Path blocked by a tur­bu­lent past

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - John Zubrzycki

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

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