hindukush.
With 34 tunnels and 94 bridges, this line is a marvel of railway engineering, and the Khyber Pass Railway was to remain in service until the early 1980s. However, due to an ever-decreasing number of passengers, who were diverted by the parallel roadway, the Khyber Pass Railway eventually stopped regular service. Although during the 1990s a private tour operator did launch a tourist rail service, this eventually was forced to stop in July 2007, when flash floods destroyed several bridges and portions of railway tracks, which are yet to be repaired.
Alternative supply route?
The Khyber is currently witnessing yet another geopolitical struggle unfolding amongst its sharp hills, as Taliban militants attempt to choke the supply lines of US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. Currently, around 70,000 US and NATO troops are stationed in Afghanistan, and around 75 percent of their supplies pass through Pakistan. The new administration of US President Barack Obama plans to swell the number of troops in Afghanistan by another 30,000 in the near future, and is also optimistic that the US’s European allies will likewise increase their troop presence. That will put an even greater strain on a crucial supply line that is already near the breaking point. For the year following March 2007, the Pakistani military reported that some three oil tankers per month, headed to supply NATO forces in Afghanistan, were being attacked along the Khyber Pass route. Since then, the militants have become increasingly bold. In March 2008, the Taliban succeeded in blowing up upwards of 40 oil tankers in a parking lot at Torkham, the last Pakistani town at the end of Khyber Pass.
In November 2008, militants looted 13 trailers carrying wheat and two Humvee vehicles, and proceeded to distribute the wheat as war booty among the locals. The Humvees, meanwhile, were shifted to Orakzai Agency, and are currently being used by Taliban militants loyal to Hakimullah Mehsud, the young up-and-coming commander under Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. At a late-November press conference that publicly unveiled him, Hakimullah made specific threats to step up attacks on NATO convoys. Within a week, militant attacks increased, spreading all the way to the outskirts of Peshawar, where, on 1 December, militants burned more than 20 vehicles in an attack on a NATO logistics terminal at the Ring Road area of Peshawar. A week later, 150 more NATO vehicles were torched in a single attack, with similar smaller assaults taking place four times over the following month.
During December alone, some 300 NATO cargo trucks and Humvees were destroyed along the Khyber Pass. But the attacks did not stop there. In addition to the 3 February destruction of the bridge near Ali Masjid, the following day militants torched 10 more NATO supply trucks. Two days later, yet another bridge was blown up, killing two and injuring five others. The militants’ message in all this is clear: do not let the Americans succeed in Afghanistan, and use the Khyber region to waylay them. The echoes of those other superpowers ultimately defeated by Afghans – Imperial Britain and the Soviet Union – have rarely been stronger.
Attacks on supply lines along the Khyber Pass have almost as long a history as the supply lines themselves. But despite its militant-friendly topography, the pass had for some time been a relatively safe transportation route. The British introduced the maliki system into the tribal areas, paying tribal elders to keep the peace. This system remains in place to this day, with a system of both government- and tribe-imposed punishment in place to deal with any transgressions. Recently, though, this seems to have broken down. By the beginning of 2009, the largest transportation association in the area, the Khyber Transport Association, had gone on strike to protest the dramatic recent fall in security in the pass area. Officials with the association claim that their strike has forced a 60 percent drop in military-related hauling.
Finding alternatives to the Khyber, however, is complicated. The US Central Command (CENTCOM) chief General David Petraeus said recently in Islamabad that Washington is currently in negotiations with several Central Asian republics and Russia to try to open other supply routes into Afghanistan. But most analysts feel that, either way, the US will find it very difficult to reduce its dependence on Pakistan for both supply routes and other support. The roundabout inland routes will not be able to match the convenience of the sea route to Karachi. This alternate idea has only been made further problematic with the recent souring in US-Russia relations.
And so it goes today, so it has gone for centuries. The author of the Pakistani national anthem, Hafiz Jullandhuri, concluded his poem “Khyber” with a couplet that aptly describes the history of defiance of this route:
This rugged terrain caused wounds to the thousands of feet, who traversed it,
But its harshness did not end and it continued to remain as torturous.
This article originally appeared in Himal Magazine March 2009