Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Khyber Pass

The entrance to the Khyber Pass, seen from the open door of a Huey gunship.

I flew over the Khyber Pass in a helicopter gunship the other day. I'm not quite certain why I was given this highly sought after opportunity but when it was offered to me I jumped at the chance. A very senior State Department official and his Staff Assistant were here on an official visit and his program included a tour of Peshawar with a flyover of the FATA and the Khyber Pass.

The FATA is the Federally Administered Tribal Area and it's the place in Pakistan where most of the Taliban and other righteous militants gather, plot mayhem and hide from the light of day. The Khyber Pass is the historic route into the Indian Subcontinent and its military significance has been recognized and exploited by invading armies from Alexander the Great to the British Army of the Indus.

While it would be truly interesting to drive through the Khyber Pass and you'd gain a still greater appreciation for it if you hiked through it like an invading army, it's far safer and much easier to simply fly over it in a helicopter. The Government of Pakistan recently tried trucking a couple of helicopters over the Pass but, sadly, they were stolen by brigands along the way. No, it's much better to actually fly the darn things in the manner in which they were intended.

So we, the senior State Department official, his assistant, his Embassy supplied Control Officer and I, piled into two armored Land Cruisers and drove up to Peshawar from Islamabad. The senior State Department official (aka the Principal) and his Control Officer rode in the front car and I, as is my habit, rode in the back car (aka the Straggler). His bodyguard rode shotgun in his vehicle which meant that his Staff Assistant had to either ride three across in the back seat with him and the Control Officer or could ride in relative comfort with me. It is the nature of Staff Assistants to prefer to be close to power and I use the word 'prefer' in the sense that they would eat their own children for a chance to sit behind the Principal and whisper in his ear at a meeting. So the Staff Assistant had to be ordered into the Straggler and we set off for Peshawar, the Birthplace of Al Qaeda and current Home of the Taliban who, by the way, are the creature come into being with the full aid and support of the ISI, Pakistan's version of the CIA.

The Frontier Corps is responsible for maintaining control of this region.

Peshawar is now and ever was the gateway to the Pass. It has been fought over and occupied again and again throughout recorded history and is currently under the nominal control of the Government of Pakistan. Coming into Pakistan from Afghanistan, once past Peshawar, you are in the heart of the Punjab, the rich fertile Indus River valley. It's a two hour drive from Islamabad to Peshawar on a very modern and beautifully maintained motorway through a lush and green countryside and by the second hour the Staff Assistant had relaxed enough to begin to enjoy the scenery. Prior to that she had been very busy identifying every bearded man on a motorcycle as a potential suicide bomber. There are a lot of bearded men on motorcycles in Pakistan. Before she left the States someone told her that Pakistan is a 'dangerous' place and she, bless her heart, was certain that everyone we saw was poised to attack. I pointed out that anyone attacking us would certainly go for the front car, which we refer to as the 'Target', and that seemed to reassure her a bit.

Haystacks in a farm field on the Islamabad-Peshawar road.

Public transportation on the Islamabad-Peshawar road.

Public transportation in Peshawar.

When we arrived at the Consulate in Peshawar, the official party went off to have official meetings and I spent the morning with my counterpart, the GSO. He's a man about my own age, I know him well and we have a lot in common so I was able to "read between the lines" when he asked in perfectly phrased diplomatic terms, "How the f**k did you get a ride over the Pass, you a*****e?". The man's a poet.

This somewhat disturbing replica of a small plane going down in flames is at the entrance to the 11th Corps airfield.

After lunch he and I drove out to the 11th Corps military airfield to meet up with the official party and board the helicopters. We were driven out to the waiting aircraft and were told to board. The Principal and Control Officer were directed to the first helo which was painted in very military looking camouflage colors and the Staff Assistant and I were asked to get into the second machine which was painted olive drab. The Staff Assistant had had enough and stated most emphatically, "I'm going in that one!" and clambered into the camouflaged helicopter. As she was crawling into it she turned, saw me point at it and mouth the word "Target" and then I watched her knees buckle as I walked to my now private and personal aircraft.

The Khyber Pass!

The flyover was incredible! In the Khyber Pass we flew below the mountain peaks on either side and over forts, gun emplacements, rivers and roads. The doors were left open and I sat beside the door gunner on the left hand side. The winds were gusting with some strength through the Pass that day and we were batted around like a bingo ball in a mixer. At first it was a little unnerving to be flying in a narrow canyon, seemingly close enough to touch the rocks on either side, but I became so busy taking video and still pictures that I forgot to be nervous. The pilots, who do this regularly, were steering with their feet and eating peanuts from a bag with their hands. We spent an hour flying through and around the Pass before turning back towards home. The helicopters took us all the way back to Islamabad and we had an excellent view of the Punjab in all its splendor.

A fort in the Pass. Every time I asked the crew what this building was they looked down and said, "What Building?"

This is the beginning of the two lane road through the Khyber Pass. If ever a road needed a 'Don't Pick Up Hitchhikers' sign, this is that road.

This town may or may not have been in the FATA. If it wasn't, it was pretty damn close.

These fields are definitely positively in the Punjab. I think.

This is a Huey 2, a Vietnam era helicopter that's been refitted with new avionics, engine and rotors. It was my personal aircraft for over two hours.

The 'Target'.

One of my colleagues told this story of her encounter with the Islamabad traffic police. She ran a red light and was pulled over by the cop on the corner.

"Madam, you ran through the red light."
"Yes, I did."
"No, Madam, you ran through the red light."
"Yes, you're right, I did."
"Yes, you did!"
"That's right, I did. So you can just give me my ticket."
"I can't give you a ticket. We don't have any paper."

If that doesn't sum up Pakistan for you then consider that several of my colleagues have opened tabs with the traffic police. They put down money on account at the police station and the cops just deduct from it for each violation.

So, remember...Don't walk through the Pass, don't ride in the 'Target' and never leave your helicopter parked on a truck!

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