| The Afghan border guard post at Torkhum. Telegraph picture
Torkhum, Khyber Pass: Large turquoise eyes freeze in shock and the hand that can lift the purdah now pulls the veil down tight. It disappears inside the folds of the blue burqa before the camera zooms and clicks. Her handsome Pathan gives an apologetic smile and walks her through the gates to Landi Kotal, Pakistan. Mehr Unnissa' Asma' Massouda' Rubaiya'
Life can be like this, this feeling of being in Torkhum, wanting to cross a pass you know you cannot.
Khyber Pass on the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier, Wednesday (August 31) last week.
“No photography,” says the Tajik border guardsman. He wags a finger and offers a consolation: “I love Aishwarya Rai.”
Man, woman and child, an unmoving queue of trucks and cars, civilian and military, border guard and soldier, customs official and vendor, tradesman and smuggler make for a raging river of life flowing amid magnificent desolation.
The black and barren Shamshadsar hill casts its shadow over the bridge. On the far, Pakistan side, the cantonment town of Landi Kotal is bustling. A blue mist rolls down the hills and meshes with brown dust raised by the daily footfalls of millions. Footfalls of Pakistan’s poor, Afghanistan’s dispossessed, tough truck drivers living on wages of fear. Those who can afford it fly over the Hindu Kush.
A step across on the bridge that marks no-man’s-land and there is refreshing green tea on offer from the soldiers of the Khyber Rifles. Green tea favoured by the Pashtuns. Here in Afghanistan as well as in Pakistan.
But I have been forewarned: At no cost should an Indian go across in flesh and blood. Aishwarya Rai and Rani Mukherjee and Amisha Patel are couriered across in posters, posters stuck on suitcases and plastered on the chassis of trucks and buses.
One, two, seven, ten, twenty, forty, sixty men; two, six, twelve, eighteen women, some with children in tow, some with infants inside tenting blue burqas, walk across the bridge into Pakistan. Quietly.
There is no vehicular traffic; it is suspended this morning. A general from Pakistan is driving in and the motorcade will be here shortly. He will inspect the road being built in Afghanistan by Pakistan’s Frontier Works Organisation. This is not a border, it is a frontier.
Families walk from here to there, from Pakistan to Afghanistan in this flat in the Sulaiman Hills. Bundles overhead, bags strung from shoulders, like in so many border crossings: Wagah, Bongaon, Raxaul, Calais, Dover. Simple, really.
But you are a Hindustani, an Indian in this frontier, you can’t have a visa, you can’t be drafted into historical invading armies. Your Prime Minister wants transit rights. There aren’t any. The last time an exception was made was five months ago. A Mitsubishi Landcruiser 4x4 was imported through Karachi for the Indian consulate in Jalalabad.
Islamabad alleges that the Indian consulate in Jalalabad is a hub of spies. But still it made an exception.
The consul general, A.K. Goswami, was not summoned to Kabul when the Prime Minister was in the Afghan capital this week. The mission called in diplomats from Dushanbe and Tashkent and Delhi and Abu Dhabi. But not a soul from India’s mission in Afghanistan’s second city.
They are on watch, watching the road from Kabul to Torkhum. Torkhum is where the road ends in Afghanistan; this is the western end of the Khyber Pass. The road is Afghanistan’s lifeline, Kabul’s jugular vein.
Should President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh strike a deal in New York on September 14, Indian vehicles and traffic will take this route to Afghanistan and Central Asia. It will be possible to drive from Amritsar to Tashkent in two days. But before that the road will have to be laid.
For now, it is a tremulous drive from Jalalabad to Torkhum. The path is lost in mud and scrabble and clouds of dust. The road exists because vehicles have to drive through and leave tyre tracks, because Pakistan has to export $224 million worth of goods to Afghanistan, because those goods are ferried in large containers sitting on trailers, because the US has to send its war materiel here, because Afghanistan is a landlocked country and its imports have to transit through Karachi.
Day and night, Taliban and Hekmatyar, US scouts in Humvees and Hummers, Canadian troops in armoured cars, German ISAF contingents, brigands, warlords, narco-mafia traverse the road, some authoritatively, others slyly, some chase, some flee. Everyone is highly strung. The journey must begin and end in daylight. All are warned, all keep their fingers crossed. Drivers from Kabul refuse to take the road despite offers of a bonus.
Jalalabad is the biggest city ' if it can be called that ' before the road takes the right bank of the Kabul River through Nangrahar Valley’s poppy country, climbs 11,000 feet to the Lataban Pass and rolls into the high plains of the Afghan capital.
It’s not a road really. It is an alignment for one. Less than a quarter of it is black-topped. The black-top is flattery, the road is deception.
It takes nearly four hours of a backbreaking drive from Jalalabad ' 75 km to the west ' to Torkhum. That is just about a round trip from Delhi’s Red Fort to the Honda factory in Gurgaon. A trailer carrying America’s war junk of military vehicles can’t make it to Torkhum, just 30 km away, any more. Its axles have snapped.
“I’m waiting here in this benzene (petrol) station because I have to stay the night,” says driver Latifi. “I should get some relief tomorrow morning, Inshallah.”
Around the petrol station are the Safed Koh, the white mountains. The tops have pickets built by armies in the past. They are still held by armies or the police. Every hilltop is an observation post, some are marked with the Afghan flag. Most are unmarked.
At Lalpur, the dust raised by the traffic is so thick that headlights are switched on. A ghostly shape looms through the cloud. The rusting chassis of a Soviet-era tank. Vehicles drive on either side of it.
From Lalpur to Torkhum the road is marked by the queue of trucks and trailers, richly decorated Pakistani vehicles mostly, a few overcrowded buses. No vehicles are being allowed across the frontier now. The general is on his way. At the frontier, a solitary soldier waves back.
He is standing next to a board. It reads: “Welcome to Pakistan. KHYBER RIFLES. Pepsi.”