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What is the Khyber Pass?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Khyber Pass is the pass that connects Pakistan with Afghanistan. It is about 33 miles (53 km) long, traveling through the mountain range of the Hindu Kush. The pass reaches a maximum elevation of roughly 3,500 feet (1050 m), just at the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Once in the pass, it is incredibly difficult to climb the mountains to either side. In some rare places the faces become climbable, but generally are sheer cliffs ranging from 575 feet (175 m) to 1000 feet (300 m). At its widest point the pass is about 450 feet (135 m) across, and at its thinnest it is a mere 10 feet (3 m) wide. Despite this, two highways currently go through the pass connecting Peshawar with Kabul. One highway is used for traditional caravan traffic, while a second is used for modern motorized vehicles.

The Khyber Pass is inhabited by the Pathans, a group of Pushtu-speaking tribes. Pakistan nominally controls the pass, but in reality it is administered by the Pathans. The Pathans are very traditional, and are known to be very fierce fighters.

This pass is arguably the most important pass in history, with countless invasions and migrations using it to traverse the Hindu Kush. Some historians believe that it was used by the Indo-Aryans on their way to India around 1500 BCE. This would make them the first major invasion of the Indian subcontinent to have used the pass.

Later, in the 6th century BCE, Darius the Great led his Persians through the Khyber Pass to expand the Archaemenian Empire into India. Two centuries later, Alexander the Great followed in Darius’ footsteps leading his own army to India through the pass, but only after bribing local Pathan chiefs to allow him free passage. The Huns, the Scythians, the Afghans, all used the pass during their various conquests.

In the 10th century Islam made its way to India through the Khyber Pass. Subuktagin began his invasion of parts of India through this pass, and his son later used the pass nearly twenty times in his own campaigns. In the 16th century Zahirurddin Babur led his army through it, using it to establish the mighty Mughal Empire in India, cementing Islam’s place as a major religion on the sub-continent.

When the British seized India, they watched the Khyber Pass with great concern. It was through the Khyber Pass that they feared a Russian invasion, and for many years the British attempted to seize control of the pass from the Pathans. During the First Afghan War the British suffered massive losses against the Pathans, before eventually recruiting the tribes to fight British army.

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Discussion Comments
By anon282308 — On Jul 28, 2012

Pashtuns are not persians, but rather Afghans. The language, dress, culture and temperament are totally different. Perhaps, afghans are not even indo aryans but are jewish by race. Pushto is as old as persia itself. Hebrew, persian, sanskrit and pushto are the four oldest languages, though the languages, by virtue of proximity have borrowed words from each other.

By Armas1313 — On Jan 24, 2011

The Pashtun-dominated Taliban has a history of racism and genocide toward non-Aryan groups. This is a combination of historical pride in the "Afghan" people and newer neo-Nazi ideals of the "superior race." Mongol-related Hazara people in the north have been massacred by the Taliban because of their ethnic heritage. The Taliban is not merely driven by Islamist Jihad, but also many ulterior motives of violence. They will take any excuse they can to flaunt their arms-driven power.

By BioNerd — On Jan 22, 2011

If we were to effectively take and patrol the areas surrounding the Khyber Pass, that would effectively mean a solid victory against the Taliban. Perhaps we would even find Osama bin Laden, if he is not dead already. Another key tactic is to win the trust and support of the surrounding villages. This tactic has been tried, but thus far it is proving relatively ineffective.

By BigBloom — On Jan 22, 2011

The mountainous area between Pakistan and Afghanistan is commonly known as "Talibanistan." The governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan only have nominal jurisdiction there, and the Taliban still has arms-driven power. Most of their arms have been supplied by us, and it is estimated that their cache of weapons is one of the largest in the world. All they need is mindless teenagers from the surrounding areas to man their weapons, and they can continue their violent regime in the hills.

By Leonidas226 — On Jan 19, 2011

The "Pathans" is just an alternate spelling of "Pashtuns." These are an Indo-Aryan people who speak a Persian language. They are likely descended from the original Aryan inhabitants and the Persian invaders who came later. For centuries, they have defended Afghanistan and Pakistan from a myriad of invaders, and it is a well-known fact in their folklore that invaders don't fare well in their area.

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