[Opinion] Taliban and Gilgit – Baltistan

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by Aziz Ali Dad

With the dominance of Taliban movement in Tribal Areas and Swat, there is a growing apprehension about its spill over to other settled areas of Pakistan in near future. In this regard, various political analysts, politicians and national dailies have expressed their concern regarding spread of Talibanization to Gilgit-Baltistan. Recently, Asad Zaidi, the deputy speaker of Northern Areas Legislative Council (NALA), was assassinated in Gilgit. To treat the murder of Asad Zaidi as an isolated incident is tantamount to ignore the overall pattern of which his murder is a part.

After a lull of three years, targeted killings in Gilgit resumed in December 2008 when a high official of government was brutally murdered with his family. It ignited a series of targeted killings which has consumed life of more than 12 people. Unlike previously, the current targeted killings could not ignite a whole scale sectarian violence in Gilgit city, but it definitely disrupts the normal life of ordinary denizens of Gilgit city. Some people see the murder of deputy speaker of NALA in the context of Taliban’s insurgency in Swat.  

Mostly, Talibanisation threat in Gilgit-Baltistan is seen as a possible domino effect of Taliban’s militancy in Swat. Therefore, it is imperative to take stock of local factors that can prove conducive or impediment to expansionist designs of Taliban movement in the region. For a domino effect similarity of cultural, political and socio-economic situation is indispensible. Gilgit-Baltistan is different from rest of Pakistan not only in its cultural, linguistic and racial heterogeneity, but also the sectarian composition is different. It is this difference that makes the socio-political dynamics of the region different from rest of the country.

Culturally the region is different from South Asia or NWFP. Secondly, in sectarian terms communities who are minority in the rest of Pakistan are in majority in Gilgit-Baltistan. On administrative front, the region is directly governed by the federal government. Geo-strategically, Gilgit-Baltistan is sensitive because it borders with China, Afghanistan and India. The cumulative result of these dissimilarities makes the religio-political dynamics of Gilgit-Baltistan diametrically different from other areas of Pakistan.  These differences reduce the chances of success of Taliban in gaining foothold in the region let alone controlling the valleys from Shandoor to Siachin.

Until 1974, the valleys of Gilgit-Baltistan were governed by local rajas/mirs. With the abolition of local dynasties by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1974, the region moved under the direct control of federal government. Despite dissolution of local power structures Pakistani government did not empower new and modern institutions. In the heel of dissolution of local governance structure, Pakistan came under the Marshal Law of General Zia-ul-Haq. In the presence of power vacuum and espousal of particular brand of religion under Zia, religious parties stepped in to fill the vacuum. It enabled the clergies to increase their influence over society by shifting the basis of identity from culture to sectarian.

Consequently, Gilgit-Baltistan witnessed large scale sectarian violence in 1988 under state patronage. This was a watershed in history of the region, for it created trust deficit among people viz-a-viz state on the one hand, and sow the seeds of mistrust among communities of the region. The trust deficit has manifested in the increasing power of religious parties, accumulation of arms and ammunition, sectarianization of secular domains, sectarian violence and targeted killings of opponent groups.

There are few elements within the society of Gilgit-Baltistan who are sympathetic to Taliban’s agenda and participated in the Jihadi movements in Kashmir and Afghanistan. With the influx of people from a neighboring region and improvement in communication, these elements have been able to forge connections with national and international Islamists and accepted global Islamist discourse. Currently, local sympathizers, though miniscule, of Taliban lack the expertise, resource and manpower like Taliban in Tribal Areas and Swat. If Taliban wants to extend their influence over Gilgit-Baltistan, they can extend their expertise and logistic support for the elements that tend to see the local religio-political and economic situation in cosmic terms of fight between absolute good and evil. 

The existing strong link between Gilgit-Baltistan and Swat operates outside the purview of law in the shape of illegal trade ranging from drugs and arms trafficking, smuggling of Chinese goods, supply of stolen and custom unpaid vehicles, and recruiting of local people during Afghan and Kashmir jihad. The illegal trade has been thriving here for last 2 decades. Increase in the volume of illegal trade was facilitated by weak writ of law. If Taliban want to create a disturbance up in the North then this grey area can provide a potential foothold and safe sanctuary. In addition, it can be a potential source for Taliban to finance their militant agenda. It is important to note that the interest of people involved in illegal domain can only be secured by weakening the writ of state. If Taliban provide this opportunity, than there are people who are ready to abet them just to protect their vested interest in the garb of religion.

