Pakistan’s Great Game in Gilgit

The title of most worried man inPakistangoes not to President Asif Ali Zardari or his challenger Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister, but to Syed Mehdi Shah, the Chief Minister of Gilgit Baltistan (G-B),Pakistan’s northernmost political entity that borders Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor to the north andChina’s troubled Xinjiang province to the east and northeast.

Like the Khurram agency in Khyber Pakthunkhwah (formerly North West Frontier Province), which also shares a border with Afghanistan, Gilgit Baltistan is Shia turf, and because they are not helping the Sunni jihad, they are being systematically targeted and killed in a new form of ethnic cleansing. The Afghan Taliban have undertaken the job with religious zeal since G-B has become their hinterland.

Since the Afghan Taliban enjoy the patronage of thePakistanmilitary and act as their proxy, Syed Mehdi Shah finds himself helpless, though people see him as the face ofPakistanand expect him to provide security. His problems are compounded by the fact that he cannot even have a police chief of his choice, or ‘guide’ the Frontier Corps, Gilgit-Baltistan Scouts and other paramilitary forces who take orders from their masters in Rawalpindi.

G-B has been witnessing non-stop killings, which are in the nature of summary executions of Shias. This summer, for example, about 50 assailants in army uniform stopped three passenger buses heading fromIslamabadto Astore in G-B and a van headed for Gilgit, identified Shias from their documents and shot them dead, leaving the Sunni passengers to continue their journey. Retaliatory violence shook Gilgit for days.

It is not that the government of Syed Mehdi Shah lacked intelligence alerts. There was an alert from the Federal Ministry of the Interior that extremists could target Shias returning home after the Eid holiday. TheKarakorum Highwaythat connects Gilgit withIslamabadis under army control with several checkpoints manned by the Frontier Corps. But the army has no incentive to rein in the Taliban when it is engaged in arranging talks between the Americans and the Taliban inQatar.

Shah did not help his cause by suspending Shia officers and suspending Shia community leaders. As many as 60 Shia officials have been suspended in recent months. Manzoor Patwana, who has emerged as the opposition’s voice, and Ghulam Shezad Agha, a trenchant government critic, have been detained and these actions, according to Allama Aijaz Behisti, chief of the Majlis-e-Wahdat-e-Muslimeen Youth Affairs, were designed to intimidate the locals but helped to deepen sectarian polarization.

The Washington-based Gilgit-Baltistan National Congress (GBNC) points out that sectarian division has been the chosen instrument of political and administrative management in G-B and in Shia-dominated restive regions like the Valley of Parachinarin (in Khyber Pakthunkhwah). This policy dates back to the days of military dictator Gen Zia-ul-Haq, whose successors, according to the GNBC, have fine-tuned the policy to achieve demographic change by forcing the Shia majority out of these strategic areas.

Local media reports say thatRawalpindi’s goal has already been achieved in Parachinar, which provides direct access to Pakistani troops to Ghazni, Gardez and Central Afghanistan. The Pakistan army and its proxies are trying out the same strategy in Balochistan, engulfing the Shia-dominated areas that border Afghanistan in sectarian strife.

The countdown for the ‘Sunni-isation’ of G-B has begun, and two important areas bordering Afghanistan are facing Taliban heat. According to Muhammad Ayub Shah, who was elected to the G-B assembly from Ghizer, the Darkut and Korumbar Passes have become points of infiltration for militants from Afghanistan.

During the Afghan war, the Pakistan army was deployed in these two passes to prevent Soviet attacks, but after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the units were withdrawn. Ayub Shah has insisted that ‘the situation again demands the permanent presence of army forces there, as militants from borders in Chitral and Dir have attacked civilians and might come again’, but his demands have gone unheeded since they don’t fit the broad strategy drawn up for G-B in Rawalpindi.

Gilgit has a long history of communal harmony, with a vested interest in peace as the local economy depends on tourists. The US noticed this first-hand when a delegation from the American embassy in Islamabad visited Gilgit earlier this year and spent five days meeting a cross-section of people, including ministers, journalists and human rights activists. They also met the chairman of the Gilgit-Baltistan United Movement, Hussain Parwana, who has been complaining bitterly that the Pakistan army and its agencies have been interfering in the internal affairs of G-B against the wishes of the local people. America’s sudden interest in G-B did not go down well with Islamabad and Rawalpindi; nor even in Delhi, where ‘Pakistani observers’ have had a field day deciphering ‘a pattern in the unfolding Great Game’.

America’s Gilgit visit appears to have two objectives: one, the US wants to have a feel of the scene since China has become a factor in G-B, with PLA soldiers and Chinese civilians working on a host of ‘dual purpose’ projects; two, the US wants to assess the inroads made by the Taliban and G-B’s potential as a new Taliban launch pad in case the Qatar talks fail or militants are driven out of North Waziristan.

The Pakistani establishment was clearly unnerved by the ‘secret movement’ of the US mission to the ‘high roof’ of the world. Also cause for concern is China’s growing interest in Afghanistan for both strategic and economic reasons. If Kabul and Beijing come together, they can checkmate Pakistan’s terror proxies to mutual advantage. Thinking caps in Rawalpindi quickly went into ‘damage control’ mode, and under Syed Mehdi Shah’s initiative (he is also a member of Pakistan’s ruling PPP), the 33-member G-B Legislative Assembly adopted a resolution demanding that the 72, 971 sq km area with a 210 000 population be made the fifth province of Pakistan. The motion was opposed by Nawaz Khan Naji, a lawmaker from the Balwaristan National Front (BNF).

Officially, Pakistan has always rejected calls for further integration of G-B on the grounds that it would prejudice its international obligations over the Kashmir dispute. Some Kashmiri nationalist groups such as the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front see G-B as part of an independent Kashmir rather than part of Pakistan.

Chief Minister Shah has tried to assert that G-B is outside the Pakistan Supreme Court’s legal jurisdiction when he was asked to return his police chief to the federal government to undertake a court decreed probe into a financial scandal. Now he justifies his ‘provincial status’ demand as a necessity to ‘remove the depreciations of the area people who have been falling victim to atrocities for 65 years’.

Despite growing opposition and threats to launch a resistance movement, it is a moot point whether Islamabad will hesitate over changing G-B’s status. Pakistan’s eyes are set on the Wakhan Corridor, an area of far north-eastern Afghanistan that separates Gorno-Badakhsan Autonomous Province of Tajikistan from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and G-B from Pakistan. This 220-km long strip was the creation of the First Great Game as a buffer between two empires. It has been closed to regular traffic for over 100 years.

Now, as the second Great Game unfolds, ‘the amalgamation of G-B into Pakistan will help in the retrieval of the Wakhan Corridor – Pakistani territory which was illegally handed over by the British to a motley group of tribes incarcerated in an artificial buffer state called “Afghanistan”,’ as an unsigned post on Pakistani website rupee.com claims. It welcomes the G-B resolution for a province status but is silent on the criticism voiced on another website (himalayanaffairs.org) that ‘Pakistan has usurped the rights of the indigenous people of G-B for the past six decades and has ‘no intention’ of accepting ‘the reality on the ground, even today’.

Malladi Rama Rao