Frontline: Khyber Pass - Smugglers carry on up the Khyber

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IF THE armchair strategists were right and the Khyber pass is the gateway to India, then the gate is currently blue, rather battered and tenuously attached to two dilapidated mock mediaeval towers.

The gates are open and look as if they have not been closed for years. They have been built just below the village of Torkham at the foot of the pass.

Heading east, the road snakes up in innumerable hairpin bends through the rugged dusty hills into Pakistan. West, the road - its surface deteriorating all the way - leads to Jalalabad, the most eastern major city in Afghanistan.

The Pakistani frontier guards obviously have better things to worry about than a disintegrating gate. With their entire country on the brink of collapse one cannot blame them for allowing it to fall into disappointing, unromantic disrepair.

As for the Afghans, their country collapsed a long time ago. The Taliban checkpoint resembles a badly damaged bus shelter, is heavily graffitied and smells unpleasant. Inside, three turbaned men drink tea and occasionally glance at a visa. Nearby, a Russian armoured personnel carrier rusts gently and cars negotiate potholes.

People have always come and gone through the Khyber pass. Mongol war parties, Muslim armies and British redcoats have all fought their way through - their regimental badges still decorate the rocks, and the forts they built dominate much of the landscape.

A sign near the gates phlegmatically reads: "The Khyber pass here originates and from this point has seen hordes of invaders, preachers, teachers and traders since recorded history."

Understandably, they have not listed a fifth category: smugglers.

Unlikely though it may seem, the Pathans have turned the Khyber Pass and the arid hills that flank it into one of the most commercially successful areas in south Asia. They are, perhaps, the world's most prolific smugglers - of everything from drugs to guns to fridges and hairdryers.

And they are so successful, and so confident, that they are even able to go on strike when the government attempts to impose its will.

In the Khyber village of Landi Kotal last week, the traders in the famous smuggler's bazaar had decided that it was outrageous that the government wanted them to pay for electricity and had shut all their shops in protest.

"We have never paid for our electricity before. It is one of our privileges and the government know that. If they want us to pay they will have to make us pay," said Gul Mohammed, one of the shopkeepers - who usually knocks out three or four smuggled fridges a day.

But surely shutting your own totally illegal smuggler's bazaar high up in the hills is hardly going to influence pen-pushing bureaucrats hundreds of miles away?

Gul Mohammed raised his eyebrows and smiled slyly. "Where do you think they buy their ovens, grills, microwaves, videos, TVs, aircon units, freezers, cars, guns, whisky, drugs ... "

He stopped to draw breath, listed about 30 more items and then, with his smile broadening to a maniacal grin, said with finality, "and toilet rolls".