There is a 19th-century Protestant church at the south end of Bombay’s Colaba Causeway. It has a disproportionately tall steeple, and before the skyline of Nariman Point was developed, it was the most prominent landmark for visitors arriving to Bombay by sea.
One hundred and fifty years later, it is still a place of startling repose in that seething city. The official name of the church is St. John the Evangelist, but it has always been better known by another name: the Afghan Church. It was Imperial Britain’s attempt to enshrine the memory of the soldiers who died over a 35-year period in the Anglo-Afghan Wars – wars now barely a footnote in Asia’s military history.
The church contains the usual poignant plaques in remembrance of individual officers and faded shreds of regimental colors, but its essence is in a simple phrase inscribed in the chancel (see photo).
Those wars were fought from the 1840s to the 1870s to give British India what the Germans would later call Lebensraum. They were fought hand to hand against mountain tribesmen to shut down the easiest access of Russians, Persians, Turks, Uzbeks into India – the Khyber Pass. In 1947, after all the bother, Britain bequeathed the pass to nascent Pakistan.
The Pass: Getting There*
Today, after the recent years of Afghans fighting Russians and each other and streams of refugees crossing east to Pakistan, it is again fairly easy* for a Western tourist with some resources to visit the Khyber Pass to try to imagine what on earth those Brits were thinking way back then.
All that is really required is to find yourself in Peshawar, Pakistan, with more money than brains and a free morning on your hands. After three days in Peshawar, it was not too difficult for me to meet those simple tests. I’d done all the bazaars, where I’d been offered hashish by up to one-half of the adult male population; I’d been to the main mosque at midday on a Friday; I’d been up the Swat Valley to the Silk Road. So off I went.
As with anything in South Asia, logistics is key. The first order of business is to find one of those multitasking driver/guide/fixers that the subcontinent is so full of.
Mine, Zulfaqar, took me to the Khyber Agency permit post at the Army Cantonment where I got the permit for a few rupees, but more importantly, where we picked up Masbooq, The Assassin, a black-clad soldier with a Kalashnikov and a bag of clips who we deposited in the back seat as an equalizer to the Afridi tribesmen who like to set up informal toll stations in their neighborhoods.
A Smuggler's Haven
We drove west out of Peshawar through a rambling free-form market called Smugglers Bazaar to a barrier that said “No foreigners beyond this point.” (What it really meant was no foreigners without a Masbooq in the backseat.)
Past that sign, the driver explained, the Peshawar police exercise no authority and it did seem like everything was available. The main street was a weapons emporium. I saw grenade launchers, mortars, every kind of automatic and semi-automatic weapon. You could probably get anti-aircraft guns and scud missiles if you had the patience. Less obvious but surely available, according to Zulfaqar, was a pharmacopeia of narcotics as well as Muslim-banned substances like Heineken.
After three or four kilometers of this laissez-faire enterprise, we reached a checkpoint where Zulfaqar actually did have to produce documentary evidence that I’d given my rupees to the Army post. Remarkably, a white European was trying to achieve the same passage by himself with no Zulfaqar or Masbooq, and with the predictable result that he was still at the same place hours later when we returned from the Afghan border.
Past the checkpoint there’s an archway and small monument to all of the various people who had stopped by over the last 4,000 years, a “George Washington slept here” for Eastern civilization. Beginning with the Vedic-era Aryans, to Alexander the Great, to the Arabs, to Babur the first Mogul Emperor, to the British and now the Afghanis themselves fleeing first the Russians and now the Taliban, they all came through the Pass.
The road ascends from the archway over a landscape that could be fairly described as rubble and through an atmosphere of suspended dust baked in a 110°F haze. There are occasional adobe villages set in small palm oases surrounded by high walls. There are ruined Buddhist stupas from the Gandhara civilization that have stood for two millennia. There is a new fortified palace half a mile on a side with electronic surveillance and patrolling guards, which Zulfaqar helpfully explained belonged to a “local businessman.”
Throughout the Pass, the British had somehow built guard posts high on the mountaintops to snipe at intruders. The narrowest point in the pass, originally about five meters wide, called Ali Masjid, was heavily protected and marked with a sign commemorating Alexander’s visit.
