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Carrying on up the Khyber

Naqib Ahmad Atal
Shut off to NATO supply convoys in November by Islamabad in protest over an air strike that killed two dozen Pakistani troops, the Khyber Pass is a strategically vital link between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The…
30.11.2011  |  Jalalabad
The volume of traffiic through the pass has spawned many cafes and stores at the border. (Photos: Atal)
The volume of traffiic through the pass has spawned many cafes and stores at the border. (Photos: Atal)

Pushed in trolleys by porters and pulled in convoys by trucks, the steady flow of goods and human traffic moving across the border into Afghanistan is a daily testimony to the Khyber Pass’s place in history.

“Hundreds of trucks loaded with goods, products and luggage cross onto our soil from here and disappear into Afghanistan,” said Javid Sheena, a mobile phone card seller at the Afghan border town of Torkham, where freight moves over the frontier on the 53-kilometre journey up the pass.

Described by poet Rudyard Kipling as “a sword cut through the mountains,” this artery has created an entire micro-economy of small businesses and services by droves of taxi drivers and porters that convey the never-ending flow of goods and people.

“Each day I earn two to three hundred rupees (3.3 US dollars), we are ten people at home, and even though my father works we still can barely make ends meet,” says Niaz Vali Afridi, a teenager who uses a handcart to move baggage and migrant Afghan women, children and elderly between vehicles at Torkham.

For many locals there is no other employment 

“It’s all mountains where we live, we have no agricultural land, no industry to work in, our literacy level is very low, and so our financial situation hasn’t changed,” said Shah Jahan Khan, a tribal leader in Landi Kotal. Located five kilometres inside Pakistan, the town stands at the summit of the pass at 1,072 metres above sea level.

Afghan migrants are carted across the border to waiting vehicles.

One veteran of the route is Sarfraz Khan, who has ferried passengers back and forth by car for 13 years. “When I started out the fare for each passenger from Torkham to Peshawar was one dollar, but now it is six dollars,” said Khan, citing constant growth in prices for everything from food to fuel.

But most of the goods move from east to west into Afghanistan because, as phone card seller Sheena says, “We don’t have anything of our own to send them, we are brought everything from abroad, we only have only natural water and air, nothing else.”

The steady rise in prices has been good news for self-employed truck drivers like Sajad Afridi, who if smart can tap well-paid contracts. He used to make 300 US dollars for each load of freight transported to Kabul, but now makes 1,000 dollars per run: “Everyone manages his own prices,” Afridi says.

Enshrined in history

The route is rightly honoured in the history books, says local historian and member of the Afghan Academy of Sciences, Habibullah Rafey. “The Khyber Pass is among the most famous routes in the world, three metres wide at the narrowest part and fifty-three kilometres long.

"The Khyber Pass is as unstable today as it was in the past.” Driver

“From ancient times it  was a crucial commercial corridor, and was usually used by external forces to attack Afghanistan,” he said, naming some of the warriors who used the pass over the ages: Alexander the Great, Ghengis Khan, Tamerlane and Babur, as well as Colonial British forces.

The latter paved the road in 1879 and extended the Indian rail link to Landi Kotal four decades later. But the British used the route at a high cost: Britain lost some 16,000 troops and civilians here during the three Afghan wars, according to Rafey.

It was only last year that Islamabad and Kabul finally signed a memorandum of understanding for the construction of a cross-border rail link. But with no further progress on that project, the truckers still dominate the route.

Between 350 and 400 trucks groan their way up the pass each day, said Zia ul-Haq Sarhadi, the head of the chamber of commerce in the Pakistani province of Khyber Pachtunkhwa (formerly North West Frontier Province).  
“More than a thousand drivers, truck owners and labourers work this key transportation route, and if it is blocked we will take a hard hit,” he added.

Between 350 and 400 trucks groan their way up the pass each day, said Zia ul-Haq Sarhadi, the head of the chamber of commerce in the Pakistani province of Khyber Pahhtunkhwa (formerly North West Frontier Province).  “More than a thousand drivers, truck owners and labourers work this key transportation route, and if it is blocked we will take a hard hit,” he added.

