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When Kabul comes to Attock

Posted on January 24, 2007
Filed Under >Pervaiz Munir Alvi, Economy & Development, History, Travel
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Pervaiz Munir Alvi

Attock District in Punjab, Pakistan, is a place of great historic significance. Alexander the Great of Macedonia passed through it as did the first Mughal, Babar, and the various Afghan Sultans before him.

Emperor Akbar the Great, the grandson of Babar, recognizing the strategic importance of this area in 1581 built his famous Attock Fort complex here. The fall of Mughal Empire in eighteenth century saw the rise of Sikhs in Punjab and Durrani Afghans to the west. Once again Attock became a battle ground between two contending powers. British finally ended the feud by subjugating both Sikhs and Afghans in the nineteenth century. British at the same time also brought rail line to the area, built first permanent bridge in 1880 over the Indus River, and established a new city of Campbellpur. After independence of Pakistan the city was renamed as Attock City while the old city by the river is called Attock Khurd (Little Attock).So what gives Attock its historic significance and strategic importance?

The answer lies in geography. Located at the rim of the Potohar Plateau and overlooking the Kabul-Indus River confluence to the north, Attock is the historic gateway to the Central Asia.

Mr. Jawahar Lal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India is known to have said: “As soon as I cross the Attock Bridge across the Indus River I feel as if I am in Central Asia�.

Indeed Attock is the eastern terminus of the Kabul-Attock corridor to the Central Asia through which for centuries have passed the armies and the caravans alike. However unlike the modern highways, this corridor is not a work of engineering marvel but an act of nature as it was naturally carved through the Hindu Kush Mountains by the legendry Kabul River and its numerous tributary rivers and streams. Traveling through the historic Kabul-Attock corridor and its adjoining valleys is in essence following the journey of the Kabul River and its tributaries.

The 435 miles long journey of River Kabul starts just west of the Kabul city in Afghanistan and ends at Attock where it ultimately falls into the River Indus. The river rises in the Sanglakh Range 45 miles west of the Kabul city as a small trickling and flows east towards Jalalabad and ultimately into Pakistan. Half mile east of Kabul city it is joined by the River Logar from the south and then about 40 miles below the Kabul city joins the River Panjshir flowing down from the north. On its way to Jalalabad, Kabul River is also joined by smaller rivers like Tagao, Alingar/Alishang combined, and Surkhab. Then about two or three miles below the city of Jalalabad it is joined by the Kunar River, which first rises in Chiantar glacier in Chitral, Pakistan as River Mastuj and flows southwest into Afghanistan.

Once in Afghanistan the Kunar River gets joined by Bashgal River from Nurestan before it finally merges with Kabul River. Kunar River brings in enough waters from Chitral and Nurestan areas that a few miles below its confluence with Kabul River a hydroelectric plant is built to harness river energies. This is the first water works on River Kabul.From Jalalabad onward River Kabul cuts deep gorges through the Mahmond Hills, curves northward and approximately forms the international border between Afghanistan and Pakistan for several miles and then turns eastward again to be completely inside Pakistan just north of the legendry Khyber Pass. Ultimately in a perfect inverted U shape the river heads south towards the plains of Peshawar, the capital city of the Frontier Province of Pakistan.

Now this is the route through the Kabul River Valley, that armies of Alexander the Great and other invaders from Central Asia after him took to reach down to the plains of Peshawar.

These days, since 1945, the Upper Kabul River Valley in Afghanistan is occupied by the modern Kabul-Jalalabad-Peshawar Highway. However the highway does not completely follow the ancient route and instead, from Jalalabad onward it zigzags over the mountains and reaches Peshawar via Torkham and Landi Kotal through the legendry Khyber Pass. There is not much vehicle traffic through the river gorge; however the river itself is navigable by flat bottom boats or rafts and is considerably used for two-way commerce between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The gorge is narrow and deep and could easily lend itself as a site for a hydroelectric project but unfortunately neither one of the two countries has considered any such project yet.

In Pakistan the first head works on Kabul River is the Warsak Dam placed near Michni Fort. From this point various canals are developed in order to irrigate Peshawar Valley; these canals have significantly contributed towards the prosperity of the Charsadda district. Bara River flowing in from the Khyber Agency in the southwest is the first tributary to the Kabul River in Pakistan. These days Kabul River Canal originating from the Warsak Dam, after joining with Bara River provides waters to the Peshawar area and then travels further east to ultimately fall back into the Kabul River near the city of Nowshera.