Even without the sign, his army’s influence on local gene pool is obvious. The tall, blue-eyed and green-eyed people with reddish hair and light complexions here stand in stark contrast to the darker Dravidian mixes farther south and east.
The first paved road through the Pass was built by the British Army during the Great Game era. It still roughly exists below the post-independence tarmac that we took. Traditional-type smugglers prefer the old road with donkey and camel caravans of goodies for the Pakistan border bazaars. The new road is the province of the 20th-century truck trade in TVs, CD players and weapons.
But the most amazing economic traffic through the pass is in bicycle transport. The bicycle entrepreneurs catch a truck across the Afghan border some 50 km and 1500 ft in elevation away from Peshawar’s bazaars and ride back on one bike with two more strapped to the sides. I never saw them dismount even on the steepest grades. Their profit margin for the trip was 50 rupees. I’ll never understand why Pakistan doesn’t enter a team in the Tour de France sponsored by some local munitions firm.
In addition to road building, the natural landscape was also altered by the construction of the Khyber Railway during the early twentieth century. The tracks of the Khyber Railway weave between and over the old and new roads. This railway was a stupendous feat of imperial British engineering and construction. The effort to construct it with its dozens of bridges and tunnels, switchbacks and block houses is reminiscent of the construction of the city of New Delhi or perhaps even the Suez Canal. It is a monument to what an absolute ruler can achieve with unlimited resources and free labor.
The original idea of the railway was to be able to move troops quickly to the border to stop advancing Whoevers from penetrating the exposed northwestern flank of British India. In fact, it may have done as much duty as a quick getaway from the same Whoevers, if the results of the first couple of Anglo-Afgan Wars are any measure.
Today, a train still occasionally runs to the village of Landi Kotal, halfway to the border, for touring railway buffs, but there the tracks stop and the remainder of the line is in a state of abandoned disrepair with collapsed trellises and caved-in tunnels. It is the "Ozymandias" of imperial civil engineering.
Futility in a Land of Strife
Landi Kotal itself is worth one trip. It is a small trading town on a desolate mesa where donkey herders transfer title in smuggled goods to pick-up drivers and then disappear back into the mountains. Business here is conducted at the primordial level: You put down your stuff, you pick up the money and you back away with your hand on your gun. People move around in small groups. Even the soldiers cluster together. The air is opaque and sickening from the exhaust of rows of idling trucks.
It might have been oxygen deprivation, but in the middle of all this I strangely recalled a scene from the first Star Wars movie. It was that bleak, threatening galactic outpost where Luke Skywalker first met Han Solo and chartered the Millenium Falcon. The transport available in Landi Kotal is a little slower and there are a lot more Wookies; but there are eerie similarities in landscape and chaotic intensity and in the irrespressible desire of an outsider to make a quick exit.
Beyond Landi Kotal are only more checkpoints and more donkeys until you reach the end of the tour at a vista near the border town of Torkhan, as far as a foreign tourist can travel, even with Masbooq. If you peer out from there through the haze onto the arid plains of Taliban Afganistan and reflect back on your short passage and the long history, the potential for melee suddenly becomes palpable.
The pass has always been a battleground simply because it is navigable – because it is the way in and the way out of the subcontinent. It is the escape route the British army was seeking in 1842 when they retreated from Kabul and were slaughtered at Gandamack. It is the place where they fought the Pathans to a bloody standoff thirty years later when modern warfare technology first met its match in determined Islamic resistance, and, as Kipling noted, “two thousand pounds of education drops to a ten rupee jezail.” It is where Russian tanks and gunships could not subdue the Mujahideen, and where U.S. Tomahawk missiles now only temporarily shatter the camps of those early tribesmen’s descendants, who will return just as they always have.
Even today on the Pakistan side, everyone in the pass is armed. The soldiers, the smugglers, the chai sellers, the cyclists, the camel drivers, all strap automatic rifles on their backs.
When they pause at the roadside’s continuous comfort station and lift their kurtas, you notice they also conceal handguns. They shout at each other and argue over small slights. They look at you furtively, indirectly, and as the only Westerner around, you quickly comprehend the futility of fighting these people.
And then you remember that old Protestant church at the edge of Bombay and its sad inscription. And you remember the non-commissioned Officers and Private Soldiers, too many…
And then, finally, you remember that hotel bar in Peshawar and that two o’clock tee time.