Issue Net Edition | Date : 28 Jun , 2013
Despite abundance of natural resources and geo-strategic significance, the largely Shia region of Gilgit-Baltistan continues to face economic stagnation and political isolation.
Despite the physical control since 1948, Pakistan has failed to gain sovereignty over Gilgit-Baltistan, which has gradually weakened its political leverage and increased her strategic vulnerabilities.
Gilgit-Baltistan, a UN declared disputed region in the north of Pakistan, is known to the world as a mountaineer’s paradise. It is home to three world-famous mountain ranges namely the Himalayas, Karakoram and the Hindukush which meet near the valley of Haramosh. This confluence created some of the highest peaks in the world, as sixty of them measure over 20,000 feet above the sea. In addition, the longest glaciers outside the Polar Regions reaching up to seventy miles in length are also situated in Gilgit-Baltistan.
However, political volatility restrains the inhabitants from optimizing their earnings from mountain tourism. Both India and Pakistan claim Gilgit-Baltistan and have fought several wars over it. Despite the physical control since 1948, Pakistan has failed to gain sovereignty over Gilgit-Baltistan, which has gradually weakened its political leverage and increased her strategic vulnerabilities. The situation has led Pakistan to convert the region into a military garrison by stationing tens of thousands of troops. It has also forced the military to shut down many of the key tourist destinations in Astore and Baltistan, the two regions bordering Indian Ladakh and Kashmir.
Gilgit-Baltistan also shares a border with Afghanistan whose growing Talibanization has further negatively impacted the tourism industry. During the Afghan-Soviet war, the rugged valleys of Gilgit-Baltistan were vital to the coalition of USA, China and Pakistan where they stationed and trained the Mujahideen. Afterwards, the Chinese continued to use Gilgit-Baltistan as a transit route to support the Taliban government. Pakistan also uses Gilgit-Baltistan as a base to infiltrate Indian Kashmir and Ladakh. As NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan nears, the Taliban have announced an intention to revive Jihad in Kashmir. In this context, Gilgit-Baltistan is once again a strategic target for control. Many militants who were driven from the tribal belt of Waziristan by drones are establishing new bases in Gilgit-Baltistan. According to a June 24th Daily K2 report, speaker of Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly (GBLA) Wazir Beg stated that many in Diamer district are sympathetic to the Taliban’s agenda and are providing refuge to the militants.
Apart from an age old ideological rift, which often drives the Takfiri militants to Gilgit-Baltistan to kill and torture the Shias; the Taliban desire to control Gilgit-Baltistan in the larger quest to infiltrate in India and northern Afghanistan. However, the presence of Shias and Sufis, who make up for almost 75% of the total population, has thwarted their efforts in the region. Local Shias, Nurbakhshis and Ismailia have resisted such effort to use Gilgit-Baltistan to promote terrorism. Local leaders maintain that the military and secret service foster ongoing sectarian polarization and Jihadi adventurism, something that weakens the society and hence not permitted by Islam. On occasions, locals have clashed with militants and forced the secret service to relocate.
With no luck at winning over the local Shias, secret service and Taliban are moving forward with a campaign of ethnic cleansing and religious conversions as the only remaining path to securing the region.
With no luck at winning over the local Shias, secret service and Taliban are moving forward with a campaign of ethnic cleansing and religious conversions as the only remaining path to securing the region. They intend to spread Shia Sunni divide to first, create disunity and weaken the society, and secondly, to gain favor among local Sunnis to find more recruits. In the past, such a strategy was successfully employed in the Kurram Valley when militants attempting to infiltrate Afghanistan met resistance from the local Shias.