Another and a major contributor to the Kabul River in Pakistan is the Swat River. It rises in the northern Swat near the city of Kalam and after traveling southward for about 70 miles gets joined by the Panjkora River near the town of Kalan Gai in Malakand District. The Panjkora River itself, just like Swat River, rises near Shiren gai in Dir and travels south to meet its counterpart. Together these two rivers continue to travel southward as Swat River and after passing through the Mahmond Agency fall into the Kabul River near Charsadda. The total length of Swat River is about 140 miles. Saidu Sharif is the most important and a capital city along the banks of River Swat. In the historic times these river routes were used both in war and peace. However with the opening of Jalalabad-Peshawar Highway and the Karakarom Highway to the further east, these ancient river routes even though now equipped with modern highways have lost their international significance and presently are used for the local traffic only.

British by 1895 under the leadership of Sir Robert Low had subjugated the Yousafzai clan of Swat, established a fort near the Malakand Pass and then brought rail line from Nowshera to Dar gai. They had also connected Swat with Malakand by tunnels thus further minimizing the importance of the ancient route via Swat River. Not only that, the Swat River itself was partially diverted at Malakand hydroelectric project as some of the river waters are forced to go through three mile long man made tunnels to a fall of 350 feet.

At present there are two power houses at Malakand Khas and Dar gai respectively and a third one is in the planning. At the bottom end of the tunnels the river waters are channeled through the Upper and the Lower Swat Canals. The Lower Swat Canal after passing through Mardan and Rasalpur areas falls into Kabul River near Nowshera. The Upper Swat Canal falls into the Kabul River just above the town of Jahangira named after Emperor Jahangir, the only son of Emperor Akbar. Jahangira is located on the right bank of the Indus River at its confluence with River Kabul. The rail line and the famous Grand Trunk, commonly known as G. T. Road, from Nowshera to Attock travels through the Lower Kabul River Valley along the banks of the River Kabul.

The journey of the Kabul River that starts from the Sanglakh Hills just west of the Kabul city in Afghanistan finally ends at the Indus River just north of Attock in Pakistan. The confluence area is a known sanctuary for the migratory birds flying between Siberia and Indus River delta in southern Pakistan along the Arabian Sea. The total run of the Kabul River and its tributary rivers adds up to be more than one thousand miles. All together from seven to ten significant tributary rivers and their picturesque valleys belong to the overall Kabul River system.

The thousands of square mile area of the Kabul River watershed, which is separate from the Upper Indus River watershed in Northern Areas of Pakistan, is stretched from Gazna to Panjshir Valley in northeast Afghanistan and from Khyber Agency to Chitral, Dir and Swat in northwest Pakistan. Today even though the ancient river routes of the Kabul River tributaries have lost their original significance, the new potentials for commerce, tourism industry and the river water developments are considerably significant. In the best interest of their people, the governments of neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan need to minimize their political differences and cooperate mutually to fully realize the potentials of their joint Kabul River system stretched from Gazna to Kalam and from Kabul city to Attock City.

Pervaiz Munir Alvi is a Ravian and trained as a Civil and Geo-technical Engineer. The factual information for this essay was obtained through a research of multiple existing sources.

46 Comments on “When Kabul comes to Attock”

  1. Owais Mughal says:
    January 24th, 2007 11:49 am

    Pervaiz saheb. a very well researched article. Thanks for this post. Your knowledge on Pak inland waterways is very impressive.

  2. Zak says:
    January 24th, 2007 12:53 pm

    Well written, a few minor corrections:

    1) Baber was a Mughal Sultan and not an Afghan one.

    2)The British did not subjugate the Afghan Kingdom but it did occupy what now constitutes the NWFP.

    3) On a side point Attock and Mianwali were part of NWFP till 1970.

  3. Owais Mughal says:
    January 24th, 2007 1:15 pm

    I am planning to do a post solely on Attock bridge some time soon but here i do want to mention that before the rail bridge was built, British were planning a tunnel under the river bed at Attock. The work on this tunnel started from both ends and came within 300 ft of meeting in the center when work got permanently stopped due to water leakage. I wonder if approaches to this abandoned tunnel are still there. Does anyone know?