Precarious lifeline for NATO

Names well documented in the history books.

NATO has opened other supply routes through the former Soviet republics, but the Khyber Pass together with the other main crossing point from Pakistan at Chaman, is vital for the maintenance of military operations in Afghanistan. 

Taliban fighters have destroyed NATO fuel tankers in their hundreds here in the past few years, but suppliers working out of Karachi’s seaport still rely heavily on the route. Despite the dangers, drivers still prefer it to Chaman, which is located on the road to Kandahar from Quetta in Pakistan's Baluchistan Province.

“We take fuel only through the Khyber Pass, as Chaman and other ways are really dangerous,” said tanker driver Shehzad Shinwari.

But this drive is no picnic either, he adds. “The Pakistani government does not secure the way for us, they added a number of checkpoints in Peshawar, but Khyber is as unstable today as it was in the past.”

When fuel tankers cross the border they are escorted by Afghan and Pakistani police vehicles from checkpoint to checkpoint, all the way from Torkham to Kabul. “For three or four days each week the Pakistani police gather all the fuel tankers and when the number reaches fifty, they let them through the pass all at once, from nine o’clock in the morning to three o’clock in the afternoon,” said Shinwari.

“The drivers are fearful as they pass through these mountains, some have to give themselves up [to marauders] on the way,” he said, adding that while drivers can carry arms in Pakistan, this can get them killed on the Afghan side.

Local man Abaseen knows the cost of working the route very well. Last year, the Taliban killed two of his cousins in Logar province for running NATO supplies by truck.

“The Taliban detained them once and warned them not to drive the truck,” said Abaseen. “But they still thought the profit was worth it, and they decided to continue. The next day the Taliban caught them and decapitated them. This has increased fear among the fuel tanker drivers, but they have to earn their bread, therefore they gamble with their lives.” 

Deteriorating road conditions are causing more accidents and delays.

Loads carried for NATO are well insured, which has given rise to a lucrative scam. “The truck owners have worked out how to cheat the system, they sell almost all the fuel but keep a few litres in the tanker, which they then set on fire," said another driver who did not wish to be named. "They put the driver in a hotel and pay him double salary, and then tell the NATO that the truck has been torched and the driver kidnapped, and NATO pays them a large amount.” 

Most frequently the fuel tankers were genuinely hit in the Hayat-Abad area by Peshawar, despite the presence of Pakistani police checkpoints. But the attackers strike fast, shooting at the trucks like snipers and then fleeing, he said. 

Islam Gul Afridi, an independent journalist from the area, said that prior to the Pakistani embargo on NATO traffic in response to the deadly checkpoint bombing, the last attack on NATO fuel tankers took place in late October.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani decision to close the Khyber and Chaman routes to NATO supplies, if only temporarily as happened during previous disputes, will hit the military operations in Afghanistan hard. Around half of the supplies for the 140,000-strong international forces are moved via Karachi. 

Barren surrounds are unchanged over the centuries

On the drive through the Khyber Pass the surrounds are devoid of any trees or plants, barely changed in centuries. The road itself is in dire need of repair, and more accidents are causing delays.Four years ago a vehicle could drive from Peshawar to Torkham in two hours, but it usually takes twice as long now because of blockages and holdups.

Afghans on the move at Torkham.

Corruption takes other forms too, say drivers. One man said Pakistani police guarding the route check cars and their passengers but readily accept bribes of two to three hundred Pakistani rupees from each Afghan passenger who does not have a passport or immigration ID card.

Because truck drivers are less willing to pay up, the checks on the heavy vehicles are much slacker, said the man, who also wished to remain anonymous. 

But whatever the risks and complications, the route is not expected to lose its popularity and volume of traffic. Quite the contrary.

“This pass has kept its value and I think its importance will grow still further in the future," predicted the historian Rafey.