By Taha Siddiqui –
Secret Talibanization of North-West Pakistan
The hub of distinct indigenous cultures and peaceful beautiful valleys of North-West Pakistan have recently come into a lot of limelight unfortunately, for the wrong reason.
There are new threats of rapid Talibanization of areas like Chitral, Gilgit-Baltistan and other parts surrounding this belt.
In a recent video release, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has announced an “armed struggle” against the non-Sunni Muslims and the polytheists belonging to the Kalash tribes, for which the Supreme Court took a suo moto notice and has directed the local administration to ensure protection to the people of the area.
Just last year, nine foreigners were shot dead in the Gilgit region, which the Tehreek-e-Taliban has taken responsibility for. Before that, in two incidents Shia bus passengers were shot dead after identification.
Although the problem of religious intolerance has existed for more than three decades in this area, local experts believe that after the military operation in Swat in 2009 new terrorist strongholds have emerged across Pakistan. This includes areas like Karachi in the South and the North-Western belt bordering Afghanistan, China and Kashmir.
“There is a huge threat of Taliban infiltration into these areas on the Pakistani side of the Pak-Afghan border,” says Dr. Inayatullah Faizi, a social activist based in Chitral.
“Many Pakistani Taliban fighters are based on the other side now — in the Kunar and Nooristan provinces of Afghanistan and they regularly enter into and exit from Pakistan,” he adds.
However, according to Dr. Faizi, who has also authored a book on the Wakhan Corridor, the problem of religious extremism is not new. “The Jamat-e-Islami started campaigning against the Kalash in the Seventies, pressuring the government to ban their dancing and singing culture. Simultaneously, the Ismailis and non-Muslims in the area were being pressured to convert to Islam,” he recalls.
The situation worsened when General Ziaul Haq took power in 1977 and Pakistan became part of the American-backed jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
“In the early Eighties, Chitral and Gilgit were attacked by Sunni radicals from neighbouring areas in an effort to rid the area of other sects or else convert them to Islam,” Dr. Faizi says, adding dozens were killed in 1981 and 1983.
That is when Sipah-e-Sahaba, now a banned Sunni militant group, came into existence. “In the Shia majority areas, the then military government of Pakistan saw them as a threat, and often accused them of being anti-state, with Iranian links. Therefore, in Gilgit, Parachinar and Jhang, Sipah-e-Sahaba started preaching and radicalizing the population,” he adds.
While the Nineties were relatively calm for this region post–9/11, the situation has taken a dangerous turn now, as militancy in these areas has become more violent.
The situation in Gilgit and the adjoining areas is quite tense. Shops close early and curfews have become the norm here. Anti-Shiite wall chalking is a common sight everywhere. Even the neighbourhoods have been demarcated according to Shiite-Sunni sects.
“The militants from Gilgit, Chitral and other North-Western parts have been frequenting Waziristan developing links with the Swati Taliban for training in terrorism,” says Brigadier Asad Munir, a retired military officer who handled intelligence affairs, especially, pertaining to the tribal belt on the Pakistani border where he was posted after 9/11.
According to Brig. Munir, the area became vulnerable after 2010, when NATO troops withdrew from the corresponding Afghan provinces. “The Kunar and Nooristan area has become a hotbed of the Pakistani Taliban and the Afghan government does not have any control over it. Since, the border areas are extremely porous there are frequent infiltrations and attempts of Talibanization,” he adds.
Part of the problem is the way this region, especially, Gilgit-Baltistan has been governed through a federal authority and does not enjoy political rights.
Dr. Faizi explains that at the time of Independence, this region was aligned with the Maharajah of Kashmir, who did not want to join Pakistan. “However, the then Pakistani government decided to take this region into its ambit citing it to be a demand of the local people. Once merged into Pakistan, Gilgit-Baltistan, and what is now called Azad Kashmir, were separated. Chitral was included in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province,” he adds, saying that this division was done to prevent possible revolt.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) concluded its fact-finding mission in Gilgit-Baltistan recently, and will release the report soon.
“The Pakistani security establishment wants to ensure that the country become a one-religion State, that too of Sunni Islam,” says Zaman Khan, a representative of the HRCP.
“In line with this policy, there is visible intolerance at the State level where religious minorities do not enjoy equal status,” he adds, pointing to the North-Western parts of Pakistan.
And, while the militants are desperate to redraw the demographics of the area, experts feel such adventures come with a heavy cost, signs of which are already visible. “The killing of nine foreign mountaineers and other such terror activities have discouraged tourism in the area,” says Sher Ghazi, a development consultant from the Gilgit region.
Not only that, Ghazi believes that if the area falls under the Taliban rule, it can be an international disaster which will further isolate Pakistan globally. “China uses the trade route through the Gilgit-Baltistan province into Pakistan, and the Indian-administered Kashmir is nearby too. Such geo-strategic location should not fall in the hands of wrong people like the Taliban. Also, the government should pay attention to the growing extremism in these areas and take steps to ensure that sympathy for militancy within the State security apparatus is checked and stopped,” he adds.