For centuries the Pakistani city of Peshawar, which guards the approach to the Khyber Pass, has served as the great southern market for Central Asia, a favorite halt for heavily laden caravans making their way along the old Silk Road.
In the tea shops of the Qissa Khawani, or Story Tellers' Bazaar, smugglers and traders, soldiers and spies, from Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and beyond still congregate as they have for generations. Arms, drugs, and contraband are freely available here, as are bicycles from China, refrigerators from the Gulf, and colorful kilim rugs and carpets from the Middle East.
The old walled city still retains much of its medieval feel, but the modern-day capital of the wild and rugged Northwest Frontier Province is changing quickly. Buses belching diesel fumes and decorated with intricate oriental motifs thunder through narrow streets, which until only a few decades ago were the sole preserve of camels and horse carts.
The main source of Peshawar's sudden growth spurt has been the influx of refugees fleeing neighboring war-ravaged Afghanistan. Up to 4 million Afghans crossed into Pakistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979. The on-going civil war between the rival mujahideen factions, which erupted after the fall of the Soviet-backed regime, has prevented many from returning.
Vast refugee camps, their mud-brick houses blending in with the area's dry and barren landscape, line every road leading out of Peshawar. Holding up to 200,000 refugees, the camps have a permanence about them that suggests no early end is in sight to the Afghan crisis.
Haqiq runs a small store at Kaccha Gari camp on the road to the Khyber Pass. He and his young wife fled the Afghan capital, Kabul, with the first wave of refugees nearly 17 years ago. His four children attend local Pakistani schools and know nothing of Afghanistan, except the stories their father has told them. "I live well here. The aid agencies have helped us, and now I am self-sufficient," Haqiq says. "But I want to go back. We all want to go back when there is peace so that our children can grow up as Afghanis."
The people of Northwest Frontier Province have shown extreme patience with the influx of refugees, most of whom belong to the same ethnic Pathan tribe as themselves. But with the civil war showing no signs of abating and a fresh influx of refugees from recent fighting now crossing the border, compassion fatigue is beginning to set in.
Many Pakistanis blame the refugees for the increase in drug smuggling and the flood of illicit arms into the country. They are also critical of the US government's former policy of supporting the mujahideen in their war against the Soviet Union. The US funneled more than $6 billion in arms to various mujahideen factions from 1980-89, while turning a blind eye to their involvement in the drug trade. And now Pakistanis feel bitter about Washington ignoring the problem it helped create.
"Pakistan is still bearing the burden of American involvement in the Afghan war," says Attar Ansari, managing editor of the Frontier Post. "The money that flowed in has brought drugs, arms, and so much corruption that it has changed life here beyond recognition."
Afghanistan and the adjacent tribal belt in Pakistan has now overtaken the Golden Triangle as the major source of heroin destined for Europe. Mule trains transport the harvested poppy pods from Afghanistan to small mobile laboratories in the tribal areas for refining. The pure heroin is then smuggled to the deserted Makran coast in the southern Pakistani province of Baluchistan from where it is shipped to the West.
As in the British colonial period, one-third of the Northwest Frontier Province is still defined as "tribal territory." Pakistani laws do not apply in this sensitive border area, making control of the narcotics trade or the arrest of drug barons almost impossible.
The ancient fortresses that once guarded the route through the Khyber Pass have now been replaced by vast mud-brick mansions of drug lords who enjoy immunity from prosecution because they live in "tribal" territory.
The lawlessness on both sides of the international border, the centuries-old smuggling networks, and the tribal loyalties that rule the trade in drugs and sophisticated arms are likely to ensure that Peshawar's frontier flavor will endure for many years to come.