  4. Pervaiz Munir Alvi says:
    January 24th, 2007 4:39 pm

    That is what I said. Babar is regarded as the first Mughal even though he was really Turkic and the term Mughal is an Indian distortion of the word Mongol. The Turkic people of Central Asia are part Mongoloid and hence were mistaken as Mongols by the Indians. The word ‘mongol’ becomes ‘mughal’ in India. Babar considered himself as Chugtai, a surname now common in Pakistan. He certainly was not an Afghan even though he made Kabul his capital before marching on Delhi. We all know he wrote his diary ‘Tuzuker-e-Babary’ in Turkish. Again, the British did not subjugate the Afghan Kingdom, just the Afghan, or Pushtoon if you wish, tribes of the Lower Kabul River Valley and made the area as North West Frontier Province of their Empire. The Pushtoon areas outside the province were left alone as states or agencies. We know rest of it. Thanks for the compliments.

  5. MQ says:
    January 24th, 2007 10:31 pm

    Wow! That is a lot of useful information. And great pictures!

    Zak: [quote]“… Attock and Mianwali were part of NWFP till 1970.” [/quote]

    No, they were not. Actually what we know as NWFP today was all part of Punjab until 1904 or 1907, after which a separate Frontier province was carved out consisting of six districts: They were,starting from the North, Hazara, Mardan, Pehsawar, Kohat, Bannu and Dera Ismail Khan. Today those six districts have been subdivied into many more districts and Tehsils. But Attock and Mianwali remain out of NWFP.

  6. ahmed says:
    January 24th, 2007 10:31 pm

    What a wealth of detail! A fascinating history lesson. And so many unusual photographs.
    Should go into one of the learned historical/technical journals— if not so already.

  7. January 25th, 2007 1:37 am

    The point on the GT Road where the Kabul meets the Indus (am I right on teh rivrs?), with the Fort in the backdrop and the rather differnt colors of the merging waters has always fascinated me. I may be confusing my rivers, but from those many road trips to Peshawar I do know that right near there is a little khohka that we would often stop at for chai. I always looked forward to that stop, to staring at the rivers and the fort. I still do.

  8. HJ says:
    January 25th, 2007 1:53 am

    [quote comment="30888"]The point on the GT Road where the Kabul meets the Indus (am I right on teh rivrs?), with the Fort in the backdrop and the rather differnt colors of the merging waters has always fascinated me. I may be confusing my rivers, but from those many road trips to Peshawar I do know that right near there is a little khohka that we would often stop at for chai. I always looked forward to that stop, to staring at the rivers and the fort. I still do.[/quote]

    Adil, you have your bearings right on the two rivers meeting at Attock, and that historic fort where everyone from Faiz sahib to “dangerous” mullahs have been incarsarated and is still in use for such activities.

    I drove through the area several times late last year but can’t honestly remember any chia ka khoka? Is in on the Sarhad side or Punjab? It may have disappeared behind a string of toll-cllection booths that have sprung up on both sides of the river.


  9. January 25th, 2007 2:03 am

    HJ, what I remember – and this coudl well be my nostalgia getting the better of me – was the khoka on the Punjab side, just off the main road. Frankly, the only reason i think it was on the Punjab side is because the stop came AFTER what used to be the spot police checks to see if you were smugling in stuff from BaRRa :-)

  10. MQ says:
    January 25th, 2007 5:01 am

    If you try to visit that khokha at the Attock bridge today you will be disappointed. That khokha of your dreams won’t be there. Nor is the bridge. Well, actually, the old Attock bridge is still there but a new concrete bridge constructed in the late 80s or early 90s is now used, which is located about half a mile upstream . The new bridge is wider and stronger (hopefully) but not as picturesque as the old steel bridge. (There is a picture of the old bridge in Alvi’s post above.)

    My advice to all Pak-Americans who have been away from the country for too long is not to expect to see things as they had left them.
    Places have changed, sometime beyond recognition, and people have moved on. And, every place is too crowded and too noisy. The picture in your mind is far more prettier and peaceful. Hang on to it.

  11. Pervaiz Munir Alvi says:
    January 25th, 2007 9:44 am

    Owais & MQ: Thanks for the compliments. I do not have to tell you that much of the credit in creating these posts goes to Adil.

    ahmed: Thank you also. Don’t you think ATP is the “learned historical/technical journal”?

