To reach this niche in the foothills of the Sulaiman Mountains, located about 70 miles southeast of Kabul as the crow filies, visitors must go by jeep over a rugged dirt track from Parachinar, ford a number of shallow streams, drive up a dry river bed and climb steeply up a narrow, winding pass to a hilltop overlooking a valley of tiny farms.

Parachinar is 150 miles west of Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan's rough-and-tumble Northwest Frontier Province. For most of the way, one must drive over a one-lane paved road -- dodging trucks, buses, camel caravans, donkeys and other associated conveyances and livestock. The drive takes at least six hours.

Pakistani soldiers guarding the entrances and exits to the province's tribal areas carefully inspect westbound vehicles for arms and ammunition. The guards normally are stationed there to keep the independent-minded tribes in check, but now they also seem to be interested in controlling any weapons traffic by Afghan refugees.

Aside from the problem of coping with the refugees, the region has changed little since British scholar Lord Ronald Shay wrote in 1924: "The distinctive characteristics of the tribes inhabitating this wild border land are selfishness, vanity, treachery, vindictiveness and general lawlessness."

Of one main tribe he wrote, "The Afridi slays and is slain with wild enjoyment."

"Intertribal aggressiveness," he added," is only overruled by religious fanaticism."

As wild as America's Wild West ever was, the tribal areas to this day are still more of less off limits to the Pakistani federal authorities, who have no power of arrest there.

If a murder occurs, the victim's family is expected to exact justice itself, either by negotiating a money settlement with the killer or slaying him in return.

One motorist in the Afridi tribal zone, boasting to passengers who hitched a ride with him to report a road accident, said proudly that he was a deserter from the Pakistani Army. "I have killed seven people," he added with a wide grin.

The Parachinar officers mess is the gathering place for the local Frontier Corps, where the world of tribal feuds and refugee camps seems remote.

Built by the British in the late 19th century, the place retains much of the Old World colonial atmosphere imparted to it by its original occupants. On the spacious, landscaped grounds are a swimming pool, a polo field, two lawn tennis courts and indoor squash courts.

Around the billiard table inside the mess, the mood is not exactly one of crisis. The smoking-room calm is broken only by the click of billiard balls and an occasional British-accented "Good shot."