The possible launching paid for Taliban’s intrusion into Gilgit-Baltistan can be Diamer which is adjacent to Swat. In addition, Taliban might try to capitalize sectarian homogeneity in the district Diamer for their benefit. However, it is difficult for Taliban to bring local tribal system under their control. Unlike, rest of Gilgit-Baltistan, Diamer has been traditionally remained acephalous society in which people tend to be strongly opposed to controlling authority outside their tribe. The power politics of Diamer revolves around tribal dynamics. That is why religious parties of Gilgit-Baltistan failed to garner even a single seat in Diamer.

Furthermore, Taliban are antagonistic to traditional institutions of society. In Swat and Tribal Areas their prime targets were tribal chiefs who are symbols of authority or power in tribal settings. Once Taliban challenge traditional loci of authority and power, they are bound to clash with local tribes. Here the fight can turned into a globalised Islamists and local culture. Dominance of Taliban over local power structure in the district Diamer will play havoc with cultural institutions which have been fiercely guarded by locals for centuries. So it can be said that Taliban’s attempt to establish foothold in Diamer will not be a cake walk like Buner.

To prevent spread of Talibanisation in Gilgit-Baltistan, government needs to adopt a discreet policy that would turn the existing cultural institutions and social ethos as possible bulwark against the rising tide of Talibanisation. On the other hand, it is imperative that the elected representatives of Gilgit-Baltistan be empowered. Unfortunately, the state has willfully kept local power structures emaciated and the elected representative toothless. Therefore, elected representatives are crippled even if they want to make a stand against obscurantist forces.

On the other hand, the omnipotent bureaucracy of Gilgit-Baltistan is also incapable of curbing extremism. Despite the presence of police, agencies and various paramilitary forces it failed to curb sectarian violence in a city of 100000 inhabitants. At the same time, there is no link between executive and people, because the head of local administration is always an appointed bureacrate from the centre. He is just a cog in the bureaucratic machinery, and totally lacks organic link with society, let alone support of whole region. It is this missing link between power and people which is exploited by religious groups to extend their influence in every sphere of life in Gilgit-Baltistan.

With existing structure of governance it is extremely difficult for the state to curb the triumphant march of Taliban to Gilgit-Baltistan. Their presence in Gilgit-Baltistan portends trouble for Pakistan. If violent forces succeed to establish a foothold they would be able to severe a symbol of long lasting friendship with China – KKH, the only conduit between Pakistan and China. Although, Taliban may be following their self conceived agenda, they can, unknowingly, become pawn at the hands of players active in the New Great Game that is fought on the turf of fulcrum of Asia- Gilgit-Baltistan. What the enemies of Pakistan cannot able to do, the extremist followers of Islam are doing. That is cutting the Pakistan from China to benefit enemies of Pakistan. Indeed, the way to hell is paved with good intentions.

However, there is a local potential that can be employed to forestall the march of Taliban to Gilgit-Baltistan. This can be done by removing contradictions within governance system of the region by empowering elected representative. In addition, the greatest asset is cultural difference of Gilgit-Baltistan from the neighboring region where Taliban are active. By empowering the cultural and ethnic dimensions of Gilgit-Baltistan, we can cut the vital line that connects a layman with a utopian version of Islam represented by Taliban. Until now, the state is suspicious of elements that base their identity and politics on culture. In order to curb nationalist sentiments, the establishment has been heavy handed on nationalist forces and people who struggle for their legitimate rights. It even covertly supported sectarian elements to curb nationalist sentiments.

It is nature of power that it finds its ways to express itself regardless of medium whether be secular, religious, nationalist or fascist. Pakistan has kept the region powerless for 62 years. Now ball is in the court of the current government whether it paves the way for secular, nationalist and national parties or extremists. Only by empowering local people we can be able to halt Taliban in their march towards Gilgit-Baltistan. Delaying tactics will give time only to extremist forces that can become medium of grievances of powerless masses of Gilgit Baltistan.

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Editor’s note: This article was written by Aziz Ali Dad, an Islamabad based social scientist, four months ago. Some of the coutnry’s most outspoken newspapers refused/regreted publishing it. It is now being published exclusively on Pamir Times. Get in touch with ther writer at azizalidad@hotmail.com

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