    Adil & MQ: Things have changed. I was in the area two years ago. The old 1926-29 double decker bridge is no longer used for the vehicle traffic. Just the trains go over the upper deck. The lower single lane deck is now open to pedestrian traffic only. For the road traffic on Grand Trunk, two new ugly precast reinforced concrete bridges are constructed upstream from the old bridge for up and down traffic. Each bridge has two lanes. The road is realigned to pass next to the fort walls. The old ‘khokhas’ were at the old bridge any way. Now there are new khokhas at the new bridges run by the ‘chaprasis’ of the military and civil officers. So Adil need to go back now.

    Zak & MQ: British inherited the Frontier areas from the Sikhs. At the fall of the Mughal Empire both the Sikhs of Punjab and the Durranis of Afghanistan contested for this territory. Sikhs won in the Kabul river valley while pushtoons retained control over the mountains. Actually Sikhs went all the to Kabul and so did the British to chase off the Afghans. Finally treaties were signed between Afghan Ameers and British with the promise that British will leave them alone if the Afghans did not create any more troubles for them. Pretty much the same arrangement is in place even now.

  12. Owais Mughal says:
    January 25th, 2007 9:41 pm

    The road bridge- also called Haro bridge -was opened for traffic in late 1979. From 1980 onwards the double decker bridge was left for rail traffic and local road traffic only. Highway traffic used Haro bridge since then. I remember passing by road on old double decker bridge in early 1979. It was one way traffic on the bridge. The other way traffic had to wait in long lines before getting clearence to cross.

  13. MQ says:
    January 25th, 2007 11:56 pm


    Aren’t we confusing things here a bit? The Haro bridge is a separate bridge somewhere near Haripur on the way to Abbottabad. It’s a small road bridge built over a stream locally known as “Naddi Haro”.

  14. Owais Mughal says:
    January 26th, 2007 12:36 am

    I am very sure that highway N5 (GT road) bridge over river Indus/Kabul at Attock is also called Haro Bridge. I remember reading its inaugural brochure in 1980 where it was officially called as Haro bridge.

    I think river Haro falls into river Kabul upstream of Attock and its waters do flow under this bridge.

  15. MQ says:
    January 26th, 2007 2:00 am


    Maybe you are right. I have been away from the country for too long and things have changed in the meanwhile. But the following news item in Dawn of July 16, 2005 puts the Harro bridge 22 kilometers or about 10 miles away from Attock:
    [quote]ATTOCK, July 15: A 14-year old student of 8th class was killed and 30 others injured in a bus accident near Haro bridge on main GT road, some 22km away from here on Friday morning. Police said when … (the bus) reached Harro Bridge on main GT road at about 6am, the bus overturned due to speeding and fell into a 25-feet deep ravine.” [/quote]

  16. HJ says:
    January 26th, 2007 3:48 am

    Adil, now that you mention, yes there is a small *hotel* on the Punjab side of the river after the *tulla* check point where they still harrass people as always. Somethings never change.

    There is indeed a new bridge over the Indus/Kabul and the old bridge is only used by Pak Railways. Though when the Motorway between Islamabad-Peshawar is build I am not sure whether GT Road will still have the traffic as it used to or these bridges will be part of the Motorway. The GT Road was “repaired” at great cost a few years ago but it looks like a complete shambles already. Though, roads in Sarhad tend to be better maintained than in Punjab for some reason.


  17. Pervaiz Munir Alvi says:
    January 29th, 2007 9:37 am

    Owais & MQ:
    Here is a bit of information regarding Haro River and G.T. Road bridge over it. The river rises from Murree and the other Gullies. The four tributaries are Lora Haro from Lora and Murree Hills, Stora Haro from Nathia-gulley, Neelan from Nara Hills, and Kunhad from Siribang and Dubran. The course of the main river is Murree, Lora, Khanpur (hence the dam), Usman Khattak, Lawrencepur and Attock City. G.T. Road crosses Haro near Lawrencepur about 17 miles east of the Attock Bridge. The river after passing south of Attock City falls into Indus about 20 miles down stream from Kabul-Indus confluence.

  18. Pervaiz Munir Alvi says:
    January 30th, 2007 8:15 am

    Owais & MQ:
    The new duel bridge for G.T. Road over Indus at Attock is named as Iqbal Bridge and was opened in year 2000. The Islamabad-Peshawar Motorway will cross Indus halfway between Tarbela Dam and the Attock Bridge near a village Haroon on Punjab side and head for a town called Swabi on the Frontier side. Haro river falls into Indus near the town of Barotha, same place where Ghazi-Barotha canal falls into the Indus river. Ghazi-Barotha Dam and Hydro-electric power station is located in the vicinity.

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