A fragile stability along the Khyber Pass
TORKHAM: An unwitting comment by Marc Grossman last month may have triggered heated debate in Kabul and Islamabad over the Durand Line, but for the thousands who throng across the border on foot every day, the boundary line between Khyber Agency and Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, is irrelevant.
Few, if any, of the locals have paperwork; many have businesses and families on both sides of the border; and several hundred schoolchildren come across every morning from the Afghan side to attend schools in Landi Kotal, the local tehsil.
So irrelevant is the border here that the exact point at which Pakistan ends and Afghanistan begins is difficult to discern amidst the jumble of trucks, cars, pushcarts and pedestrians.
There are a handful of khasadars on the Pakistani side and border police on the Afghan side; there are small customs checkposts on both sides; and there are immigration offices on either side of the border — but finding any of them can be an ordeal. Torkham is less an international border and more a chaotic bazaar.
“This whole area, on both sides of the border for two or three kilometres, is the same. It’s all part of Torkham, a Pakistani Torkham and an Afghan Torkham. The same people, the same tribes, and they refuse to accept this as a border,” said Yaqub Afridi, a businessman from Khyber Agency.
Officials at Torkham can only guess at the volume of human and vehicular traffic that crosses over every day from 7am to approximately 7pm, after which only emergency movement is permitted.
“Maybe 10,000 to 12,000 people move across every day in each direction. And about 800 to 1,000 trucks each way,” said Bismillah Khan, an official at the immigration office on the Pakistani side.
Khan added: “The trucks coming from Afghanistan are mostly empty; maybe a 100 or so are loaded with fruit and vegetables. From Pakistan, it is the opposite: less than 100 trucks are empty. About a third of the Pakistani traffic is Nato-supplies related but since the reopening (in May) it has been lower.”
On the Afghan side, the lone officer at the immigration post, Jamil Shinwari, was diligently entering passport details by hand in a ledger for the few who cared to get an entry or exit stamp.
Shinwari estimated that a mere 1,500 or so of the thousands who cross Torkham every day have proper paperwork. “Most of them are Afghans who are travelling onwards to Lahore or Karachi and fear harassment by the police if they don’t have a passport.”
A tense journey
The heaving bazaar-like atmosphere at Torkham can belie the continuing tensions in Khyber Agency.
Along the legendary 42-kilometre-long Khyber Pass — known locally as the Afghan Shahrah — there are still trouble spots that keep traffic off the roads at night and travellers watchful during the day.
Noorul Haq Qadri, an MNA from Landi Kotal, said that there is always a “danger that (militant) groups can strike at any place and time because of the number of potential targets along the Pass: Nato containers, local influential and rich businessmen.”
“The security situation along the Pass is uncertain,” Qadri said. The MNA identified the Landi Kotal-based Tamanchy (Pistol) Mullah Group, led by a local tribesman, Hazrat Nabi, as the most troublesome of militant outfits still operating in the area.
A local tribal elder and vice president of the Fata Reforms Movement, Iqbal Khyberwal, echoed Qadri’s concerns: “For ordinary traffic, the route is by and large secure, but not always. They (the militants) appear suddenly and strike and just as quickly disappear. Nobody knows where they come from and where they go.”
Khyberwal argued that rather than a single militant outfit attacking the route, it was a mixture of groups at work: “Haqqanis have a presence but others, including TTP, Abdullah Azzam, Tamanchy Mullah Group and Lashkar-i-Islam, have cells along the route from Jamrud (adjacent to Peshawar) to Torkham.”
Still, in the tehsils of Jamrud and Landi Kotal, through which snakes the Khyber Pass, military operations have helped recover the security situation from a nadir several years ago. In particular, locals credit the creation of a pro-state militia in the troublesome Zakakhel area of Landi Kotal as having helped bring security to the Khyber Pass.
Today, most of the fighting in Khyber Agency is in Bara tehsil, away from the Khyber Pass, though abutting the upscale Hayatabad neighbourhood of Peshawar. In Bara, the TTP and the Lashkar-i-Islam led by Mangal Bagh from the remote Tirah valley are the main militant protagonists.
Lashkar-i-Islam was active closer to the Khyber Pass, according to Qadri, but had been ousted by the pro-state militia in Zakakhel.
Even in Torkham, amidst the buzz there are hints of tension and of countries divided.
According to Yaqub Afridi, the businessman from Landi Kotal, the Torkham truck depot is a magnet for militants because of the time, often days, it takes for trucks to be processed by customs officials at the border.
“120 trucks alone have been burned here. The attacks peaked in 2009 and 2010 but even now there are intermittent attacks,” Afridi said.
Part of the problem is separating foe from friend. A local journalist speaking on the condition of anonymity told of a science teacher at a local high school who had been arrested earlier this year for links to the TTP.
“Zahir (the schoolteacher) was guarded by the khasadars because he was believed to be a target of the militants. But in fact Zahir was using the school’s science laboratory for making explosives,” the journalist said
“He was such a genius with chemicals that after his arrest, the local security commander nicknamed him the ‘Dr Qadeer Khan of Khyber Agency’,” the journalist continued, claiming that the mastermind’s arrest had hurt the militants’ operations.
Not all tensions in Torkham are of the militant variety, however.
Few as the border guards may be, they are constantly circling among the swell of humans and vehicles, on the lookout for easy prey. Mostly it is for a few Rupees or Afghanis from small traders or well-to-do travellers without proper documentation. But there are other purposes too.
Abdul Ghafoor Shakir, a native of Landi Kotal who owns a mobile-phone business in Jalalabad, showed a small bag stuffed with contraband: Pakistani newspapers, including Dawn. “If the Afghan guards see this, they will take it away. Even a small scrap of Pakistani newspaper is confiscated,” Shakir said.
The confiscations began in September following a ban by the Afghan Interior Ministry on Pakistani newspapers entering eastern Afghanistan, and specifically from the Torkham border, because they allegedly serve as “a propaganda resource of the Taliban spokesmen”.
Perhaps, though, befitting an area so dismissive of state control, the overarching opinion in Torkham is of deep suspicion.
The local journalist speaking on condition of anonymity summed up the feelings of many at this mountainous outpost: “If they (the governments) wanted to keep this route safe indefinitely, they could; but if they don’t, it will never be safe.”