Path blocked by a turbulent past
IN 1983 a roguish congressman from Texas with a fondness for surrounding himself with glamorous models and beauty queens travelled up the Khyber Pass to the Pakistan military outpost at Michni. From his rocky vantage point Charlie Wilson could see Soviet military shells exploding in Afghanistan and hear the sound of mujaheddin fighters returning fire. Standing next to Wilson and posing as his personal assistant was Carol Shannon, a belly- dancer who used to shock her ultra- conservative Pakistani hosts by appearing at official functions in tight- fitting pink Lycra jumpsuits.
Behind Wilson’s cowboy- adventurer demeanour was something far more serious. As an influential member of the House Appropriations Committee, Wilson was arming himself to argue for a dramatic increase in CIA funding for the mujaheddin. Within a few years the program had become the largest covert operation in history.
Though the guns have not been silenced entirely, the Khyber Pass today has reverted to its role as a conduit for commerce. Lorries, overladen with Western goods, struggle up the pass bound for the bazaars of Kabul and Kandahar. But if Paddy Docherty’s book, The Khyber Pass: A History of Empire and Invasion, is any guide, the relative quiet will not last long.
Because of the Khyber’s strategic position as the main route between central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, it remains one of the most heavily fortified frontiers in the world. On his travels up the 50km long highway between Peshawar and Torkham, Docherty is accompanied by a khasadar, or guide, armed with an AK- 47. The Pakistan Government’s writ does not extend beyond the narrow strip of bitumen, making it almost impossible to flush out remnants of al- Qa’ida and the Taliban who have made their bases along the Afghan border.
As Docherty points out, by the time Wilson and his Khyber Rifles escort had travelled up the pass, it had long ceased to be a route for invading armies. When the US toppled the Taliban in 2001 it used B- 52 bombers stationed in Diego Garcia. The last soldiers to march up the Khyber belonged to the British army during the Third Anglo- Afghan War in 1919.
By then the Khyber had been immortalised in the stories of Rudyard Kipling and the disastrous British retreat from Kabul in 1842, when Afghan tribesmen picked off the entire army, leaving only one European, regimental doctor William Brydon, to reach safety and tell the harrowing story.
According to Docherty the Khyber Pass has ‘‘ left its mark in every facet of life in modern South Asia’’ and beyond.
Starting with the incursion of Persian king Darius I’s army in the 6th century BC and ending with Mahmud of Ghazni’s invasion in the 11th century, this great passageway infused India with the Vedic precursor to Hinduism, the Zoroastrianism of the Persians and the polytheism of the Greeks.
With religion came culture and language, the magnificent edifices of Moguls and the great Sanskrit texts.
While Docherty makes a commendable attempt in tying these disparate dynasties and empires together using the Khyber as a common theme, his book lacks a strong narrative thread.
Faced with a paucity of early sources mentioning the pass, Docherty takes the reader on too many detours. For instance, his chapter devoted to the Mauryan empire of the 3rd century BC, while interesting in its own right, makes scant mention of the Khyber’s role as a conduit for spreading Buddhism into Afghanistan.
By the time Docherty begins to inject more life
into his narrative with the arrival of the Mogul ruler Babur at the head of the Khyber in 1525, the reader has become more than a little battle weary. And so too, it seems, does Docherty, who spends more time admiring the quality of fake AK- 47s being made in distant Dara Adam Khel than on the changing role of the Khyber itself.
Instead of witnessing the march of armies, the pass has become a conduit for fundamentalism and a dangerous frontier in the war on terror. The Khyber’s role in shaping civilisations, Docherty should be reminding us, is far from over yet. John Zubrzycki is an author and a senior writer on The Australian. He last travelled through the Khyber Pass following the September 11 terrorist attacks of 2001.
Head them off at the pass: A 19th- century illustration of a scene from the Second Anglo- Afghan War, 1878- 80