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Sunday, 13 January, 2002, 10:24 GMT
Time stands still at Khyber Pass
Khyber Pass
The border area has been left to its own devices
Matt Frei

On the parched lawn outside the officer's mess of the Khyber Rifles stands a tree, tied to the ground by heavy chains.

"I assume you are familiar with the story of the tree?" Major Amir asked me after a splendid lunch in the army mess.

The ransom of $25m on Osama Bin Laden's head may help, but the Americans need to convince tribal leaders that they will actually pay the money

Major Amir
"In the 1890s a group of British officers, were having drinks on the lawn, when one of them was convinced that the tree was moving. So he had the tree tied down with chains," he said.

It is easy to imagine the red-faced officers, their minds marinated in whisky or gin. Their black and white photographs still hang on the walls of the library.

Young men called Warburton, Bradstock or Dumbarton, wearing turbans, sporting clipped moustaches and looking as if they are on a fancy dress safari. Lounging in wicker chairs and attended stiffly by servants in starched white livery.

Unchanged world

Today the backdrop is much the same - the forbidding peaks that flank the Khyber Pass, on the Afghan-Pakistan border, dotted with abandoned forts and littered with the memory of useless military campaigns.

Osama Bin Laden
Special forces are combing the area for Bin Laden

Apart from the whisky - a definite no-no in Muslim Pakistan - and the fact that the "Britishers" have long left, very little seems to have changed.

And that includes the officer's language - expressions like hanky-panky, miscreants, undesirables or tickety boo still spice the table talk liberally without any hint of irony or self consciousness.

In the 19th century the Khyber Rifles controlled the Pass but very little else on either side. The same is true today.

Bandit country

We had to travel with an armed escort to get to the border with Afghanistan. And when we asked whether we could turn left or right to delve deeper into tribal territory our request was met with disbelief.

"Far too risky", the major said. I looked at our private army of eight soldiers with automatic rifles and a mounted machine gun, operated by a fearsome looking man with a motorcycle helmet. "What on earth could be out there?" I wondered.

Pakistan border soldier
Even heavily armed troops stick to the beaten track

The tribal belt was set up after partition from India. It stretches for hundreds of miles along the border with Afghanistan, and although strictly speaking part of Pakistan, it has its own laws and customs, which no government is foolish enough to mess with.

Even under the Raj the tribes were left to themselves. On the few occasions when contact was made, the regiment would despatch a Political Agent.

Disastrous mission

In 1897 that honour fell to Major Sir Warburton, no first name given on his photograph. He ventured into the Tira Valley which is no more than 130 kilometres (80 miles) from the Khyber Pass as the crow flies, but it takes days to walk across the mountains. There are no roads.

The mission ended in disaster - and for 104 years no army officer of any description has been back to the Tira Valley - until last week.

The Khyber Rifles despatched a helicopter as well as a platoon of men with a mule train. They set up a school, a field hospital and brought the first modern doctor these tribes had ever seen.

Terrorist hideout

Like so much else these days this expedition was the product of events in New York on 11 September.

Intelligence agencies believe that, if they are still alive, Osama Bin Laden and his cohorts, may have slipped across the border from their bombed out cave complex at Tora Bora.

It is only a two day walk into the Tira Valley. And with the invisible help of American and perhaps British special forces, the Khyber Rifles are combing the hills looking for any clues.

In many ways this is an ideal place to hide for the world's most wanted man. It is beyond the jurisdiction of Pakistan but it is sovereign territory.

It would be impossible for the Americans to pepper these hills with Daisy Cutters and cluster bombs. They will have to rely on satellite photographs, scouts on the ground, as well as co-operation from the Maliks or tribal chiefs.

"The ransom of $25m on Osama Bin Laden's head may help," Major Amir told me. "But the Americans need to convince tribal leaders that they will actually pay the money!"

See also:

18 Nov 01 | South Asia
Pakistan seals Afghan border
05 Oct 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Rebels return to the frontier
29 Sep 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Powerful cross-border bonds
14 Dec 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Pakistan's tribal frontiers
18 Nov 01 | South Asia
Where is Bin Laden?
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