Strategic history of the 30-mile stretch within the White Mountains that forms an uneasy border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Today the Khyber Pass functions as a turbulent alley for international gunrunning against the resurgent Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies. It has always been a frontier, notes first-time author Docherty: “an ancient zone of contested ground, long disputed and never entirely at peace.” Because it marks the northwest front line to the Indian subcontinent, it has served as a crucial gateway for armies and ideas, from Persian king Darius’s penetration into the rich lands of India in the fifth century B.C.E. to the winding down of the British Raj in 1947. Alexander the Great came through the pass and conquered the Punjab but didn’t stay long; the area was subsequently ruled by India’s Mauryan dynasty. The Kushans, a wayward Chinese clan, disseminated Buddhism to the rest of the world through the pass, which later enabled the first Muslims to introduce Islam to South Asia. Genghis Khan was followed by the Mughal Empire, the rise of Sikh power in the Punjab and repeated Afghan incursions. The Khyber Pass was the furthest outpost of the British Empire; once the British army occupied Afghanistan in 1838, nearly perpetual warfare was necessary to keep open the vital route between Kabul and India. No invading army has gone through the pass since Pakistan took control of the region in 1947, but it again became a hot spot in 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Docherty alleviates his somewhat benumbing history of successive empires with livelier accounts of actual visits. Most unsettling is his tour of Darra Adam Khel, deep inside the Tribal Areas, where a centuries-old tradition of gunmaking ensures “the plentiful supply of cheap firearms [that] has long helped the region to maintain its reputation as a wild frontier.”
Docherty demonstrates, a bit murkily, that the Khyber Pass remains central to the transmission of cultures, religions and weaponry throughout the region.