There is a point, more figurative than literal, where crossing the border from Pakistan to Afghanistan starts to feel like leaving one world and entering another. That point used to be clearly marked: a gate delineated the international boundary, splitting the border town of Towr Kham in two. One side used to be the deadly half, the other merely dangerous. That gate no longer exists. Towr Kham, 60 km west of Peshawar in Pakistan, and 100 km east of Kabul in Afghanistan, has, in a sense, been reunited. But the feeling remains: that unnerving sense of leaving the relative safety of one place behind and entering the dark abyss of another.
In April 2002, when I first made the trip from Peshawar to Kabul, Afghanistan was the danger zone, so thoroughly devastated by decades of war that reaching the capital was an epic, bone-jarring odyssey through precipitous mountain passes and barren river valleys prickling with land mines. At that time, stepping out of the taxi on the Pakistani side of the border and walking to the Afghan side was the point at which the feeling of dread reared its ominous head.
It was on that side of the border, for example, where Taliban militants summarily executed four foreign journalists on their way to Kabul in November 2001. Death was everywhere on that treacherous route: in the deserted farm fields hugging the Kabul River; in the impromptu cemeteries whose graves seemed to outnumber the living; and ever-present in the pockets of Taliban fighters still carrying out raids on any foreigners they could find.
On the other side of the border, along the historic Khyber Pass in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas, things were markedly different. In the buoyant aftermath of the fall of the Taliban regime, tens of thousands of Afghan refugees were packing up their meagre belongings in Pakistani camps and making the perilous journey home. It was a heady time. Foreign aid workers and journalists swarmed into Peshawar and journeyed beyond into the Tribal Areas with little or no concern for their safety. The Pakistani frontier was buzzing with life, its carpet sellers and gem dealers swimming in foreign currency.
Ten years later, things have changed dramatically. It’s not a transformation many people are talking about, especially considering the recent spate of bad news flowing out of Afghanistan. But the headlines—Quran burnings and violent protests, a murderous rampage carried out by a supposedly unhinged soldier—mask something arguably more monumental: Afghanistan is making progress, while Pakistan is not.
I’ve made the road trip from Kabul to Peshawar and back again dozens of times over the past 10 years. Over that period, I’ve watched the Afghan leg of the trip evolve from a mine-riddled wasteland into a thriving agricultural oasis. Despite the war that is never too distant, the road from Kabul to Towr Kham has remained relatively safe, giving Afghans the peace they so desperately need to rebuild their lives.
The results have been nothing short of remarkable. Travelling this route, with its roadside fish restaurants and teahouses overlooking the lush Kabul River valley, one is transported back to a time when the famed hippie route to India was still alive and well. The hippies are nowhere to be seen now but it’s easy to imagine why they loved coming through here: it exudes an aura of inner peace and vitality.
The chaos that defined the area a decade ago has moved eastward. It’s as if all of the dangers and destitution that plagued Afghanistan in 2002 have since rolled up their pant legs and stepped across the border into Pakistan. It was there, in the Tribal Areas, where thousands of Taliban and al-Qaeda militants found refuge after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban regime. It was also where, protected by a vast network of fundamentalist seminaries, the various militant groups—the Haqqani network, the Afghan Taliban, the Hizb-e-Islami, and of course al-Qaeda—partnered up with Pakistan’s own aspiring militants to form the complex web of jihadis who have turned what was always Pakistan’s most dangerous region into what is now considered to be the world’s most dangerous region.
Pakistan has paid the price. Its degradation is manifest in the Towr Kham-Peshawar road—now a feeble shadow of its past glory, crumbling and decaying into a mirror image of what the Towr Kham to Kabul route was like back in 2002. The short trip from Peshawar to the Afghan border, a mere one-hour cruise a decade ago, has now become a 2½-hour ordeal navigating potholes more accurately described as craters. Sections of the road can barely be called a road at all, so denuded has it become.
But it’s the danger, manageable in 2002, that brings home the fact that the real problem facing the world is not Afghanistan but Pakistan. It’s the danger, for example, that the commander of the Khasadar militia, the tribal police force in charge of security in the Tribal Areas, cites when he refuses to let me travel to the Afghan border from Peshawar. “We can’t let you go any further,” he tells me at the Takht Baig checkpoint, just inside the Tribal Areas. “These are dangerous times and I’m not going to take the blame if something happens to you.”
My counter-argument falls on deaf ears: I’m a dual citizen of both Canada and Pakistan, and as a Pakistani, I have a right to travel anywhere I want in Pakistan. This has always been the case. Back in 2002, being Pakistani made the journey from Peshawar to Kabul a simple matter of hiring a taxi to Towr Kham, walking across the border, and catching another taxi to Kabul. While other foreign journalists jumped through bureaucratic hoops to obtain the official go-ahead, I simply went on my way.
Now, those foreigners are banned from entering the Tribal Areas altogether. And it seems even Pakistanis like myself, foreign in the Khasadar’s eyes because of my Canadian passport, are meeting resistance.
Various other authorities tell me the same thing: “there is no security,” “you will be kidnapped,” “take a flight.”
In the end, I abandon the official track and opt for a disguise. I buy a chador (a large woolen shawl) and a skullcap in a local bazaar. It’s the look most of the tribals in this area prefer. I then go to the local minibus terminal, squeeze into a van heading to Towr Kham, among a dozen or so men dressed exactly like me, and cross my fingers.
None of this was necessary a decade ago, at least not in Pakistan. Disguises were requisite, however, on the Afghan side of the border. Now, as late afternoon falls and I finally arrive at Towr Kham, the feeling of dread recedes into the chaotic hills of Pakistan’s Tribal Areas.
The road ahead, smooth and idyllic, is a comfort after the tense journey from Peshawar. On the Afghan side, a portly old man sporting a salt and pepper beard approaches me, smiling warmly. “Kabul?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say, “Kabul. But it’s getting late. We’ll have to drive at night. Is it safe?”
The old man laughs. “No problem,” he says, slapping me on the back. “Welcome to Afghanistan.”